Whether it’s your spouse, a coworker, or some unfortunate soul on the airport security line, we’ve all known someone who could clear a room with the stench of their sweaty dogs. Heck, maybe YOU even suffer from occasional stinky feet (a.k.a. eccrine bromhidrosis). They can happen to anyone, but pregnant women, teens, the elderly, folks with heart disease and diabetes, and people under a lot of stress are especially prone to the condition, which is essentially caused by perspiration.
"The feet have about half a million sweat glands, and this can lead to a whole lot of sweat," says Dr. Erika M. Schwartz, DPM, FACFAS, of the American Podiatric Medical Association. "When you wear socks and shoes, the sweat gets trapped inside. Bacteria and fungus can thrive in this type of warm, moist environment, and can produce odor."
To truly eliminate that aroma once and for all, you have to attack it on two fronts: your feet themselves, and your socks and shoes. Here’s how.
Wash your feet correctly
You might think that a simple shower scour would be enough to keep your toes clean. Nope. Pleasantly scented feet begin with proper washing technique, and many of us do it wrong.
To tackle foot odor, "wash feet thoroughly with an antibacterial soap daily," says Dr. Mark A. Kosinski, DPM, FIDSA, Professor at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine. "[Then] dry feet thoroughly after bathing, paying special attention to the area between the toes," since that’s where moisture collects. And finally, for extra protection, "Spray both shoes and feet with an over-the-counter athlete’s foot spray powder." This process ensures your feet begin with a clean slate each morning.
Explore the wide, wonderful world of foot anti-perspirant
"At-home treatment forhyperhidrosis (excess sweating) can include anti-perspirants that contain aluminum chloride hexahydrate, a chemical found in underarm antiperspirant spray and some over-the counter preparations that are specifically marketed to inhibit excessive sweating," says Dr. Kosinski. Brands like Klima and SweatBlocksell products made for feet. A note of caution: Beware of applying the antiperspirant and walking on slick surfaces; there’s a potential for slipping and injury.
Try proven home remedies
"Home remedies such as salt baths, tea soaks, and vinegar are unlikely to eliminate foot odor if a person continues to wear dirty or damp socks/shoes," says Dr. Schwartz, "but they may reduce the foot odor at the time when they are used." With that in mind, you can attempt the following for temporary relief:
Vinegar baths: "Try soaking feet daily in 1 part vinegar and 2 parts water," suggests Dr. Kosinski. "Here, the aim is to reduce the level of bacteria that cause odor."
Tea soaks: Dr. Kosinski calls tea soaks, "one of the most effective home remedies," and recommends the following: "Use 4 or 5 tea bags to a quart of water. Allow to cool, and soak feet for about 20 minutes each day."
Salt washes: Pour 1/2 cup kosher salt into 4 cups water, soak for 10-15 minutes, and dry thoroughly. You can also use Epsom salts; consult a doctor for proportions.
Powders: Baking soda, baby powder, corn starch, and talcum powder are said to absorb extra moisture (and make feet smell quite lovely in the process).
Buy good socks and shoes
Once you’ve tackled your foot odor, it’s time to move on to your gear.
To prevent stinky feet from starting in the first place, purchase socks and shoes made of breathable materials. "Synthetic materials provide less ventilation than natural materials, and so polyester or nylon socks may increase the amount of perspiration compared to cotton," says Dr. Schwartz. "Natural materials (cotton and wool) generally provide more ventilation and therefore may limit the growth of bacteria."
The same general principle goes for shoes. "Wear shoes that are made of a breathable material like leather or canvas. This will allow perspiration to evaporate," advises Dr. Kosinski, who also suggests looking into inserts. "Over the counter insoles made with activated charcoal may help to absorb foot odor."
Oh, and never, ever go sock-less. "Wearing shoes without socks can lead to sweat accumulation, enabling bacteria to grow over time," says Dr. Schwartz. "There can also be dead skin cells, dirt, oils, mold and fungus thriving there." Yum.
Wash and rotate socks and shoes
Needless to say, your socks should be changed every day to prevent the buildup of moisture and dead skin —sometimes more than once, if you’re particularly sweaty or it’s really hot out. To ensure they’re cleaned all the way through, turn them inside-out before throwing them in the washing machine.
Shoes are a bit different. Certain pairs can be washed on occasion without doing damage to the materials—simply read the care instructions and make sure they dry completely—but many cannot. Either way, it’s important to rotate shoes daily, and air out used pairs. "Try not to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row," says Dr. Kosinski. "And at the end of the day, don’t throw your shoes in a dark closet. Instead, allow them to air out in a well-lit, ventilated spot."
Dr. Schwartz concurs, adding: "Dry shoes as soon as possible if they get wet or damp."
Look for odor-killing shoe products
Some people use powders, some use sprays, and still others use cedar chips to keep their shoes smelling fresh. None of these people are wrong, says Dr. Schwartz. "Use an antibacterial spray or odor absorbing foot powder within shoes," she advises. Baking powder, corn starch, baby powder, talcum powder, Dr. Scholl’s Odor Destroyer Deodorant Spray, and Kiwi Select Fresh Force are said to keep shoes stench-free.
As previously mentioned, inserts are another option. Dr. Scholl’sand good ol’ Odor Eaters are two well-regarded brands.
When to see a doctor
In some cases, foot odor can be so foul or persistent that a visit to the doctor is necessary. "If [the previous] steps don’t work, see a podiatrist or dermatologist, who might prescribe a stronger antifungal medication or perform tests to determine an underlying cause for the excessive sweating," suggests Dr. Kosinski.
Occasionally, a funky smell can be a sign of a larger medical problem, "especially in a person with any immune compromising medical condition," says Dr. Schwartz. "It is critical to be sure to look for a possible cut or wound of the skin or between the toes, any increased redness, or swelling. A severe bacterial infection of the skin or soft tissue will usually produce a terrible odor."
Diabetics should be on particular lookout for foot odor: "If you have diabetes, visit a doctor at the first sign of odor, which may be a sign of a more serious problem," says Dr. Kosinski. "Fungal and bacterial foot infections can progress quickly and become more severe in people with diabetes."