What Stinks? Learn What Causes Foot Odor and How to Fend It Off

What Stinks? Learn What Causes Foot Odor and How to Fend It Off

The shoes. The socks. The sports bags. If you are a parent to tweens or teens, you probably know the stinky feet struggle.

Although smelly feet can occur at any age, parents may start to notice it more in middle school when they aren’t personally overseeing their children’s bathing routines and kids begin producing more sweat due to puberty.

“There are even young kids in the first couple years of life who can have stinky feet, but until adolescence you really don’t produce as much sweat,” says Dr. Shelly Senders, pediatrician at Senders Pediatrics in South Euclid.

Smelly feet are typically not a concern from a health standpoint, Senders says, but it can be embarrassing for kids—and unbearable for parents. To fend off funky foot odor in your family, learn about what causes it in the first place and how to prevent it in the future.

What Causes It & How to Prevent It

Foot odor is caused by a chemical reaction between bacteria and sweat, producing isovaleric acid, Senders explains. It’s made worse by confining footwear, especially shoes and socks made out of synthetic material.

There are three categories of people with smelly feet, he says. Treatment starts with determining which category your kids fall into.

People who sweat a lot genetically. “When you shake people’s hands, some of them have sweaty palms — and those same people have sweaty feet,” Senders says. “It’s a chemical reaction, so if you have more sweat, you will have more stinky feet.” 

For people in this category, Senders recommends products that prevent sweating. While there are intense treatments available like Botox injections or iontophoresis (an electrical current), the easiest and least invasive one is simply using an antiperspirant on the feet, just like we do for our armpits. 

“I recommend a ball; it’s easier to roll on your feet,” he says. Antiperspirant foot lotions are also available, as is a deodorant cream called Lavalin, which may appeal to people who prefer aluminum-free products.

People who have more bacteria on their feet. “People in this category may have poor hygiene and don’t wash their feet as much,” Senders says. Treatment options include washing your feet with soap and water daily and doing occasional foot soaks. Try Epsom salt baths or soaking feet in a mixture of two parts water to one part white vinegar. Wearing clean, dry socks that absorb moisture also helps.

People who have thick skin on their feet. Bacteria hides in dead skin on your feet, Senders says. “Use a pumice stone to exfoliate your feet, and you’ll get rid of the dead skin and naturally get rid of the bacteria,” he says.

What About the Shoes & Bags?

Now that you know some treatment options for preventing offensive foot stench in the first place, you may still need some help extinguishing the odor from already-stinky shoes and gym bags. 

As Senders explains, sweat combined with bacteria causes the bad smells, so you need to eliminate both of those factors to get rid of the funk. 

To get rid of the bacteria, start by giving shoes, bags and gear a good wash. Remember to thoroughly dry everything in the sun or a well-ventilated area. 

Air out shoes, bags and gear the same way on a daily basis. Another way to eliminate bacteria is with disinfectant products designed for shoes. Be sure the products you choose are not designed only to mask the smell.

To absorb moisture, try a charcoal-based pod product, baking soda-based shoe balls or deodorizing inserts. Traditional foot powders are another option.

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