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Worst Habits for Smelly Feet, Say Experts

Specialists explain everything to know about smelly feet.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

If you dread taking your shoes off because of embarrassing foot odor, read on. Smelly feet is actually a common problem that many people deal with and Eat This, Not That! Health talked with several experts who explain what causes foot odor, bad habits that contribute to smelly feet and how to help resolve the problem. As always, please speak with your medical doctor for any advice and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Does Foot Odor Happen?

Legs of a woman in gray socks on the carpet on the wooden background

Dr. Brad Schaeffer DPM is a Board Certified Foot & Ankle Surgeon who stars on TLC's My Feet Are Killing Me shares, "Smelly feet are something that nobody likes to deal with. They can be caused by bacteria and/or fungus that grow on our feet. Sometimes, smelly feet can occur due to over sweating or hyperhidrosis. Excessive sweating can cause a perfect environment for fungus and bacteria to live and thrive."

Dr. R Randal Aaranson, a board-certified podiatrist/foot and ankle surgeon adds, "Foot odor can be caused from a bacterial infection of the skin. It also can be associated with people who sweat a lot, which is a genetic condition called Hyperhidrosis that causes bacteria to breed and results in a foul odor. Eliminating this excessive moisture can potentially eliminate or at least reduce the problem."

Dr. Suzanne Levine, a New York-based aesthetic podiatrist and board-certified podiatric foot surgeon specializing in aesthetic foot treatments and non-invasive procedures shares a few things that can cause bad foot odor.

  1. "Spicy food lovers beware – the spices from the food can sometimes seep out through the eccrine sweat glands (the highest density of which are found on palms, and, you guessed it, feet).
  2. Born with it – Foot odor can also be hereditary (ugh, thanks, mom).
  3. Other causes include – fungus, excessive sweating, lack of proper foot hygiene, and bacterial growth on the skin."

Dr. Andrew Wilson DPM, who sees patients at Mercy Personal Physicians at Lutherville explains, "Bacteria proliferates well in a wet, enclosed environment. Therefore shoes with poor airflow and people with excessively sweaty feet suffer to a greater extent from foot odor. When foot odor is chronic and described as more rancid in nature it is called bromhidrosis. The subtype which affects the feet is more specifically called eccrine bromhidrosis. Eccrine refers to the type of sweat gland, which shows us how foot odor is directly related to the amount we sweat."


Who is at Risk for Smelly Feet?

older woman with leg pain
Shutterstock / AstroStar

According to Dr. Schaeffer, "Smelly feet can affect everyone! I feel that everyone has dealt with this annoying issue at least once or twice in their life. A lot of parents come to my office to discuss their children's smelly feet and I fully empathize with their concern. A lot of athletes also deal with this because they are constantly in cleats or workout shoes and those warm, moist environments create a perfect living environment for the bacteria and fungi I mentioned. It is not a hygiene issue during puberty or if there is an underlying medical condition. Although there's not one medical issue that correlates with stinky feet. But again, anytime there are bacteria and fungi in our socks and shoes we run the risk of having stinky feet."


Bad Habits that Cause Smelly Feet

close-up feet on mini trampoline workout

Dr. Schaeffer explains, "A lot of people believe that smelly feet have a direct correlation to poor hygiene. Sometimes, this is true but other times, not true. There's not one medical issue that correlates with stinky feet. But, anytime there are bacteria and fungi in our socks and shoes we run the risk of having stinky feet. When I was a teenager, for example and played a ton of sports, I dealt with this issue and tried every treatment in the book. Eventually, once I got out of that stage of my life spending more time in cleats and athletic shoes than not, it wasn't as big of a concern. When we wear sweaty wet socks or old running shoes/cleats this cultivates a warm moist environment which is a perfect breeding ground for this type of smelly fungus!"

Dr. Aaranson states, "Not washing your feet can definitely cause foot odor. Wearing closed shoes for long periods of time may lead to less ventilation for sweaty feet. Another habit: not keeping your skin in the most healthy condition possible, which is a must for overall hygiene and cleanliness."

Dr. Shannon Thompson, DPM, one of Boston's leading podiatrists and the owner of Ace Feet explains, "Probably the most common cause of foot odor is wearing shoes made of non-breathable material. Bacteria and fungi can thrive in that warm, moist environment. Another cause is a true bacterial or fungal infection of the skin. Foot odor that doesn't wash away with a cleansing shower is a sign of a skin infection and should be checked by a doctor." 

Dr. Levine says, "Lack of foot hygiene – not changing socks often enough (every day!), cleaning your feet (not just letting soap run on them in the shower), and wearing shoes that aren't breathable for too long (yes, but we know they're cute)."

Dr. Wilson says, "Wearing your shoes without socks makes it more likely to transfer the bacteria and byproducts of your sweat directly to your shoes which will increase the rate at which your shoes become noticeably odorous. It is thought to be specifically the metabolism of those byproducts by the bacteria which causes the smell."


