Foot odor, sometimes referred to as smelly feet or bromodosis, is a very common condition that affects people of all ages. The characteristic scent is caused by bacteria feeding on sweat and shedding skin cells inside shoes and socks. While it may be embarrassing, foot odor is rarely cause for serious concern. With some adjustments to hygiene habits, most sufferers can keep their feet fresh.
Causes of Foot Odor
Several factors contribute to foot odor:
- Sweat – Feet contain more sweat glands per square inch than any other part of the body. When feet sweat, the moisture gets trapped inside shoes and socks, creating an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply.
- Bacteria – There are over 250,000 sweat glands in the average foot. Bacteria, including staphylococcus and corynebacterium, feast on the sweat, dead skin cells and oils produced by these glands. As they digest these substances, the bacteria release isovaleric acid, causing the characteristic foul odor.
- Shoes – Tight, non-breathing shoes prevent sweat from evaporating, allowing bacteria to thrive. Certain synthetic materials and rubber also increase perspiration. Going barefoot helps air out feet.
- Socks – Cotton and nylon socks absorb sweat but do not allow it to evaporate. Sweat gets trapped against the skin. Breathable fabrics like wool and acrylic wick moisture away from feet.
- Hygiene – People who do not wash their feet regularly or thoroughly tend to have more problems with foot odor. Dead skin cell buildup also causes more bacteria growth.
- Hyperhidrosis – A condition characterized by abnormally excessive sweating, hyperhidrosis can lead to increased foot odor issues. Anxiety, obesity and certain medical conditions may trigger this excess perspiration.
- Age – Teenagers and pregnant women tend to sweat more, possibly leading to foot odor during these times. As hormone levels change with age, perspiration patterns may also fluctuate.
Prevalence of Smelly Feet
It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics on smelly feet since many people do not openly talk about the problem. However, various surveys and studies provide some insights into the prevalence:
- A 2016 national poll by the International Hyperhidrosis Society found that over a third of U.S. adults reported having smelly feet at some point in their lives.
- A survey published in the journal Foot and Ankle Surgery in 2013 reported 17 percent of people in Turkey suffer from foot odor on a regular basis.
- Researchers in a 2012 study in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology estimate that bromodosis affects between 14 and 58 percent of young adults.
- According to a Japanese study in 2010, 45 percent of older individuals experience foot odor. The prevalence increases with age.
While the exact numbers vary among studies, the consistent conclusion is that smelly feet are extremely common. People of all ages and backgrounds deal with this nuisance. Proactive foot hygiene and moisture management can help control odor.
When to Seek Medical Care
In rare cases, excessive foot odor may indicate an underlying medical problem:
- Tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) – A fungal infection that can cause cracking, peeling skin and itching between the toes. The fungi thrive in the moist environment inside shoes.
- Hyperhidrosis – Uncontrollable excessive sweating regardless of external temperature. Can be triggered by thyroid issues, menopause, nervous system conditions and medications.
- Bromhidrosis – A condition marked by abnormal body odor including foot odor. May be linked to diabetes, liver or kidney dysfunction.
- Pseudomonas – A bacterial infection producing blue-green pus and a foul odor. Most common in people with diabetes or compromised immune systems.
If foot odor persists despite good hygiene, or is accompanied by other symptoms like blisters, swelling, oozing and skin changes, it is advisable to see a podiatrist. Blood tests and skin scrapings can determine if an underlying medical issue needs treatment.
Tips for Fresh Smelling Feet
Practicing proper foot hygiene is key to preventing and treating smelly feet:
- Wash feet daily with antibacterial soap, scrubbing between toes. Rinse and dry thoroughly, especially between toes.
- Apply foot powder or spray antiperspirant/deodorant on feet and inside shoes to help absorb moisture and inhibit bacterial growth.
- Use shoe/insert sprays to kill bacteria inside shoes. Remove inserts regularly to air out.
- Wear moisture-wicking socks, and change socks at least twice a day. Alternate pairs so they completely dry between uses.
- Wear breathable shoes like leather, mesh or canvas, and avoid plastic or rubber. Allow shoes to air out between wearings.
- Go barefoot when possible to expose feet to air and light.
- Soak feet in antibacterial solutions such as diluted tea tree oil or diluted vinegar to inhibit bacterial growth.
- Apply an antifungal or antibacterial cream at the first sign of athlete’s foot or excess moisture between toes.
- See a dermatologist for prescription-strength antiperspirants if excessive sweating is causing odor.
Simple Steps for Fresher Feet
Having stinky feet can be distressing, but this common problem is manageable. Focusing on keeping feet clean and dry while wearing breathable socks and shoes can go a long way towards preventing foot odor. If good hygiene fails to provide relief, medical treatment may be warranted. Paying a little extra attention to our feet can get this smelly issue under control.