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Why Does the Dead Skin on My Feet Smell?

It’s a common experience – you take off your shoes after a long day and get a whiff of a distinctive odor coming from your feet. While it may be unpleasant, foot odor is normal and very common. The likely culprit for smelly feet is dead skin cells. Here’s a closer look at what causes that smell and what you can do about it.

What Causes Smelly Feet?

The primary cause of foot odor is excess sweat mixing with bacteria and dead skin cells on the feet. Our feet contain more sweat glands per square inch than any other part of our body. When our feet sweat, the moisture gets trapped inside our shoes and socks, creating an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply rapidly.

The bacteria feast on the dead skin cells and sweat on our feet, releasing isovaleric acid as a byproduct. This acid causes the unpleasant cheesy or vinegary smell we associate with smelly feet. Certain fungi can also grow on the feet and contribute to foot odor.

In addition, shoes and socks can trap heat and moisture, making feet sweat more. Tight-fitting shoes prevent air circulation, also encouraging sweat. Some other factors that can make foot odor worse include hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), age, obesity, stress, hormone changes, and wearing the same shoes day after day without washing.

How Does Dead Skin Build Up on Feet?

Dead skin cell buildup on the feet contributes directly to foot odor. Our skin is constantly renewing itself, shedding around 30,000 to 40,000 dead skin cells every minute. Most of this dead skin is removed by bathing, exfoliation, and friction from clothing.

However, areas like the soles of our feet don’t exfoliate as easily. The pressure and friction of walking and wearing shoes causes the dead cells on feet to compact and harden, creating calluses and thick patches of skin. Bacteria and fungus feed on these dead cells and their byproducts are what causes odor.

Excessive sweating can also cause dead skin cell buildup by blocking pores. The trapped dead cells and sweat lead to even more pungent foot odor.

How to Combat Smelly Feet

While you can’t eliminate foot odor entirely, there are ways to keep it under control:

  • Wash feet daily: Make sure to scrub both feet, including between the toes. Dry carefully, especially between the toes where moisture easily gets trapped.
  • Rotate shoes: Let shoes completely air out between wears so sweat and bacteria don’t accumulate inside. Having designated indoor and outdoor shoes can help.
  • Wear clean socks: Change socks at least daily, or more often if very active. Choose moisture wicking socks to cut down on sweat, and wash socks regularly.
  • Use foot powder: An antifungal powder can help absorb sweat and make feet less hospitable to bacteria and fungus.
  • Exfoliate regularly: Use a foot scrubber or pumice stone when bathing to slough off dead skin. Soaking feet can soften calluses prior to exfoliation. Getting pedicures can remove built-up dead skin as well.
  • Wear breathable shoes: Choose leather or mesh shoes when possible to allow airflow to your feet. Alternate between different pairs of shoes.
  • Get foot odor treatments: Over-the-counter treatments like charcoal shoe inserts can help absorb odor. Antifungal spray or antibacterial soaks can target bacteria and fungi growth.

When to See a Doctor

Occasional foot odor is very common and can typically be managed with good hygiene. However, if you have excessive foot odor and sweating that persists no matter what you try, check with your doctor. You may have a condition like hyperhidrosis that requires prescription-strength treatment.

Likewise, foul-smelling feet accompanied by other symptoms could indicate an underlying medical issue needing evaluation. See your doctor if smelly feet are accompanied by redness, swelling, pain, itching blisters, peeling, or any other changes to your feet. Fungal infections like athlete’s foot can lead to odor and need antifungal medication. Getting a proper diagnosis is key to getting the right treatment.

In most cases, foot odor is a harmless annoyance, albeit an embarrassing one. Paying attention to foot hygiene by washing, exfoliating, and wearing clean, breathable shoes and socks can help prevent smelly feet. Combine that with over-the-counter odor treatments when needed, and your feet and those around you will thank you!