This Is Why Your Toenails Smell So Bad

You have to figure out why your toenails smell in order to nix the odor.
Image Credit: d3_plus D.Naruse @ Japan/Moment/GettyImages

There can be many things that bring the funk to your feet — and that includes your toenails.

Just like your feet, your toenails are stuffed into the sweaty, dark environment of shoes, which is a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus that leads to infection, Jacqueline Sutera, DPM, board-certified podiatrist and foot surgeon in New York City and New Jersey, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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But toenails have another potential problem: "They're also prone to infection and injury due to pedicures and if they're cut too long or short," Dr. Sutera says.

No doubt it can be tough to distinguish toenail smells from foot smells (which have so many different causes themselves), and you don't exactly want to lean down to try to take a whiff.

Still, there are other toenail-specific signs that can clue you in that your nails are responsible for the stink.

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"Look for color and texture changes. Toenails are a problem if they become thick and discolored," Dr. Sutera says.

And look at your feet. If you don't see peeling, flaking and dry or cracked skin — but there's still a really unpleasant aroma — your nails might be the problem.

Here's what might be going on:

1. It’s Your Toenail Style

As Dr. Sutera mentioned, both long and short toenails cause problems.

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Too-short nails can leave you prone to ingrowns, allowing a route for fungus to get in. An ingrown toenail is when one side of your toenail grows into the skin of your toe, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. This might also lead to an infection in the surrounding skin.

Too-long nails "then jam into the front of the shoes with every step, which causes lifting, damage and also potential for fungus and bacteria to get in," Dr. Sutera says.

Cut nails straight across so the corners gently sit against the skin; avoid super-sort, super-rounded or V-shape edges.

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2. It’s a Fungal Infection

"Fungal infections fester deep under the nail plate and under and behind the cuticle at the nail matrix, which is where the nail cells that grow your nail live," Dr. Sutera says.

Check the color of your toenails. A fungal infection might be present if nails are yellow, green, brown or white, are separating, are thick or are lifting from the nail bed, she says. Pain and accumulation of debris under the nail are other signs.

If you think you might have an infection, call your podiatrist. Trying to treat yourself with at-home or over-the-counter remedies can cause more trouble.

"Fungus spreads, is contagious and can be difficult to treat and cure," Dr. Sutera says.

3. It’s Nail Mold

Well, this is no doubt a new one.

"If nail plates lift and separate and the space in between the nail and bed get moldy (from trapped moisture), it could cause an odor," Dr. Sutera says.

The appearance will also be green. Relax though, because it's actually not dangerous. But because it's icky and smelly, you'll want to see your podiatrist for treatment.

4. It’s Your Shoes

If your shoes or socks are extra stinky, your nails can absorb those odors, Dr. Sutera says.

To cut down on shoe stink, she recommends sprinkling your feet with foot powder, using anti-perspirants for feet to keep them dry or spraying shoes with Lysol or another odor-elminating shoe spray.

5. It’s Your Socks

Same reason as shoes. Change your socks more often (and don't rewear them), choose natural odor and moisture-absorbing materials (such as merino wool or copper-infused fibers). And keep your sock style simple.

"Stay away from lots of colors and patterns. Dyes and colors can also encourage smells because they decrease breathability," Dr. Sutera says.

Who knew?!

What About Toenail Cheese?

If you notice gunk stuck around the cuticle, in nail corners or between the nail and nail bed, you might call this "toenail cheese." It may or may not smell, depending on what it's made up of.

Docs actually have another name for it: "subungal debris."

"This is an accumulation and combination of any of the following: infected or non-infected dead skin and nail, sock lint and soap residue," Dr. Sutera says.

A good scrubbing should clear it up, but if not, schedule a check-in with your doctor.

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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. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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