After a long day at work, school, or play, you come home, kick off your shoes and socks and are greeted with that unmistakable odor — stinky feet.
It’s a common body odor, yet kind of embarrassing, and it may make you ask yourself, “Why do my feet smell?”
Sweaty Feet = Smelly Feet
Your feet, like all of your skin, are covered in sweat glands. When your feet are covered close-toed shoes and you run around all day, your feet sweat. That sweat creates a prime environment for bacteria to grow, and their metabolic processes emit a certain odor.
In fact, one type of bacteria, brevibacterium, lives in between the toes, thrives in a damp, salty environment, and produces the cheese-like smell of feet. That same bacteria is actually used in the cheese creation process for Muenster, Entrammes, and Limburger cheeses. So really, your feet don’t smell like cheese, the cheese smells like feet.
Now that we know why our feet smell, we can work on eliminating the odor.
First, Consider Your Sock Choices
Wearing socks of any kind helps reduce foot odor because it soaks up the sweat and keeps it from permeating the shoe. You can wash socks, but putting your shoes through the wash isn’t so easy. Step one is to always wear socks when wearing closed-toed shoes. (Wearing socks with sandals is neither necessary nor advisable from a purely fashion point of view.)
“Some thicker cotton or newer synthetics are better at absorbing sweat and wicking it away and evaporating,” said Kevin M. Wong, MD, Westmoreland Family Medicine-UPMC. “For some individuals, they may need to change socks through the work day.”
Next, Consider Your Shoes
As a child of the 80s knows, plastic shoes, known as “jellies,” were impressively stinky shoes. Though they were sandals, they didn’t allow for air flow, which resulted in very sweaty feet.
Choose shoes designed for breathability. New styles have mesh portions that keep your feet cooler, and increase air flow.
You also may want to consider alternating different pairs of shoes. Wearing the same pair every day can contribute to the colonies of bacteria thriving in them, but if you let them completely dry out, the bacteria won’t be able to survive in the dry conditions. “Especially winter boots,” Dr. Wong said. These shoes, in particular, have a tendency to stink, and so rotating pairs may help kill off bacteria.
Proper Hygiene for Feet
Daily foot washing with special attention to the areas around and between the toes can help reduce the bacteria. Scrub to remove the dead skin, and then make sure your feet are completely dry before you put them in your socks and shoes. You can follow that up with an antiperspirant (the same you would use on your underarms) to reduce feet sweat.
Removable insoles also can be used, including those that are specially made to reduce foot odor. “Make sure they are changed frequently,” advises Dr. Wong. They are disposable and may have an anti-microbial feature to deter bacteria.
You also can follow the bowling alley’s example and spray your shoes with a disinfectant/deodorizing spray. Although, Dr. Wong adds, “Nothing is better than totally drying them out.”
Athlete’s foot, a fungal infection, also can cause an unpleasant foot odor but can be treated with over the counter anti-fungal creams or sprays designed to treat it.
Find a UPMC primary care physician. Call 1-855-676-UPMCPCP (8762) or visit UPMC Find a Doctor. For more information, visit the UPMC Primary Care website.
When to Consult Your Doctor About Foot Odor
If you have tried your best to eliminate your foot odor, changed shoes and socks, and washed every day, and still have an odor, it may be time to consult a podiatrist or primary care doctor. They can provide expert guidance on the next level of care.