At one point or another, most of us have stopped and wondered, “Why do my feet smell so bad?” Everyone experiences foot odors from time to time, whether it’s particularly smelly gym shoes causing the issue or a constant looming (and embarrassing) problem you would do anything to fix. If you’re dealing with tough foot odors, it’s time to put your foot down. Just because smelly feet are a fact of life doesn’t mean they have to run your life.
Luckily, health professionals and podiatrists say most cases of foot odor are easy (and inexpensive) to treat. The good news doesn’t stop there: There are countless proven ways to get rid of smelly feet—from medical interventions to home remedies to drugstore product solutions to simple footwear habit shifts—so you can attack from all angles. And with the right treatments and habit changes, most foot odor disappears (or is at least reduced) quite quickly.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: The most important part of solving foot odor is being educated on foot odor. After all, knowing what is causing the problem is often the first step to solving it. Fortunately, you’ve found yourself at Smelly Feet 101, a crash course in the causes of foot odor and the treatments actually proven to make a difference.
To learn more about how to get rid of smelly feet, check out the proven stinky feet remedies and expert foot odor advice below. Hear that bell? Smelly Feet 101 is now in session.
What makes feet smell bad?
Let’s get technical: The actual medical term for stinky feet is bromodosis. While the name might be a bit intimidating and clinical, the cause of bromodosis is actually quite straightforward. The condition could be caused by a build-up of sweat, which creates an ideal environment for bacteria growth on the skin. And this bacteria is believed to be one of the sources of those bad odors you’re smelling.
According to Cleveland Clinic, foot odor happens when the bacteria that live on your skin and in your shoes eat your sweat. This process produces an “acid byproduct that smells unpleasant.” Since your feet have more sweat glands than any other part of the body, meaning bacteria thrive on them, it’s no wonder that feet are notorious for being, well, stinky.
Are some people more likely to have bromodosis?
While everyone’s feet sweat (and therefore no one is immune to bromodosis), some people are more susceptible to the condition. Teenagers and pregnant women are prone to sweaty feet because their bodies produce particular hormones that make them sweat more than the average person, according to Healthline. The more sweat, the more likely a person is to harbor an increased level of bacteria on their feet.
That being said, your day-to-day life or even your mental health could sometimes impact whether you’ll experience bromodosis. For example, people who are on their feet all day performing physically demanding work tend to sweat more from their feet than those who work an office job. Similarly, people who experience high levels of stress tend to sweat more from their feet than those who experience low levels of stress.
What medical conditions cause smelly feet?
Certain types of fungal infections, like athlete’s foot, can also possibly lead to bromodosis. Athlete’s foot usually begins between the toes, which is a common location for bacteria to collect on your foot due to the dark, moist environment.
Those who have hyperhidrosis are also extremely likely to experience foot odor, given the nature of the condition, according to Mayo Clinic. Hyperhidrosis is a condition that causes a person to sweat excessively even without exposure to heat or exercise. Those with hyperhidrosis can often drip sweat without exposure to any sweat-inducing activities.
Some people diagnosed with cancer can also experience bromodosis due to hormone changes from the illness itself or from treatment. Some cancers in particular—like non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, mesothelioma, bone cancer, and liver cancer—have been found to cause patients to sweat more, according to Cancer Research UK.
People with diabetes sometimes experience foot problems, which can include troubles with foot odor, according to Everyday Health. These issues should always be reported to a doctor, as foot conditions can be especially serious for those who have diabetes.
Illness can also cause smelly feet, as a weakened immune system can cause you to sweat more. This not only goes for people with the common cold but also for people with serious illnesses. People who have just undergone organ transplants, for instance, can experience foot odor associated with a weakened immune system, according to Living Healthily.
Here’s how to prevent stinky feet
If you want to learn how to stop smelly feet before they start, Cleveland Clinic suggests a few ways to prevent bromodosis. Keeping your feet dry is the main way to prevent the condition, whether that is thoroughly drying them after a shower or changing your shoes and socks after getting caught in the rain. You may also want to let your piggies breathe by going shoeless when possible, as this helps keep your feet dry.
Experts also recommend following general foot hygiene, including clipping your toenails, removing any dead skin with a foot file, and moisturizing your feet to keep them healthy. If not caused by an existing medical condition, bromodosis can often be treated by simply adopting better foot hygiene habits to address normal sweating. Consider it an excuse to splurge on a pedicure.
