We’ve all been there.
The theme music from Jaws starts playing in your head as your best friend goes about removing their shoes. Oh no. You take one last gasp of clean air and hold your breath as you quickly excuse yourself from the room, seeking the nearest gas mask.
It may not as bad as all that, but why do some people’s feet create a bad (some might say deadly) odor and others don’t?
The medical term for malodorous feet is Bromodosis, caused by a combination of sweat and bacteria.
There are more than 250,000 sweat glands in each of our feet, making it one of the wettest parts of our body. In just 24 hours in fact, each foot might produce as much as one pint of sweat, especially if you exercise heavily. Certain medicines, stress, and medical conditions can also encourage excessive sweating, which is called hyperhidrosis. Hormonal changes are notorious for creating bromodosis, especially in teenagers and pregnant women.
But sweat by itself doesn’t produce bad odor, as it’s simply water and salt and a few other elements your body is cleansing from your tissues. The problem is, it can’t evaporate, since it’s trapped behind a sock and shoe. If you sweat a lot, your feet stay damp and create conditions perfect for the real culprit: bacteria.
Now understand that bacteria live all over your skin – it’s just one of those fun-facts-we’d-rather-not-know about our bodies(sorry!). And those bacteria are actually key to good health, as they discourage other more aggressive bacteria that can make us sick.
What creates foot odor?
We love this Wikipedia description of how foot odor is created:
“The quality of foot odor is often reported as a thick smell… like that of malt vinegar. However, it can also be ammonia-like. Brevibacteria are considered a major cause of foot odor because they ingest dead skin on the feet and, in the process, convert [the] amino acid methionine into methanethiol, which has a sulfuric aroma. The dead skin that fuels this process is especially common on the soles and between the toes… Brevibacteria also gives cheeses such as Limburger, Bel Paese, Port du Salut, Pálpusztai and Munster their characteristic pungency.”
Nice! Your feet smell for the same reason gourmet cheese does.
“Propionic acid (propanoic acid) is also present in many foot sweat samples. This acid is a breakdown product of amino acids by Propionibacteria, which thrive in the ducts of… sebaceous glands. The similarity… between propionic acid and acetic acid, which share many physical characteristics…, account for foot odors identified as being vinegar-like. Isovaleric acid (3-methyl butanoic acid) is the other source of foot odor and is a result of actions of the bacteria Staphylococcus epidermidis which is also present in several strong cheese types.”
That may be too much information for some, but we find it fascinating. You’ll never look at cheese and crackers the same way again.
So what can you do to reduce your foot odor?
If foot odor is a persistent problem, the first thing to focus on is keeping your feet and footwear dry:
- The same anti-perspirant you use on your underarms may also be effective on your feet. Anti-perspirants block the pores of sweat glands and some also contain an anti-odor agent. Just because your anti-perspirant isn’t marketed this way, doesn’t mean it won’t work (just imagine the commercial)
- Over the counter foot powders can be very effective, but first try baking soda, as it’s much less expensive. Baking Soda in chemical terms is sodium bicarbonate, a basic salt. It will absorb moisture and create a hostile environment for bacteria. Just sprinkle a little in your socks and shoes and rub some on your feet to see if it works. If you need stronger stuff, then move to foot powders available at drug stores
- Bathe your feet daily with warm water and anti bacterial soap to remove sweat and bacteria. Dry thoroughly afterwards, especially between your toes
- Change your socks daily – never wear the same pair two days in a row. Wear cotton, wool, or synthetic material designed to wick moisture away from your skin (like those designed for athletes)
- Don’t wear the same shoes two days in a row – allow to thoroughly dry for at least 24 hours between wearing
- Don’t wear plastic shoes, as they don’t allow your feet to breathe. Wear leather, canvas, mesh, open toed sandals, or other materials that allow air circulation. If you have no foot condition that prohibits walking in bare feet, give those dogs some air when you get home
- Try over the counter, charcoal based, odor destroying insoles like Odor Eaters
- Dietary changes can help too. A diet high in refined carbohydrates often serves as food for bacteria. When these bacteria stay trapped on your feet, their intense feeding results in foot odor. Eliminating refined carbohydrates from your diet and balancing protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates can be a surprisingly effective treatment. Reducing alcohol consumption and eliminating cigarette smoking will also reduce your perspiration
- Chronic stress can elevate certain hormone levels, triggering sweat glands to go into overdrive. Moderating stress is essential for many other health reasons as well, and can be accomplished through an exercise program, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, massage therapy, or other programs
If none of these remedies resolve your condition, visit our podiatry office, as we can treat your condition medically with injections and prescription medicines. Your friends and family will thank you.