It’s normal for feet to have some odor, but when the smell becomes foul or unusually strong, it can be concerning. There are various reasons why your feet might start smelling worse than usual.
Causes of Smelly Feet
One of the most common causes of smelly feet is excessive sweating, also known as hyperhidrosis. Sweat itself doesn’t smell, but when your feet sweat heavily in shoes and socks all day, the sweat interacts with bacteria on your skin and leads to a foul odor. The damp, warm environment also allows the bacteria to thrive. People who have naturally sweaty feet are more prone to odor issues.
Certain shoes and socks can make sweaty feet worse. Non-breathable materials like rubber, leather, and plastic trap moisture against the skin. Thick, fuzzy socks also don’t allow sweat to evaporate. Going barefoot or wearing open-toed shoes and breathable cotton socks can help reduce sweating and odor.
Fungal infections like athlete’s foot can cause a distinct smell. The medical term for athlete’s foot is tinea pedis. It’s caused by fungi called dermatophytes that thrive in dark, moist environments. If you have cracked skin or blisters between your toes, it can allow the fungus to enter deeper. As the infection grows, it produces odor-causing byproducts. It may smell cheesy or stale.
Other fungal infections like yeast infections can also lead to foot odor. They tend to make feet smell yeasty or beer-like. Fungi infect feet more easily if the skin is damaged. Wearing socks and shoes that aren’t breathable raises your risk as well.
Bacterial overgrowth on the skin is another potential cause of foot odor. Bacteria called coryneforms are commonly found on the skin. When they rapidly multiply, they can create a smell. A type of bacterial infection called pitted keratolysis can lead to a sulfur-like odor. The bacteria create crater-like lesions on the soles of feet, often under the toes and balls of feet. The lesions provide the bacteria an ideal environment to grow and produce odor.
Other bacterial infections like cellulitis can also make feet smell offensive. Cellulitis causes swelling, redness, pain, and warmth in the infected area. If bacteria enter the deeper layers of skin, the smell often becomes stronger. People with diabetes or circulation issues are more prone to developing foot infections.
Washing your feet infrequently can cause odor issues. When you go days without cleaning your feet, sweat, dead skin cells, and dirt accumulate. This creates an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply and smell. Failing to dry properly between the toes after bathing can also make the skin prone to fungal and bacterial infections.
Going barefoot in public places like pools, showers, and locker rooms puts you at risk of bacterial and fungal infections. The infections can then cause odor problems. Wearing socks and shower shoes in these places is crucial. Make sure to wash your feet after going barefoot as well.
Other Potential Causes
Several other factors can potentially lead to or worsen foot odor, including:
- Certain medical conditions like diabetes and kidney disease
- Hormonal changes during puberty or pregnancy
- Older age, due to less efficient sweating
- Hyperthyroidism, leading to increased sweating
- Not wearing socks with shoes, allowing more sweat absorption and bacteria growth on shoes
- Poor blood flow to feet
- Dry skin on feet, which cracks easily and harbors bacteria
- Shoes that are too tight and rub skin
- Going barefoot in gardening and picking up bacteria from soil
- Wearing the same shoes every day without washing
Tips to Prevent and Treat Smelly Feet
Here are some tips to help avoid and treat smelly feet:
- Wash feet daily with antibacterial soap, including between toes. Dry properly.
- Apply foot powder or spray antiperspirant on feet to reduce sweating.
- Wear moisture-wicking socks made of cotton, wool, or newer synthetic fabrics that draw sweat away from skin.
- Alternate shoes daily so each pair has time to fully dry out before wearing again.
- Use antifungal sprays or powders on feet and in shoes to kill fungi.
- Soak feet in diluted black tea, sage tea, or salt water to kill bacteria.
- Apply an antibacterial lotion after washing at night.
- Wear shoes made of natural, breathable materials like leather or canvas.
- Disinfect or air out shoes between wears to kill odor-causing bacteria.
- Avoid tight shoes that compress feet and don’t allow them to breathe.
- Go barefoot at home often to allow feet to dry fully between sock-wearing.
- See a doctor if hygiene measures don’t improve odor, which may indicate an underlying medical issue.
The smell of your feet can be frustrating to deal with. Proper foot hygiene and using moisture-wicking shoes and socks are key to preventing and treating odor. But if smell persists despite good hygiene, visiting your doctor is recommended. They can determine if an underlying medical condition is contributing to the smell and direct proper treatment. Consistently caring for your feet and wearing appropriate footwear will help keep odor at bay.