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Stinky Shoes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bromodosis, the medical term for smelly feet, is the origination of the scent in your smelly shoes. The odor transfers from foot to shoe and builds up over time
  • Without socks, bacteria may proliferate and increase the problem you have with both smelly shoes and feet
  • You can use alcohol, tea tree oil, newspaper or even silica gel packs to reduce moisture, bacteria and, therefore, odor

Tips to Avoid Stinky Shoes When Going Sockless This Summer

May 28, 2016 | 232,529 views
| Available in EspañolDisponible en Español

By Dr. Mercola

When the sun starts warming the pavement and the temperature starts to rise, you may be tempted to go sockless in your shoes. It's a feeling of freedom and brings back memories of childhood.

Unfortunately, unless you take care of those shoes, it also breeds bacterial growth and a smell you can identify when you walk in the room. If smell were an indicator, your shoes could stand up and walk around all on their own.

How can you enjoy that sockless feeling without contributing to air pollution in your home?

The Foundation of Foot Odor

Shoes start to smell because they are in close proximity to smelly feet. One step to keeping your shoes smelling sweetly is to reduce your foot odor. The medical term for smelly feet is bromodosis, and it can affect anyone.

The smell starts with sweat secreted from sweat glands on your feet. The functions of these glands are to keep your feet moist, skin supple and aid in temperature regulation. When you're hot or exercising, your feet sweat even more than usual.

Unlike other sweat glands on your body, the sweat glands in your feet secrete sweat all the time, and not just in response to heat or exercise.1

The smell begins when the sweat is broken down by bacteria and fungi living on your skin. As the sweat decomposes a noticeable cheesy odor is produced. This scent can become even more offensive when there is a buildup of bacteria and sweat, such as in your shoes.

Socks Prevent the Smell

Using socks prevents the smell because your socks absorb the sweat and the bacteria, protecting your shoes. When your feet are stuffed inside your shoes all day, bacteria, sweat and dirt are transferred to the insoles and fabric of the shoes.

When you replace your socks daily, you reduce the buildup of bacteria and decomposing sweat that line the insides of your favorite shoes.

Socks reduce the friction between your feet and your shoes, reducing the build-up of calluses on your feet. Socks also keep your feet from becoming dry and cracked, leaving openings in your skin that increase your risk of infection. Your socks will protect your feet from fungal infections, such as athlete's foot, as well.

A buildup of moisture can also lead to mold growth on your shoes. This will break down the integrity of the shoes far more quickly, resulting in shoes that no longer provide support and are ready to be retired.

But, there are ways to reduce the odor emanating from your shoes, while still not wearing socks or stockings in your favorite athletic shoes or flats.

The Smell of Athlete's Foot

The medical term for athlete's foot is tinea pedis. It develops from a fungal infection, most often between your toes. Symptoms may vary from person to person.

You may experience all possible symptoms, including severe discomfort, or just a couple. The fungus usually grows in a warm, moist, and dark environment. Symptoms may include:2

Cracked and bleeding skin

Scaling skin



Burning skin

Macerated skin, or skin breakdown

Foot odor


Athlete's foot is sometimes associated with onychomycosis, or a fungal infection of the toenails. If you have diabetes, the infection may spread or you may develop a severe secondary infection. If you experience severe redness, pain, swelling or pus from your feet, you should see your doctor.3

Although generally harmless, it may also create a foul odor that is distinctively different from the usual source of smelly feet.

Care Tips to Keep Your Shoes Odor-Free

If you just have to go sockless in your shoes, there are a few precautions that may reduce the amount of odor your shoes produce over the summer months.

Remember the odor originates from bacteria and sweat transferred from your feet to your shoes. Each of these tips will either help reduce the growth of bacteria or make your shoes a hostile environment for bacterial and fungal growth.

1. Wash and Dry

It's simple. The cleaner and drier your feet and shoes remain, the more likely it is that your feet won't smell. Wash your feet with soap and water at least once daily.

Be sure they are thoroughly dry before you put your feet into shoes for the day. Although your feet will continue to secrete sweat, starting dry gives you a better chance of staying sweet-smelling.4

2. Kill the Bacteria

You can kill many of the scent-producing bacteria on your feet using either white vinegar or a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water. Place your fluid of choice in a spray bottle and spray the bottom of your feet after each shower.

