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Foot odor may not be a serious health concern, but it does reflect poorly on your hygiene. Unfortunately for some, this problem remains a great source of discomfort and embarrassment. People who have a tendency to perspire profusely are usually the most affected. In fact, smelly feet are usually synonymous with sweaty feet.
When perspiration from your feet gets trapped within the confines of your socks and shoes, naturally occurring bacteria that reside on your feet and inside the shoes or socks get a shot of life from the moist environment.
These bacteria majorly belong to the Brevibacterium species and are the ones responsible for producing the foul foot odor. The only way to curb such bacterial growth is to practice good foot hygiene.
It would be wrong to assume that the problem of foot odor is limited to the summer months. In fact, people with smelly and sweaty feet are likely to struggle with this issue all year round.
Causes of Foot Odor
Foot odor primarily stems from poor ventilation of the feet. People who wear closed-toed shoes without socks for prolonged periods on a regular basis are more prone to this problem because their feet do not get enough room to breathe.
There is very little air circulation within the enclosed environment of such footwear, which does not allow the sweat from your feet to evaporate. Given that there are thousands of sweat glands in the feet, layers of perspiration accumulate day by day.
The sweat-induced humidity allows the bacteria on your feet to proliferate. These bacteria breakdown carbohydrates, fatty acids, and peptides into smaller acids, mainly to produce acetic acid.
The acid by-products of bacteria are characterized by a strong odor, which causes your feet to stink.
Besides perspiration and bacterial activity, foot odor can also emanate from fungal growth on increasingly sweaty feet. This is usually observed in the case of athlete’s foot (tinea pedis).
The following factors also contribute to sweaty and smelly feet:
- Not washing your feet every day
- Repeating the same pair of shoes for several days at a stretch
- Wearing shoes that may be too tight for your feet
- Wearing shoes that are made of “unbreathable” material such as plastic
- Stress, which can cause your feet to sweat more than usual
- Certain hormonal changes in the body, especially during adolescence and pregnancy
- Zinc deficiency
Diagnosing Foot Odor
Your doctor is likely to conduct a starch-iodine test to determine if the smell from your feet is due to increased perspiration.
This test involves applying an iodine solution to the bottom of the feet, allowing it to dry, and then sprinkling cornstarch over the area. If there is excessive sweat present on the bottom of the feet, the treated area turns a shade of dark blue.
Foot odor is generally a benign condition that can easily be managed or treated through proper foot hygiene measures. Keeping your feet clean and devoid of sweat is paramount. To that end, your doctor may recommend an appropriate antibacterial soap or a mild antiseptic solution to wash your feet with every day for about a week.
It is important to remove all traces of moisture from your feet before you put on socks or shoes. So, once you have washed your feet, give them time to air dry or wipe them with a clean towel. Keeping your feet dry helps to thwart the growth of bacteria on the feet.
People who are prone to excessive sweating may be advised to use an antiperspirant spray or foot powder on their feet.
- Antiperspirants that contain aluminum chloride are applied to the undersurface of your foot to reduce the activity of the sweat glands located in the soles of your feet.
- The mechanism behind antiperspirants is that when you begin to perspire, the product interacts with the moisture to get absorbed into the skin and ends up plugging the sweat glands.
The blocking of the sweat glands is then taken as a cue by the body to halt the production of excessive sweat.
- You can even apply over-the-counter rubbing alcohol to the soles of your feet, preferably after taking a bath or shower. Always make sure that your feet are completely dry before you apply the rubbing alcohol. Simply dip cotton wool in the solution and dab it between your toes.
It may be prudent to test the rubbing alcohol on a small area of skin before applying to rule out any skin irritation or adverse reaction.
Simple Ways to Reduce Foot Odor
If you are stuck with increasingly sweaty and smelly feet, you can try the following tips and home remedies to curb the intensity of foot odor.
1. Self-Care Tips
The following measures can help you manage smelly feet:
- Keep your feet clean by washing them every day with soap and water. Occasionally, you will have to treat your feet to a more rigorous cleansing ritual to remove the deeply settled impurities. Daily bathing does not ensure the cleanliness of your feet as it requires more than just rinsing them under running water.
Because you spend most of your time up and about, your feet tend to collect a lot of grime that needs to be scrubbed off on a regular basis. A foot soak can help loosen the stubborn layer of dirt and dead cells settled on your feet, which can then be easily exfoliated.
- Drying your feet after washing is just as important as the cleansing routine. Damp feet are a breeding ground for bacteria and disease.
So, it is very important that you air-dry your feet, especially the space between your toes, after washing and slather them with an antifungal powder or foot powder thereafter to remove any remnant moisture.
- Another essential step for proper foot hygiene is to wear fresh, clean, and dry socks every day. In fact, people who perspire a lot should go a step further and change their socks more than once daily.
