The vast majority of the time, stinky feet are caused by one thing: Bacteria breaking down fatty acids in your sweat. Sounds innocent enough, but, as some of you know all too well, the biochemical process can create an odor powerful enough to clear a room when you slip off your shoes.
The bacteria on your feet is actually the same as what lives all over your body. So why are perspiring pads so much stinkier than, say, a sweaty forearm? You have more sweat glands on your feet—250,000 on each foot, in fact—which means more perspiration to turn into odor, explains Jane Andersen, DPM, communications committee chair for the American Podiatric Medical Association and podiatrist at InStride Chapel Hill Foot and Ankle in North Carolina. Plus, your feet are typically kept in an enclosed environment (socks, shoes), and less ventilation means more perspiration, she adds.
The exception: Your foul feet could be caused by Athlete’s foot, which is a fungal infection picked up in warm, moist places (like the locker room or around swimming pools) that creates its own odor, Anderson says. If your funk is accompanied by burning, itching, or stinging anywhere on your foot, head to your doc to confirm (it’s usually treated with a nonprescription cream).
If you have no other symptoms outside of a serious stench, you’re more likely just a victim of good ole body odor on overdrive.
But why can some guys go sans shoes without clearing a room? “Some people are just more prone to excessive sweating,” says Michael J. Trepal, DPM, professor of podiatric surgery at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine.
But you also might not be doing your feet any favors—especially if you’re guilty of any of these odor-inducing habits.
Sub-par sock choice
“Cotton is breathable and allows air to circulate, but can stay soggy,” Trepal explains. Instead of switching your socks out every two hours, opt for a pair that wicks moisture away from skin but doesn’t stay wet, like wool and certain synthetic blends. (We like FITS or CEP, both of which are antibacterial and odor-reducing.)
Rushing out with wet feet
How many times have you been running late, jumped out of the shower and dried off just enough to slide on jeans and shove your feet into socks and shoes? You’re going to regret the results of the rush in a few hours. “You have to insure your feet are thoroughly dry before putting them in shoes to minimize moisture,” Trepal says.
Staying in sweaty sneakers
Anderson suggests popping your feet into a fresh home after working out, or if you work up a sweat walking or biking to work. The longer you leave on wet socks and shoes, the worse they’re going to smell, she explains.
Choosing the wrong shoes
“Bacteria thrives in a warm, dark and moist environment, so a closed shoe is a virtual Garden of Eden,” Trepal says. Minimize the amount of moisture you’ll rack up by switching out poorly ventilated shoes (leather boots, say) for a more breathable pair (most lightweight sneakers).
Slipping into stinky sneakers
“Placing a clean foot in a damp or contaminated shoe will perpetuate the environment and conditions supporting foot odor,” Trepal points out. Also, try to avoid wearing the same shoes two days in a row. “Alternating can allow your shoes to dry out, making them less likely to contribute to odor,” Anderson adds.
Leaving shoes in your gym bag
Don’t just shove your stinky sneaks into your gym bag until you hit the locker room again. “Pull your shoes out, open the laces, and place your shoes in exposed light so they can dry out,” Trepal advises. You can add an absorbent foot powder to your shoes for extra odor protection, too. (Try Chassis’ Premium Powder.)