Can certain soaps get rid of foot odor?

Feet covered in soap
Will antibacterial soap do the trick?
Marili Forastieri/Lifesize/Thinkstock

Feeling overworked and underappreciated? Think how your feet must feel. Each one is an engineering marvel: 26 bones, 33 joints, and literally hundreds of muscles, tendons, and ligaments, sharing a load equal to a few hundred tons of pressure every day; if you're an active person, even more [source: Illinois Podiatric Medical Association].

And how do we repay them? We suffocate them in socks and shoes, splash them in the shower, and then start the whole process over again. Rarely do we show them the love.


It's no wonder they raise a stink -- literally -- from time to time. Feet also contain 250,000 sweat glands, more per square inch than any other part of the body [source: ePodiatry]. Call it the foot's revenge. Or bromhidrosis (a Greek word combining stink and sweat), as a podiatrist does.

By any name, sweaty, stinky feet result from natural but inconvenient biological functions. Like the rest of the body, feet sweat to prevent overheating, and their surface is home to thriving colonies of bacteria. When these bacteria break down the leucine, an amino acid in sweat, one product is isovaleric acid -- which not coincidentally, also adds a pungent aroma to certain varieties of cheese.

Ordinarily, bromhidrosis can be controlled by paying extra attention to basic hygiene. Wash feet well when bathing; running shower water or a soak in the tub alone may not remove bacteria-harboring dirt. Dry them thoroughly, especially between the toes, and dust with talcum powder. Powder cakes on wet feet, creating a warm, moist "mud" where bacteria flourish.

Since bacteria are part of the problem, you'd think antibacterial soap would be part of the solution. That's not always the case, however. Many store-bought antibacterial cleansers contain Triclosan. Although it's a proven germ killer, no studies show that the low concentration in these products makes them any more effective at controlling bacteria than their regular versions.

Some stubborn cases of stinkfoot resist ordinary measures. On the next page we discuss strategies for vanquishing persistent bromhidrosis.


How to Combat Foot Odor

Washing feet in bathtub
Wash often if you have problems with odor.

To get tough with bromhidrosis, start inside and work your way out. First, treat the feet. Apply a light coat of your favorite antiperspirant deodorant, the same stuff you use under your arms.

Next, take care with footwear. Look for socks made with wicking fabrics. These materials draw moisture away from feet and into the fibers, where it more readily evaporates. (In contrast, most wool and cotton hold water like a camel.) Special blends of polyester, acrylic, and natural fibers have been developed for their wicking properties. These manufactured fabrics also keep their shape better, resulting in a better fit. Too-small socks that squeeze the feet and too-big socks that bunch up in the shoes can increase sweating. If you prefer natural fibers, socks made from small wool fibers like Merino are a good choice.


If you want to go high-tech (and you're willing to go high price), antibacterial socks made with silver nanofibers might be a worthwhile investment. Silver ions cling to the fibers to imbue them with the metal's natural bacteria-fighting ability.

Choose shoes that promote air circulation too. When possible, opt for sandals and shoes made with canvas, leather, or nylon mesh. Add odor-quelling insoles with activated charcoal and baking soda for added insurance. A shot of disinfectant spray isn't a bad idea either.

Wear only dry socks and shoes. Change socks twice a day if needed. Alternate pairs of shoes, wearing a different pair every day to let them dry and air out.

Finally, eliminate odiferous foods from your diet. This is sacrifice if you love garlic and onions, but your family and friends will thank you.

If at-home remedies fail, consult a podiatrist. He or she might prescribe an extra-strength antiperspirant or an antibiotic if a virus is to blame for the condition. A thorough physical exam to identify an underlying cause may be in order.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • American Podiatric Medical Association. "Ask the Expert." May 28, 2009 (March 8, 2011)
  • American Podiatric Medical Association. "Ask the Expert." Nov. 7, 2008 (March 8, 2011)
  • "Smelly Foot (Foot odor)." (March 9, 2011)
  • Illinois Podiatric Medical Association. "General Foot Health." (March 8, 2011)
  • Ju, Anne. "Student designer and fabric scientists create a dress that prevents colds and a jacket that destroys noxious gases." Cornell Chronicle Online, May 1, 2007 (March 14, 2011)
  • Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. 2009 (March 10, 2011)
  • National Health Services Department of Podiatry and Foot Health. "Foot Care for Carers." Dec. 2010 (March 10, 2011)
  • Ngan, Vanessa. "Bromhidrosis." Feb. 24, 2010. (March 9, 2011)
  • Northcoast Footcare. "Socks." June 23, 2010 (March 9, 2011)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know." April 8, 2010 (March 14, 2011)