The why and the how of stinky feet

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

Ever nibble on a baby’s toes? I sure have. It’s one of the perks of being a parent – and a pediatrician. Nom nom nom, nibble them, count them, baby toes are about as adorable as anything can be. So why do feet sometimes turn on us? The 10 cute piggies and sweet little feets, in a few years, sometimes become, well, foul and nasty.

Teenager: “Do I need to take my sneakers off for my sports physical?”

Me: “No no no no no no no!!”

Honestly, most feet don’t smell too bad. Sweat barely smells at all. But the combination of sweat, warmth, trapped air, and what we’ll call “cellular debris” (ie, bits of foot skin) create, at least in some people, a tasty salad for the overgrowth of stink-producing bacteria. These include Bacillus subtilis, Kytococcus sedentarius, and brevibacteria, which is also responsible for the smell of Limburger cheese. There’s some cocktail party trivia for you! The bacteria eat up the foot debris, releasing “evil stink molecules” of  organic acids and sulfur compounds. And it’s those compounds, the stuff made by hungry microorganisms, that create what Frank Zappa famously called Stinkfoot. The science name for this – more cocktail party trivia! — is “bromhidrosis.”

So what can kids do about the stinkfoot? Try to keep them (the feet) clean. Wash them, every day, with soap and water and a washcloth. Letting soapy water kind of dribble across feet in the shower doesn’t count. Use a washcloth or pouf or whatever, and don’t forget in between the toes. Afterwards, dry ‘em, and stay barefoot for a while. Bacteria love moist and dark and enclosed. Open, dry, cool air will help.

The choice of footwear matters. Natural fibers allow more air circulation, and plastic things are the worst. All-cotton socks are a good, too, though there are also sports-sweat-wicking socks that may work even better. Whatever socks and shoes you wear, once they’re wet with sweat, take them off and put on another pair. You might need 2 or 3 pairs to wear on different days, to make sure they completely dry out between wearings.

Sneakers can be run through a washing machine every few weeks, or at least their insoles. There are odor-neutralizing sprays, some of which have disinfectants, which can help too. Spray the shoes or spray your feet, whatever it says on the label. Powders can be used to trap sweat, but you need to clean up the gunky powder rather than let it accumulate and turn to concrete.

For ultra-stinkfoot that doesn’t improve with simple measures, a trip to a doc may be needed. Sometimes there’s a yeast or bacterial infection that can be treated. We can also use medicines or other things to decrease sweating (that’s not a quick-fix, though—clean foot hygiene will still be necessary.) As a last resort, I suppose you could try this. But remember, whatever you do, you can’t run away from your own feet.



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