You slipped them out of your shoes and got a rather unfortunate whiff: Your feet smell bad. So you put your shoes in the closet, backed away slowly and hoped that tomorrow the situation might be better.
It happens to the best of us.
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"The odor in feet is caused by sweat or moisture 'fermenting,'" Jacqueline Sutera, DPM, board-certified podiatrist and foot surgeon in New York City and New Jersey, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Stink is the result of "any combination of bacteria, fungus, mold and/or yeast," she says.
Here's how to ID the cause and gain control of the odor to help freshen up your feet.
1. Stink Culprit: Your Shoes
Your shoes were basically made to smell.
"Odor-causing germs thrive in dark, damp spaces, which makes your socks and shoes ideal environments," Dr. Sutera says. One specific type of bacteria, brevibacterium, is responsible for foot odor caused by wearing tight or constricting shoes. And guess what? It makes your feet smell like cheese.
As another type of bacteria, called Propionibacterium, feeds on your sweat, you get that sour smell, according to the American Chemical Society. (Hence why you might think your feet smell like vinegar.)
Fix it: Avoid wearing bare feet in shoes (socks provide a needed barrier and soak up moisture). And try not to wear the same pair every day — alternate when you can.
If your shoes still stink, spray the inside with Lysol or put them in a Ziplock baggie and freeze them overnight to annihilate smelly bacteria.
Still smell? Toss 'em.
2. Stink Culprit: An Infection
Athlete's foot is a common fungal infection, notes the U.S. National Library of Medicine. For clues about whether the malodor is caused by an infection, look for the following signs, Dr. Sutera says:
- Yellow nails
- Flaky "dry" skin
- Itchy skin
- Red or white rough patches
Fix it: See any of these on your feet or nails?
"Show your foot doctor. These are usually signs of fungus, are contagious and can get worse if left untreated," Dr. Sutera says.
After treatment with an anti-fungal ointment, you'll also want to treat your shoes with an antifungal shoe spray. Otherwise, your shoes are going to continue to reinfect you, she says.
3. Stink Culprit: Stress
Having one of those days where you're just stressed to the max? Or is something triggering your anxiety? Both ramp up sweating in your body. (Feet have a very concentrated amount of sweat glands, according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society).
"Anytime you sweat more, it causes more moisture and potential for odor," Dr. Sutera says.
Fix it: If you notice that your feet sweat excessively — as in, you leave wet footprints behind on the floor when you walk — you might have plantar hyperhidrosis, in which case, talk to your doctor about treatment options.
How to Prevent Smelly Feet
In addition to the fixes mentioned above, there are some things you can try to prevent future stinky feet, Dr. Sutera says:
1. Wash Feet Daily
"Letting water and soap from your shower fall on your feet is not enough," Dr. Sutera says.
Lather up those tootsies, getting in between each toe.
2. Dry Them Well
Dry feet thoroughly after getting out of the shower. Don't put socks and shoes on if feet are damp or wet.
3. Sprinkle 'em With Powder
If your feet come out of your socks or shoes smelly, sprinkle feet with foot powder or cornstarch before putting on your footwear.
If that's not enough, look for an antiperspirant for your feet, which is available over-the-counter or prescription-strength.
4. Try a Tea Soak
For sweaty feet, soak them with black tea nightly.
"The tannic acid in the tea helps to prevent feet from sweating and causing odor," Dr. Sutera says.
She suggests brewing two tea bags in one quart of water, allowing to cool, and then soaking feet for 10 minutes every night for a week. After that, maintain freshness by soaking once per week.
5. Sanitize Your Shoes
Use a UV shoe sanitizer, like SteriShoe.
"These are shoe trees that you plug in to treat your shoes after each use," Dr. Sutera says.
- Mandall, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases (Eighth Edition): “Other Coryneform Bacteria and Rhodococci”
- American Chemical Society via Brittanica.com: “Discover the various factors that contribute to foot odors and ways to prevent it”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Athlete’s Foot”
- International Hyperhidrosis Society: “Understanding Sweating”
- International Hyperhidrosis Society: “Sweaty Feet”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.