On the road to getting ripped, some funky problems can arise. One of the most common and embarrassing, though, starts at the foundation of your strength: your feet.
"About 89 percent of the population develops a foot problem sometime in their life," says Marc Feder, a podiatrist at Affiliated Podiatrists, LTD. in Chicago, IL. "Most people try to self-treat and spend a fortune on over-the-counter products without knowing if they have the right diagnosis," he says. Dermatitis conditions can resemble Athlete's Foot, and you can mistake fungal infections for something less serious; so if something's going on down there, see a podiatrist to get a culture, test, or examination.
But if you're just trying to eliminate the rancid smell from your gym sneakers or dress shoes, and learn some lifestyle hacks that can prevent it from happening in the first place, we've got you covered.
"Surprisingly, the perspiration isn’t what causes odor; sweat doesn’t have too much of a scent," Feder says. That awful stench occurs when your sweat hits old bacteria, fungus, or yeast that's been breeding in the lining of your shoe.
Shoes provide the perfect environment for bacteria: All of these germs flourish in places that are dark, warm, and moist—things you have very little control over in a closed-toe shoe, Feder explains. But you can be proactive about the amount of moisture or perspiration once you take your shoes off. Think of a sauna or steamy shower, for example. All of the muggy, moist air is trapped in a closed space. But once you open the door, everything's allowed to air out and dry. The first step to eliminating stinky feet is taking your shoes off and letting both breathe.
"Spray Lysol, an anti-fungal spray, or any other products your podiatrist recommends into your shoes to kill bacteria," Feder says. If you really want to be proactive, go into your closet and sanitize all your shoes—every sneaker, boot, shoe, sandal, and slipper, even if you haven't worn them in years. Repeat this on a fairly regular basis, but especially after getting caught in a rainstorm, after you've slogged through snow and slush, and super hot, sweaty occassions. "Don’t spray the shoe, then put your foot in, though," Feder warns. "You might have a reaction to the disinfecting agents." (Note that you can wash your sneakers in the washing machine if you choose.)
Bowling alleys have been using antifungal sprays enhanced with ultraviolet light for years, Feder says, some of which can kill 99% of bacteria within 15 minutes. You can try the SteriShoe Ultraviolet Shoe Sanitizer if you want to get really serious about killing germs.
After your workout or outdoor rec league game, tie your sweaty pair of sneakers on the outside of your gym bag or backpack so they can start airing out on your way home. Don't plop them in a plastic bag, your duffel, or your trunk in an effort to stifle the smell. You're only going to create a biohazard and foster the growth of more bacteria. "If you take your golf shoes and put them in the trunk of your car after a round, that’s the worst place in the world," Feder says. "They were just in wet lawns and grasses on the golf course, the material got wet on the outside, you sweat on the inside, and now you put it in a hot, steamy trunk during the summer where it’s hot, dark, and moist." If those conditions don't sound ideal for keeping your fresh new golf gear looking and smelling fresh and new, that's because it's not. The same goes for other sports gear. Hockey gear is notoriously smelly because guys never take their stuff out of their bag, and the same goes for football and soccer cleats and pads; all that moisture percolates in the enclosed space.
"If you can alternate between shoes every time you go to the gym, great," Feder says. This will give them proper time to dry. Also, bring an extra pair of socks and shoes (they don't have to be workout-specific) with you to the gym to change into after your workout. The sooner you can get out of the sweaty clothes, the better.
"If you’re prone to infections, invest a couple bucks in flip flops," Feder says. It's the easiest way to protect your feet while you shower and maneuver the locker room's nasty floors. Here's another simple tip: use a towel as yout personal mat when you get out of the shower.
This is a fashion trend Feder cannot get behind. "Your socks serve a purpose," he says. "They wick moisture away from your foot, draw it into the shoe, and if you're smart you'll change shoes every day to let them dry out." If you don’t wear socks with dress shoes, boat shoes, and other slip-ons, you'll notice your feet smell horrendous—more so than when you wear socks. If you're really embarrassed by smelly feet, honestly consider ditching the no-sock fad.
As for what socks you do wear, be picky. Nylon is worst when it comes to sweat-wicking materials, Feders says. Cotton and wool are preferred, but even these aren’t the best. "Cotton absorbs moisture, but it doesn’t get it out of the sock, which is why some people get blisters," Feder explains. New materials are somewhat superior. Socks made from lycra, vicose (a bamboo fiber that has impressive wicking capabilities), polypropylene, and acrylic are best, Feder says.
"If you wear shoes made of plastic, cheap leather, or ones that have rubber soles or nylon-lining—all these percolate heat, cause excessive perspiration, and harbor germs if they aren’t sprayed to eliminate bacteria and dried to reduce moisture," Feder says. Even the best-quality leather shoes can stink, but that's when your lifestyle habits and maintenance comes into play.
Fungus conditions in the nail are difficult to get rid of because you’re constantly recontaminating your foot by dragging the bacteria around when you slip socks on and off, Feder says. If you notice any differences in toe nail color, skin texture, or pain, make an appointment with a podiatrist. Stray from ointments and powders, too. "I'm not crazy about cornstarch or any type of powder or starch between the toes because it causes irritation and caking," Feder explains. "You’re better off taking a bit of anti-fungal powder and shaking it into your shoe, back and forth. As for daily foot hygiene, lather your foot with soap, rinse it off with water, and pat dry with a towel when you take your shoes off to keep your skin clean.
"Odor-eating inserts really do work," Feder says. Carbon and activated charcoal varieties deodorize odors and ultra-absorbent insoles absorb moisture. Shop around and see what works best for you. Just note they need to be replaced frequently.
"If it’s just a sweating problem, you might just have wet, glistening feet, or little white dots on the skin," Feder says. "If it’s a fungal infection, like Athlete's Foot, there may be redness along the sole, little red dots, scaly itchy patches or dry skin." If you want a good rule of thumb for feet health, remember this: The sole of your foot should look like the palm of your hand. When it doesn’t, you should seek help.
"If there’s a break in the skin, pain, itching, malodor, you could be misfitting your foot size, too." Fun fact: Your shoe size changes over your life. So if you're wearing a pair that doesn’t fit, or one that's too snug since most people's feet aren't evenly sized, the muscles could be over-worked, causing you to perspire more than you should, Feder adds.
Infections are common across all ages. Guys in their teens, 20s and 40s generally pick up bacteria from difficult-to-sterilize mats and never-quite-clean locker room floors. Give your feet the attention they deserve. Everyone will be better off.