Do I Smell Old Cheese…Or Is That Your Feet?

On family road trips, one of our three teenage sons would take off his shoes, bringing the comment, ”Put your shoes back on!” Followed by the indignant response, “How do you know I took my shoes off?” And the reply, “Because your feet stink!” For Christmas, his stocking stuffers were often deodorizing shoe insole replacements and foot powder.

What Causes Stinky Feet?

Foot odor (bromodosis) begins with sweaty feet. Each foot has 125,000 sweat glands, the heaviest concentrations in the body. These sweat glands produce more sweat per square inch than any other area in your body, about one cup per day.  Sweating helps reduce excess body temperature from exercising. The feet sweat glands, however, produce sweat continuously even without exercise. Sweat comes from eccrine sweat glands which are all over your body. (Apocrine sweat glands are in armpits, scalp and groin.).  Sweaty feet seem to run in families and are more common in teenagers and pregnant women. Many of us outgrow this trait which suggests a hormonal cause. A condition known as “hyperhydrosis” causes excess sweating in some people. Sweat is primarily water and salts without an odor itself. Bacteria are the culprits.

The thousands of bacteria on our skin are not noticed until they cause problems. Certain of these bacteria love dark, damp places where they can eat and live on this type of sweat or dead skin cells from the foot.  The waste products from this bacterial action are fatty, organic acids. These acids smell like stinky Limburger cheese, vinegar, ammonia, rotten eggs or some combination. Athletes’ Foot is caused by a fungus and also causes foot odor. While this smell is offensive to our noses, mosquitoes find it a real turn on, especially those carrying malaria.

Foot sweat trapped inside shoes can’t evaporate when wearing the same sneakers every day or shoes without socks.  Open toe shoes with rubber soles can trap sweat and smells between the foot and shoe sole.  Even if the foot has been scrubbed clean, the stink resumes after putting on the same shoes.

What Can Be Done About the Smell?

Wash your feet with an antibacterial soap. Wash socks, footies and sneakers in hot water and bleach.  Rotate shoes at least every other day so shoes are not worn two days in a row. Shoes need to fully dry out for 24 hours between wearings.

Various types of socks claim to help. Some are impregnated with antibacterials, silver, or copper. Some are ventilated or composed of special “wicking fibers”. Cotton socks gets soggy quickly so changing them twice a day can help. Nylon has no wicking properties and is no better than not wearing socks. Wool has been a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts and hikers for years and has withstood the test of time.

OTC antiperspirant sprays for feet are available. Look for an aluminum based active ingredient with strength of 15% to 20%. Apply nightly to clean dry feet for maximum effectiveness. Stronger sprays and roll-ons can be prescribed by physicians.

Other suggestions of uncertain help are foot powders, soaking in green or black tea, washing with baking soda and vinegar, turnip juice or radish juice.

With clean and dry feet, those problem bacteria will have to dine elsewhere. If you have smelly feet, just be glad you are not like butterflies with taste buds in their feet.

Professional Pediatrics