It is recommended to keep an extra pair handy when you venture out of the house for a long period.
- When you go shopping for socks, look for those that are made of natural, skin-friendly fabrics that soak up the sweat while allowing your feet to breathe. Cotton or wool socks may seem like the best bet for this purpose, but wrongly so.
While cotton helps absorb the sweat from the feet, it does not wick it away from the skin, which can cause your feet to blister. Instead, opt for certain acrylic fiber varieties, synthetic blends, and special knits that are designed to wick the moisture away from your feet in order to keep them dry.
Also, change your socks the minute they get wet or excessively sweaty. Stay away from polyester and nylon socks, which only make your feet sweat more profusely.
- Do not wear the same pair of footwear for several days on end. If you have a few favorite pairs that you like to switch between, make sure that you alternate them in such a way that each pair gets cleaned and aired out before being worn again.
- People with excessively sweaty and smelly feet are advised to wear shoes that have enough room for air to circulate within it. The material of your footwear also plays an important role in keeping your feet properly ventilated.
Always choose footwear made with light, breathable materials that allow the sweat to evaporate faster.
- Clipping, cleaning, and filing your toenails regularly are foundational steps of basic podiatric hygiene.
- The soles of your feet often become rough and hardened over time due to the buildup of dead skin cells.
This layer of dead skin soaks in the water and sweat on the feet to become excessively soggy, creating the ideal environment for germs to reproduce. Maintain a footcare regime to remove the dead skin cells regularly.
- People who struggle with smelly feet can consider fitting medicated insoles in their shoes as well.
2. Essential Oils
Certain essential oils exhibit some degree of antimicrobial activity that can be utilized to address a case of smelly feet. Foot odor, or bromodosis, is the result of bacterial overgrowth on the skin of your feet. Certain concoctions of essential oils were found to be more effective than others in this regard.
One study conducted a comparative evaluation of as many as 119 essential oil combinations and found most of these oils to be promising antimicrobial agents. Some oils worked especially well with certain other oils in treating and controlling foot odor. For instance, a mixture of juniper (Juniperus virginiana) and benzoin (Styrax benzoin) essential oils exhibited considerable antibacterial potential. (1)
Yet another 2017 study compared the antimicrobial efficacy of eight essential oils against five strains of odor-causing bacteria and found lemongrass to be the most potent candidate to be used in a therapeutic foot bath. (2)
Essential oils make for a relatively inexpensive yet promising treatment alternative for a regular case of bromodosis. However, it is best to use these fragrant potions as an adjunctive tool rather than as the mainstay treatment.
Besides treating your foot, a credible essential oil can also freshen up the insides of your footwear. Simply smear a few drops of the essential oil all over the inner lining of your shoes.
A number of pleasantly aromatic essential oils may work as antimicrobial agents. They offer the dual advantage of striking the bacterial source of the problem while diminishing the intensity of the foul smell.
Because the skin of your feet is relatively thick, topical application of such oil is unlikely to cause a reaction. However, one cannot undermine the potency of these oils when used at their original strength. To prevent any kind of adverse skin reaction, always use them in a diluted form.
Some scientific evidence suggests that zinc may be useful in tackling a regular case of sweaty and smelly feet.
According to one 2014 study conducted on a total of 108 (88 males and 20 females) subjects with foot odor, the topical application of 15% zinc sulfate solution on the soles and toe webs resulted in significant improvement in their condition. In fact, 70% of the patients treated with topical zinc sulfate registered a complete removal of foot odor by the end of the trial. (3)(4)
The researchers failed to establish the exact mechanism of action behind this positive effect. This calls for more elaborate and rigorous scientific investigation to ascertain the properties that make zinc so useful in reducing foot odor.
It is suspected that much of this odor-fighting activity can be attributed to its inherent antibacterial, antifungal, and antiperspirant effects.
Zinc has shown promising potential as an alternative treatment for smelly feet, but the exact mode of its action is still unclear and remains subject to further investigation.
4. Other Home Remedies
a. Epsom Salt
Epsom salt is a pure mineral compound of magnesium sulfate that has emerged as an anecdotal favorite for resolving a number of common foot problems, including foot odor, swollen and inflamed feet, and foot & toe fungal infections.
Epsom salts may help neutralize foot odor. It is known to possess detoxifying properties and is considered to be a good home remedy for achy feet. In short, Epsom salt may work as an all-in-one tonic for your feet.
To reap the detoxifying prowess of Epsom salt as an antidote to smelly, sweaty feet, mix it in a tub filled with water and rest your feet in the solution for a few minutes. Do this weekly for the remedy to yield the desired results. Apply a moisturizer afterward.
b. Baking Soda
Baking soda is a natural deodorizing agent for your feet that also exhibits considerable antimicrobial properties. It deters the growth of bacteria or fungus on your feet and neutralizes the foul odor associated with them.
