Why do feet stink?

By: Maria Trimarchi

 If only feet smelled like flowers instead of funk.
If only feet smelled like flowers instead of funk.
© RusN/iStock/Thinkstock

Everybody's familiar with stinky feet. Most of us have a friend or relative -- or maybe it's you -- who can clear out a room when they kick off their shoes. Even the sweetest-smelling person can do a decent job stinking up a pair of shoes by running a few miles in them. So what's going on here? Why do your feet have a stronger odor than, say, the palms of your hands, or other parts of your body? After all, isn't body odor about sweat?

Eau de foot is about sweat, yes. A stinky foot may also be a sweaty foot. Each of your feet has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, and 19 muscles -- and as a pair your feet have 250,000 sweat glands that make about one cup (about half a pint) of sweat every day. That means your feet produce more sweat per square inch of skin than any other part of your body [sources: Foot.com, Brawley]. But most of the time sweat itself actually isn't the problem, at least not when it comes to the kind of sweat you find on your feet. You see, there are two types of sweat glands on your body: apocrine glands and eccrine glands. Apocrine glands are found near hair follicles (so you'll find them in abundance on your scalp and in your armpits, as well as the groin region). The sweat they secrete -- a yellowish, thick fluid -- happens in response to stresses. Body odor is the byproduct of bacteria on your skin digesting the sweat produced by apocrine glands. But there are no apocrine glands on your feet.


Eccrine glands, on the other hand, are located in the skin all over your body, including your feet. This sweat is intended to cool you down. On its own, the sweat produced by the eccrine glands on the soles of your feet is pretty much just water and salt, and really doesn't have any odor at all.

It's bacteria that's the real culprit behind foot odor; well, that and whether or not you wear socks.


The Bacteria Behind Foot Odor

Your feet and Limburger cheese have more in common than you may realize. Both are loved by the bacteria B. linens.
Your feet and Limburger cheese have more in common than you may realize. Both are loved by the bacteria B. linens.
© Hopfphotography/iStock/Thinkstock

Your skin normally has bacteria living on it; we co-exist with thousands of microorganisms and never give them any thought, until things go wrong -- or smelly.

Staphylococcus epidermidis and Bacillus subtilis, for example, are two types of bacteria that naturally live on the skin of your feet. Yes, they like living in the moist, warm environment your sock provides, but they also like life on a sweaty bare foot -- and they really like to eat an amino acid, leucine, found in the sweat the eccrine glands in your feet produce. When these bacteria eat leucine they produce their own gassy byproduct: isovaleric acid. This isovaleric acid is what gives both stinky cheese and stinky feet their malodorous scent. Foot odor can be particularly pungent if you happen to be a person who has a lot of B. subtilis living on your feet; as it turns out, they're naturally a bit stinkier (with a hint of vinegar) than other bacteria living off your leucine [source: Ara]. Different bacteria produce different odors, though, and if your feet tend to have a sulfuric or ammonia-like aroma, you can blame a different microorganism: Meet Brevibacterium linens.


B. linens is the bacteria that gives the notoriously stinky Limburger cheese its odor, and it's also the culprit behind most foot odor.B. linens flourish in environments that are salty, and that are about 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 30 degrees Celsius) [source: Kenyon College]. Sound a bit, perhaps, like a sweaty foot? It's pretty close, but while B. linens like this climate, they don't really care so much about your sweat. B. linens like to eat the dry, dead skin cells on the soles of your feet -- they don't care if your soles are sweaty or not -- and as they digest your skin they produce rotten-egg odors (sulfur), a byproduct that happens as they convert amino acids in your skin into methanethiol [source: Hilo].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: Why do feet stink?

No two feet are alike; they don't look alike, they won't sweat alike, and as it turns out, most people have one foot that's larger than the other. And if you were a butterfly, you'd have sensors in your feet for tasting your food.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons - Foot Health Facts. "Food Odor." (May 23, 2014) http://www.foothealthfacts.org/what-is/ns_foot-odor.htm
  • Ara, K.; Hama, M.; Akiba, S.; Koike, K.; Okisaka, K.; Haqura, T.; Kamiya, T.; and F. Tomita. "Foot odor due to microbial metabolism and its control." Canadian Journal of Microbiology. Vol. 52, no. 4. Pages 357-364. April 2006. (May 23, 2014) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16699586
  • Brawley, Otis. "Expert Q&A: Why do my boyfriend's feet sweat?" CNN. July 13, 2011. (May 23, 2014) http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/expert.q.a/07/13/sweaty.feet.brawley/
  • Dunn, Rob. "Biologist Spending Way Too Much Time Thinking about Discovery He Made on Jon Stewart's Body." Scientific American. Aug. 15, 2011. (May 23, 2014) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/08/15/biologist-finds-himself-spending-way-too-much-time-thinking-about-a-discovery-he-might-have-made-on-jon-stewarts-body/
  • Gross, Liza. "A Genetic Basis for Hypersensitivity to 'Sweaty' Odors in Humans." PLOS Biology. Vol. 5, no. 11. November 2007. (May 23, 2014) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2043049/
  • Hilo, Jessica. "Smelliot." Pacific Standard. Oct. 20, 2010. (May 23, 2014) http://www.psmag.com/navigation/nature-and-technology/smelliot-24427/
  • Kenyon College. "Microbe Wiki: Brevibacterium linens." May 18, 2013. (May 23, 2014) http://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Brevibacterium_linens
  • Mayo Clinic. "Sweating and body odor." Jan. 25, 2014. (May 23, 2014) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sweating-and-body-odor/basics/causes/con-20014438
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