Because we normally wear shoes, the sweat from the foot cannot evaporate normally. This sweat rapidly becomes smelly, because bacteria work on it to produce smelly fatty acids. Warm moisture also encourages the growth of the fungi that cause ‘athlete’s foot’, and this can add to the cheesy smell, as well as being unpleasant in itself.
What you can do for sweaty feet
- Throw out all your nylon socks. Replace them with socks that are 60–70% wool combined with 40-30% man-made fibre. Socks that are all cotton are not as good because they do not hold as much moisture without becoming sodden, and all–wool socks become clammy. You could try socks made from bamboo fibre, which are supposed to be draw sweat away very effectively.
- Make sure your socks are not too tight. Some sports socks have ventilation panels and are designed to transport moisture away from the foot. If necessary, wear a second pair of the correct socks over the first pair to increase absorbency.
- Wear clean socks every day. Wash socks on the hottest cycle. After washing, rinse your socks in antiseptic, diluted 20 times, and let them dry naturally.
- You might consider antibacterial, fresh-feet socks. These are impregnated with chemicals to discourage the odour-producing bacteria that feed on sweat, but they are not a substitute for having clean socks every day. And some scientists worry that trying to combat these harmless bacteria could encourage stronger strains to develop.
- Check the linings of your shoes. Leather shoes often have a plastic lining, so be sure to choose all-leather shoes without a lining or ones that are lined with leather.
- Buy some washable insoles for your shoes, and wash them every day.
- Every couple of weeks, use the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner to clean the inside of your shoes. This will help to remove dried old sweat. You can also wipe the inside of your shoes with surgical spirit, which you can buy from a pharmacy.
- Avoid wearing trainers for long periods. Most trainers are insulating and synthetic – ideal conditions for cheesy feet.
- Try to avoid wearing the same shoes two days in a row allow them to dry out properly.
- Check the soles of your feet for hard skin. Hard skin is dead skin, and it becomes soggy when damp, providing an ideal environment for bacteria. Remove it with a pumice stone.
- Bathe your feet in warm water with a few drops of tea-tree oil added. Tea-tree oil has antibacterial properties. Dry your feet thoroughly.
- Alternatively, soak your feet daily in black tea, which contains tannic acid. Boil two tea bags in half a litre of water for 15 minutes. Add this to 2 litres of cool water and soak your feet for 20–30 minutes. Dry thoroughly
- Try wiping your feet with surgical spirit (available from a pharmacy) each day. Stop if it irritates your skin.
- Check between your toes for fungal infections such as athlete's foot. Fungi thrive when the feet are warm and moist. The skin between the toes will look red and soggy. Buy an antifungal foot spray, which is more effective than antifungal foot powders. Keep using the spray for 10 days after the symptoms have gone. If the problem persists, see your doctor.
- If you notice lots of small pits in the skin of your soles – almost a honeycomb appearance – and a very pungent smell, you may have an infection called ‘pitted keratolysis’. The skin on the soles of the feet is often slimy and whitish in colour. This condition is caused by a bacterium and is common in soldiers who wear boots in humid conditions (called ‘Mekong foot’ by US troops in Vietnam). It needs to be treated with antibiotics, so see your doctor.
What doctors can do for sweaty feet
- It involves placing your feet in a bath of tap water, through which a very small electrical current is passed for about 30–40 minutes.
- You may find it a slightly uncomfortable, tingling or burning sensation, and skin irritation can occur.
- It is not suitable if you could be pregnant or have a heart pacemaker.
- At first, treatment is every few days, so it is time consuming, but it is gradually decreased to once every 3 or 4 weeks.
- If you find it works well, you might consider buying the equipment to use at home – ask the physiotherapist’s advice (they are available from iontophoresis-device.com). (Obviously, you should not try to make home–made equipment, because you could electrocute yourself.)
Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Wednesday, May 1st 2013
Dr Phil Hammond asks why do we sweat, why do some people smell more than others, and what can we do about it. Find out more by clicking on the video below.
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Each person has 3-4 million sweat glands
At rest in a cool environment, a normal person loses about half a litre of sweat in a day
The sweat glands are capable of producing 12 litres of sweat in 24 hours
Hippopotamus sweat is red. It contains sunscreen and is also antiseptic (Nature 2004;429:363)
We can smell the sweat of a giraffe from a quarter of a mile away. The smell repels ticks (New Scientist 1 February 2003)