Fix yourself a therapeutic foot soak by adding baking soda to the water in a bathtub, and then soak your feet in it for a few minutes.
c. Black Tea
Tea may help reduce the odor from your feet for two reasons. First, the considerable amount of tannic acid found in tea may help alter the pH of your skin to make it more acidic such that it becomes uninhabitable for the malodor-causing bacteria.
Second, when applied topically, tea may act as a mild astringent that can cause your sweat glands to shrink and produce less sweat.
Treat your feet to some much-needed TLC by soaking them in a bucket/tub filled with tea-infused warm water for a few minutes.
d. Talcum Powder
Another safe and easy trick to reduce foot odor is to cover your feet with a heavy amount of nice-smelling talcum powder. A generous sprinkling of powder may help absorb the sweat and moisture from your feet and, as a result, thwart the growth of stink-producing bacteria.
You can also use baby powder or an antibacterial powder for this purpose; just make sure that every fold and crevice of the skin gets smothered with it. Also, use your hands to apply it to the gap between your toes.
Myths and Facts
1. The assumption that sweat makes your feet smelly may not present the whole picture, but it is not completely unfounded as well. Your feet contain the largest collection of sweat glands, which makes them more prone to sweating.
This moist environment enables the growth of bacteria that feed on the sweat and produce an unpleasant odor. In fact, every kind of body odor usually attributed to excessive perspiration is actually the result of bacterial overgrowth.
2. It is a common misconception that men tend to have smellier feet than women. If anything, there are more sweat glands present in the body of a female than in a male, so anatomical reasoning would point to the contrary.
But the fact remains that smelly feet are gender-neutral. This myth probably stems from the fact that society typically assigns a more physically active and sporty image to men than to women.
When to See a Doctor
Other than being an embarrassing inconvenience, the tendency to sweat a lot does not hold any serious implications for most people who suffer from it.
However, this seemingly harmless condition can take a serious turn for people with certain other health issues such as diabetes, peripheral arterial disease, and peripheral neuropathy. In such cases, excessive perspiration on the feet can increase the risk of skin infection and possible ulceration and warrants professional podiatric assistance.
More so if you notice any of the following warning signs:
- If you incur a wound or cut on your feet
- If the skin of your feet seems unusually red
- If your feet become swollen
Even if you do not figure among the high-risk populations and have not experienced any untoward symptoms, it is essential that you seek medical assistance if the foot odor persists despite adherence to proper foot hygiene, self-care, and the above-mentioned remedies.
Chances are your condition is the by-product of an underlying problem that needs to be further evaluated by your podiatrist.
One must be realistic about what to expect from the above-listed home remedies. Using these complementary methods alone does not promise a permanent solution for your smelly feet, but they may help you manage the problem better.
Another prerequisite for these remedies to yield successful results is to maintain overall foot hygiene. These methods do not produce uniform results; different remedies might work for different people. Thus, you will have to experiment with a mixed bag of options before you arrive at the one that suits you best.
If you fail to register any kind of relief despite trying everything, it is best that you seek professional podiatric consultation to rule out the risk of some serious underlying problem that may be causing your feet to smell.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Hai-En Peng (Podiatrist)
Yes, it can be. It can either be a condition known as hyperhidrosis or a more common condition called pitted keratolysis
Yes, there is. It involves a combination of oral and topical prescription medication.
There are a lot of excellent antimicrobial/fungal shoe sprays that can not only dry out the shoe inside but also get rid of the smell.
Good old baby powder has always worked to dry out the inside of the shoes as well as remove the odor. Baking soda is another excellent way to remove odor from the shoes.
Two of the most common conditions include hyperhidrosis and pitted keratolysis.
Hyperhidrosis is a condition of uncontrolled sweating of the feet and pitted keratolysis is a bacterial infection of the skin that causes the soles of your feet to look like they have “pits” and emit a foul odor.
Yes, it can when feet are soaked in the solution with an appropriate concentration of ingredients.
Dry out the shoes, soak your feet daily in ice tea, change your socks twice a day, and don’t use the same shoe two days in a row.
Soaking the feet in a solution of ice tea, changing socks two times a day, and changing shoes every other day are some remedies that you can always start with.
If the problem persists, then seek a specialist to get a more detailed workup of why your feet smell. With a daily routine, you can get rid of your smelly feet!
About Dr. Hai-En Peng, Podiatrist: Dr. Peng was born in Nyack, NY, and went to California College of Podiatric Medicine in San Francisco, CA. He spent the next 4 years there and graduated in the top 15% of his class. Dr. Peng also completed a 3-year advanced surgical residency in reconstructive foot and ankle surgery.