You don't need to be an athlete to feel the annoying itch of athlete's foot. This common fungal infection — which can also cause cracked, scaly skin, stinging or burning — often happens when your dogs become overrun by dermatophytes, a type of fungi that grows in warm, humid conditions like sweaty socks and shoes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While natural remedies for athlete's foot and over-the-counter antifungal products can usually alleviate symptoms and help you avoid a recurrence of the rash, sometimes our own habits can unintentionally hamper the healing process.
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Here, Nelya Lobkova, DPM, a New York City-based podiatrist at Step Up Footcare, shares the most common mistakes that aggravate athlete's foot, plus what you should do instead to ease and prevent future fungal infections in your feet.
1. You Don’t Cut Your Toenails Often Enough
Your nailbeds can be a hotbed for infection, especially when they're too long.
Here's why: "If you don't cut your toenails often enough, the toenail could break, causing trauma to the nailbed, which leads to a deformed toenail," Dr. Lobkova says. And this weakened nail can increase your risk of becoming infected by fungus or other microorganisms, including bacteria.
Plus, long nails offer more nooks and crannies for creepy crawlies like fungus, which can find a pleasant place to proliferate between the toe and the skin.
“Keeping the toenails short prevents fungus from entering under the toenail from the surrounding skin,” Dr. Lobkova says.
So, what’s an ideal toenail length? Trim the nails just above the white line using nail clippers, and then use a thin nail file to file down the corners, so that the sharp edges don’t break the skin, Dr. Lobkova says.
2. You Wear the Same Shoes Every Day
We all have a favorite pair of shoes (the ones you've worn so much they feel like slippers). But your comfiest kicks can be costing you healthy feet by not allowing athlete's foot to heal.
"Wearing the same shoes every day does not allow the inside of the shoes to dry properly between wears," Dr. Lobkova says. Read: Your shoes stay sweaty.
Problem is, "like most fungal infections, fungus prefers a moist and dark environment," Dr. Lobkova says. So the damper your daily shoes, the harder it is to control athlete's foot.
“It’s important to keep the feet and the surfaces touching the feet clean and dry,” Dr. Lobkova says. Here are a few of her top strategies to do just that:
- Alternate the shoes you wear every day to ensure they stay dry. (If you're in the market for new shoes, see our top picks for walking shoes and running shoes.)
- Wash sneakers, insoles and socks regularly with color-safe bleach.
- If shoes are not washable (like leather loafers), open them, remove the insole if possible and place them to dry in the sun at least weekly.
- Use UV-light shoe sterilizers for all shoes (especially leather, because they’re not machine-washable) to dry out the inside of the shoes, which can harbor unpleasant bacteria, viruses and fungi.
- If your feet tend to sweat a lot during daily wear, choose sneakers or shoes made of a breathable air mesh upper and/or breathable rubber soles.
3. You Don’t Clean Your Feet Properly
Fess up: Your feet are one of the most neglected body parts in the shower (we know, they're hard to reach). But simply standing there while the water trickles between your tootsies isn't enough.
"Remember, when we shower, all the dead skin and dirt from the body trickles down to the feet," Dr. Lobkova says. "And if you don't clean (and dry) the feet properly, fungus that is normally present on the skin can overgrow, especially between the toes, worsening athlete's foot," she explains.
To help athlete's foot heal, show your feet some love in the shower. “It’s important to specifically wash the feet after we wash our bodies,” Dr. Lobkova says. And make sure you scrub between the toes, too.
Dr. Lobkova also advises “using soap or body wash with tea tree oil, because it is naturally antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral.”
4. You Don’t Dry Your Feet Post-Shower
OK, so you've lathered up your feet (hooray), but you're still not in the clear when it comes to fungal infections like athlete's foot. That's because fungus (and other pesky pathogens) prosper and propagate in clammy crevices (like wet toes).
"When our feet are moist for longer periods of time, they become more vulnerable to catching athlete's foot from an infected person or from a contaminated surface," Dr. Lobkova says.
After you bathe, use a small towel or paper towel to dry your feet, especially between the toes, Dr. Lobkova says.
And try these additional measures to keep your feet dry and free of fungus:
- Before you put on your socks, spray on some talc-free foot powder. Dr. Lobkova recommends Arm & Hammer Foot Powder ($14.07, Amazon), which uses cornstarch to absorb moisture and prevent excessive sweating.
- Do an astringent soak to dry out your feet twice a week. Dr. Lobkova recommends Domeboro Medicated Soak Rash Relief ($11.99, Amazon), which has astringent properties (meaning it constricts sweat glands and reduces sweating).
Strolling around without shoes or socks in public places like pools, gyms, locker rooms or even hotel rooms can result in a rash like athlete's foot. That's because the fungus that fosters athlete's foot may be found lurking on the floor, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
Your feet are even more susceptible to an infection if you have a break in the skin, which serves as an opening for opportunistic pathogens. "In general, if there's already a cut or scrape in our skin, it becomes vulnerable to catching fungus or a viral infection (like a wart)," Dr. Lobkova says.
And if you're already battling a case of athlete's foot, walking barefoot with broken skin can lead to more irritation or a secondary bacterial infection, she adds. Not to mention you can spread the fungus to the floor and potentially infect others.
Whenever you’re in public or shared spaces, always wear shoes or flip-flops (even when showering at the gym).
6. You Wear Cotton Socks
Cotton socks are super comfy, but they're not doing you any favors in the athlete's foot department. That's because "cotton absorbs moisture, leading to a favorable environment for fungus to flourish and exacerbating athlete's foot," Dr. Lobkova says.
Wear socks made of Merino wool, which is a natural material (unlike synthetic microfiber) that wicks away moisture from the foot, Dr. Lobkova says. Try bands like Smartwool or Darn Tough.
7. You Moisturize Your Feet
Many people confuse dry, cracked skin for athlete's foot. "Athlete's foot commonly looks like scaling on the bottom of the feet and can easily be mistaken for dry skin," Dr. Lobkova says.
But here's the thing: Fungus feeds off moist environments, so moisturizing your feet will further worsen athlete's foot and prevent it from healing, she says.
Lose the lotion and opt for over-the-counter fungal creams to effectively treat athlete’s foot, Dr. Lobkova says. And if you’re having difficulty distinguishing dry patches from fungal-based scaling on your feet, see a podiatrist who can properly assess and diagnose your issue.
8. You Soak Your Feet in Bleach
While some home remedies can help treat athlete's foot, bathing in bleach is not one of them. In fact, it can be downright harmful to your health.
"Bleach is highly toxic to the skin," Dr. Lobkova says. "Soaking the feet in bleach may cause serious skin irritation and burns and thus will exacerbate instead of treating the athlete's foot," she explains.
Save the bleach to wash your socks, Dr. Lobkova says. And if you’re looking for a home-based cure, try soaking your feet in vinegar or Epsom salt instead.
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.