The Cheesy Smell of Feet: Causes and Remedies

We’ve all experienced it at some point – that unpleasant, cheesy odor coming from our feet or someone else’s feet. While a mild foot odor can be normal, an excessively strong smell can be embarrassing and off-putting. So what causes feet to smell cheesy, and what can be done about it?

The Causes

Several factors can contribute to particularly smelly feet:

Sweat – Sweat itself is odorless, but when feet sweat heavily it creates a warm, moist environment that bacteria thrive in. This bacteria growth is what causes odor. Feet contain over 250,000 sweat glands and produce nearly a pint of sweat per day, making them prone to sweat-related smells.

Bacteria – There are thousands of bacteria that live naturally on the skin. Some bacteria species in particular produce compounds that generate foul foot odors, such as isovaleric acid (which smells like cheese) and propionic acid (vinegar-like). The most common bacteria found on smelly feet are Micrococcus, Staphylococcus, and Corynebacterium.

Fungi – Fungal infections like athlete’s foot can also lead to cheese-like foot odor due to the breakdown of keratin by the fungus. Fungi such as Trichophyton rubrum and Epidermophyton floccosum are common culprits.

Shoes & Socks – Tight, non-breathable shoes and socks create an enclosed environment perfect for trapping sweat and bacteria against the feet. This allows odor-causing bacteria to proliferate. Shoes made of synthetic materials tend to worsen the problem.

Hygiene – Simply not washing the feet and toes thoroughly can result in bacteria and dead skin cell buildup, leading to increased foot odor.

Hyperhidrosis – A condition characterized by excessive sweating well beyond what is needed to regulate body temperature. This excess sweat creates prime conditions for foot odor.

Diabetes – High blood sugar provides a good source of energy for odor-causing bacteria, resulting in heightened foot odor issues in diabetic patients if feet are not cleaned regularly.

Diet – Consumption of foods high in cholesterol, fat, and protein can increase body odor due to their effect on secretions from sweat and oil glands. Spicy foods may also intensify foot odor.

Stress – Stress-related perspiration stemming from anxiety or nervousness can contribute to foot odor.

Age & Hormones – Teenagers and pregnant women are at higher risk for foot odor due to increased sweat gland activity and hormone fluctuations. Menopausal women may also find their feet smell more.

Genetics – The tendency for smelly feet may be inherited. People predisposed genetically to having sweatier feet are naturally more inclined to foot odor.

Medical Conditions – Disorders that cause excessive sweating like hyperthyroidism, lymphoma, or overactive pituitary or adrenal glands can also lead to foot odor.

The Remedies

While you can’t eliminate all bacteria from your feet, there are ways to minimize foot odor:

  • Wash feet daily using antibacterial soap, and make sure to scrub between the toes where bacteria accumulates.
  • Change socks at least once a day, or more if very active. Choose socks made of breathable fabrics like cotton rather than synthetic materials.
  • Alternate shoes daily to allow them to fully dry out between uses. Consider buying an additional pair of insoles to make alternating easier.
  • Disinfect shoes periodically using UV light or ozone treatments to kill bacteria; spray with antibacterial shoe spray.
  • Apply foot powder or antiperspirant to feet daily to help absorb moisture. Talcum and cornstarch powders can also help.
  • Treat fungal infections immediately to prevent odor exacerbation. Over-the-counter antifungal creams and sprays can be effective.
  • Use foot deodorant or apply rubbing alcohol to feet to kill bacteria.
  • Soak feet in a vinegar solution to control odor-causing bacteria and fungi. The mild acidity inhibits microbial growth.
  • Change socks immediately after exercise or perspiring heavily. Bring extra socks when exercising.
  • Wear socks and shoes made of natural, breathable materials like cotton, wool, and leather.
  • Lose weight if overweight or obese – excess weight contributes to sweaty feet.
  • Treat underlying medical conditions, like hyperhidrosis, that contribute to excessive sweat.
  • Go barefoot at home to give feet a chance to breathe. Make sure to wear sandals in shared areas.

While the cheese smell of feet can be unpleasant, have patience with treatments. It can take several weeks of diligent hygiene and antifungal treatments to substantially reduce foot odor. See a podiatrist or dermatologist if over-the-counter remedies are still ineffective after a couple months. With discipline, cheesy feet can smell fresh again.