How Common is Foot Odor?

Middle-aged woman suffering from pain in leg at home, closeup

"Foot odor is extremely common and affects everyone at some point or another in life! I feel that over 75% of the population deals with this in one way or another," says Dr. Schaeffer. "When we are walking around all day and standing for long periods of time our feet sweat. When your feet start to sweat, this allows those smells to occur more frequently."

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Treatments for Foot Odor

Doctor neurologist examining female patient

Dr. Schaeffer says, "The good news is that there are treatments for this annoying issue! When parents come into my office, they are so happy to learn that they do not have to smell their children's stinky feet any longer with simple over the counter products available in any drugstore. If symptoms persist, however, I do recommend following up with your local podiatrist and making sure that there is nothing more serious going on."

Dr. Aaranson shares, "Thoroughly cleaning your feet with soap and water should be a part of your health and wellness regimen. You can soak your feet in Epsom salt, which is an astringent that dries out your feet and can kill bacteria. Lastly, make sure to keep your feet as dry as possible and regularly change your socks."

Dr. Thompson says, "Some of my patients have found success with soaking their feet in black tea. The tannic acid in black tea is bactericidal. It also reduces sweaty feet by constricting the sweat ducts. If you prefer not to soak your feet, there are over the counter sprays with tannic acid that can be used. Another over the counter option is Certain Dri antiperspirant. The active ingredient is aluminum zirconium, which blocks the sweat ducts, to reduce sweating and malodor. When severe, treatment may require prescription medication. Severe or persistent foot malodor can occur secondary to a bacterial or fungal infection of the skin. These infections need medical treatment and won't resolve with over the counter products."

Dr. Glenn Davison, DPM, FACFAS, a board -certified by the American Board of Podiatric Surgery says, "Treatments include proper drying of the feet and spaces between toes, applying powder to the feet and shoes to absorb excessive moisture, usage of drying agents and deodorizers, both over the counter and prescription, and lastly rotation of shoes and wearing cotton socks."

Dr. Levine says,

  1. "Depending on the source of the problem, cornstarch to keep feet dry
  2. certain fungal treatments (both OTC and prescription)
  3. improvement in hygiene
  4. foot deodorant spray
  5. Botox
  6. In extreme situations, a sympathectomy may have to be performed." 


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How to Help Prevent Foot Odor


"In life, prevention is key to a lot of physiological issues that can be avoided," says Dr. Schaeffer. "Smelly feet are just one. If you are concerned about your feet, or just want to get ahead of the problem, there are many over the counter products one can buy designed to absorb moisture and odor both while wearing shoes and while they are in your closet. Insoles, odor and moisture absorbing wicks, balls, and more can be found in drugstores and markets."

Dr. Aaranson says, "Washing your feet on a daily basis is key. If a person sweats a lot, there are various medications that can help reduce this issue. Another measure to take is frequently changing socks and wearing better ventilated shoes to avoid this issue."

Dr. Wilson states, "For foot odor complaints from the average patient there are many preventative measures which can be utilized. Our main goals are controlling the moisture and bacteria levels. First of all, look for tennis shoes that are breathable. Wear socks that are highly absorbent and will pull the moisture away from the foot. Poor hygiene can also exacerbate the problem, so regular washing with soap and water will help. A foot powder can also be used when increased moisture is a problem. "

Dr. Levine says, 

  1. "Control diet – cut down on the spicy foods
  2. Drink water
  3. Use Foot deodorant spray
  4. Change socks – daily
  5. Proper foot hygiene"

Dr. Thompson explains, "Start with your shoes and give them a good cleaning with an infection control spray that kills bacteria, spores, and fungus. You'll need to get the interior of the shoe coated with the product and allow it to air dry overnight. Wear clean socks. Don't rewear yesterday's pair – put on a fresh pair daily and change during the day if your feet get particularly sweaty.Keep your feet clean. Wash your feet with soap and clean between the toes. Care for your calluses. Calluses can retain moisture and harbor bacteria, so having those shaved or removed can be helpful. Keep your feet dry. Avoid wearing shoes without socks and change your socks regularly. Wear sandals when you can or wear shoes that allow airflow."


When It's Time to Seek Medical Care

middle-aged man chatting with doctor

Dr. Schaeffer explains, "It is always a good idea to consult with your doctor on any issue that concerns you. For something like smelly feet, it would be OK to try showering and scrubbing, changing socks, and changing your shoes for starters. But, if symptoms persist, then I recommend following up with your local healthcare professional."

Dr. Wilson says, "When people perform normal hygiene practices and still suffer from chronic foot odor it is sometimes due to other issues. In this case the patient often has experienced chronic issues with what could be described as rancid or sour smelling feet. At this time the patient should be evaluated by their doctor for other causes such as medications, toxins, systemic or metabolic disorders or even diet through metabolism of the foods that they eat in excess such as onions, garlic, etc." 

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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