Here’s how to treat smelly feet
There are many solutions to make your feet smell better if you’re already experiencing problems with bromodosis. Some include simple habit shifts that can help keep the condition at bay. When possible, experts recommend going barefoot to let your feet air out, preventing sweating and bacteria build-up, Healthline suggests. It’s also recommended to clean (and dry) feet thoroughly after bathing or showering to mitigate the smelly feet condition (more on that later.)
Then, there’s the laundry list of over-the-counter remedies for smelly feet: Some experts recommend applying a small amount of rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball and applying it to your feet every night to help dry out your feet. Avoid applying this alcohol treatment to any cracks in your skin. If you need to quickly address foot odor, experts say it is safe to put deodorant on your feet to act as an antiperspirant and provide a fresh scent, according to Sweat Help. If you have athlete’s foot or another fungal infection, there are over-the-counter products that address this specific type of foot odor, including anti-fungal sprays, creams, and powder.
If home remedies don’t work, it’s time to call in reinforcements. We’re talking about your go-to doctor. If you’re looking to get rid of smelly feet long-term, there are some prescription medications that help treat bromodosis, which can help manage especially tough cases. You may have to go to a podiatrist or dermatologist to get prescribed medication and to monitor its effectiveness.
Another possible medical intervention for smelly feet is Botox, which is FDA approved for the treatment of excessive sweating. When injected into the feet, Botox works by blocking the nerves in that area, therefore essentially “paralyzing” sweat glands. Results typically last three to four months, according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society. Some people, however, experience relief for up to six months.
Here’s how to get rid of foot odor in shoes
Experts recommended having at least two pairs of shoes that you alternate wearing daily. This allows each pair to dry out from sweat or moisture before being worn again, as wet shoes can be a breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria.
“Bacteria and fungi and all those lovely little bugs love heat, moisture, and darkness—and the inside of your shoe is the best place for that to happen,” podiatrist Joy Rowland told Cleveland Clinic in 2019.
Shoes made of synthetic materials—like plastic shoes or acrylic—tend to hold on to smells more than natural materials, like leather, suede, cork and rubber. Choosing a more breathable material for your go-to shoes can help your smelly feet air out, even while pounding the pavement. Shoes with mesh panels or ventilation (like most sneakers and workout shoes) are also great choices for those struggling with foot odor, as they enhance breathability.
In addition to choosing the right shoes, be sure to change your socks at least once a day, but more often if your feet sweat substantially, like after exercise or on a particularly hot day. If you want to go the extra mile, choose socks that keep moisture away from feet, like sports socks or socks made of natural materials.
You can also buy special shoe inserts—like those made of activated charcoal—to help banish odors. Or invest in some cedar shoe trees, which help your shoes maintain their shape while drying out and also add a natural freshness to your kicks.
If you need to remove smells from your existing shoe collection, try using an absorbent powder like baking soda, cornstarch, or baby powder to help soak up lingering moisture, according to Men’s Health. By removing moisture, the smell could possibly resolve. Baking soda in particular helps to neutralize odors, while baby powder often has a light scent to help gently mask any lingering odors. If you struggle with particularly sweaty feet, you can even powder your feet a little before putting on shoes to help prevent an excess of moisture from seeping into your shoes throughout the day.
Here’s the best way to clean your feet
To clean your feet in the best way possible, experts recommend using a mild antibacterial soap and scrub brush to wash your feet at least once a day. This can be done in the shower as part of your daily routine. After washing, be sure to dry your feet completely, especially in between your toes. Any excess wetness between toes could cause bacteria to grow, leading to more problems with bromodosis.
Experts also recommend performing a dedicated foot soak once or twice a week, as it provides a deeper clean than mere shower scrubbing. For the best results, podiatrist Joy Rowland tells Cleveland Clinic she recommends soaking your feet in a vinegar and water bath or an Epsom salt and water bath.
For a vinegar bath, combine two parts water with one part vinegar (white or apple cider vinegar works) and soak for 15 to 20 minutes once a week. According to Rowland, vinegar makes your skin inhospitable to bacteria. This treatment, however, should be avoided if you have open sores or cuts.
For a salt soak, Rowland recommends dissolving half a cup of Epsom salt in a tub of warm water and soaking for about 10 to 20 minutes. Epsom salt pulls moisture out of your skin, which makes it a “less-inviting place for bacteria to survive,” according to Cleveland Clinic.
In addition to daily foot scrubbing and weekly foot soaks, be sure to regularly remove any hard, dead skin from your feet with a foot file. When your feet get wet from showering or sweating throughout the day, this skin can get soggy and soft, creating an ideal environment for bacteria and increase your chances of having smelly feet.