Allow your skin to air dry for a couple of minutes before walking or using shoes. Make your hydrogen peroxide wash with 1 teaspoon of 3 percent peroxide to 8 ounces of water. White vinegar can be used straight out of the bottle.5

3. Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has natural antibacterial and antifungal properties.6 You might spray your feet with white vinegar or hydrogen-peroxide solution after your shower and rub coconut oil on your feet just before bed. The oil helps to kill bacteria and softens your skin.

4. Stay Out of the Dark

Bacteria and fungi love dark, moist environments. After you take your shoes off for the day, keep them out of gym bags, dark shoe boxes and dark closets. Use a shoe rack to keep the tongue of the shoe up and air circulating through the shoe.

5. Silica Gel Packs

These are the little bead packets you find in a new box of shoes and inside bottles of vitamins. You can also purchase them in bulk. These packets are used to absorb moisture inside your shoes after you've worn them.

Put a couple of packets in each shoe and place them in a closed bag. If you leave the shoes open to air with the silica packets, they won't be as effective because they'll absorb moisture from the air as well as from inside your shoes.

Closed in a bag they'll be exposed only to the moisture in your shoes. Use caution or avoid this if you have your shoes near pets or young children.

6. Tea Tree Oil

Although there is no well-designed scientific research demonstrating effectiveness against smelly feet, tea tree oil is effective against athlete's foot and other fungal infections.7,8

Tea tree oil may be mildly irritating to your skin and has not been tested on children or pregnant women.9 If you'd like to try tea tree oil, use it sparingly and not every day to reduce irritation you may experience.

7. Newspaper

Keeping your shoes dry is an important way of reducing the growth of bacteria and fungi. Stuff them with newspaper after you've washed the shoes or after a particularly sweaty day or workout. Switch out the newspaper every four hours until the paper is dry when you remove it.

8. Sunlight

Sunlight and fresh air are natural ways of drying out your shoes and getting rid of odors. Hang your athletic shoes by the tongue to keep the shoe open to air. Set dress flats or heels out on a chair or table in the sun. Watch the weather and get them inside before it rains.

9. Alcohol 

Bacteria are sensitive to alcohol. Use isopropyl alcohol over the interior of the shoe. Isopropyl alcohol comes in strengths ranging from 70 percent to 99 percent, all of which will work for this purpose. Remember to avoid putting alcohol on the outside of your shoes because it can ruin the surface of the shoe. Leave the shoe in an area where it will get plenty of air circulation. You can do this up to once weekly to keep the bacterial growth in your shoes at a minimum.

10. Alternate Your Shoes

By alternating the days you wear shoes, you give them a longer period of time to dry out thoroughly, reducing the growth of bacteria. If athletic shoes are your foot apparel of choice, then keep two or three pairs in your closet so you can alternate them.

11. Replace With Charcoal-Containing Insoles

Your insoles absorb quite a bit of the sweat and bacteria from your feet. Replacing them periodically can reduce the amount of bacteria in your shoes. If odor control is a significant issue, even with the listed measures, you may think about replacing your insoles with insoles containing activated charcoal for odor control. However, these may irritate your skin, so wearing socks with them is advisable.

12. Salt

Bacteria require moisture to grow. Salt will pull water from the cells of the bacteria, causing those cells to die. Salt also interferes with the enzyme activity of the bacteria and weakens the molecular structure of the cell.10 Use kosher salt or sea salt, as regular table salt has finer grains that are more difficult to remove from your shoes. Spread 1 tablespoon of coarse-grain salt evenly over the insoles of your shoes. Let the shoes set for 12 to 24 hours before tapping the salt out of your shoes.

13. Powder, Soda, Starch or Litter

Another option to dry out the inside of your shoes is to stuff them with a combination of equal parts baking powder, baking soda and cornstarch in a coffee filter. Staple the filter together and stuff it in your shoe overnight. Kitty litter is another material designed to absorb fluids. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of kitty litter in a coffee filter, staple closed and place inside your shoes overnight.

Forget About These

While there are several things you can do to reduce foot and shoe odor, there are also some things you shouldn't do.

1. Masking the Smell With Perfume

Leave out the perfume. They will only mask the odor. Perfume and sweaty feet don't make for a good combination!

2. Foot Antiperspirants

Antiperspirants stop your feet from sweating, a completely unnatural option. You may be tempted to just use a spray to cut back on foot odor, but you'll also be adding chemicals to your body and eliminating the method your body uses to moisturize the skin on your feet.

3. Freezing

Although this may reduce the odor in your shoes in the short run, freezing does not kill the odor-causing bacteria growing in your shoes.11 If you do choose to freeze, put your shoes in a resealable bag and place in the freezer for several hours.However, if they don't smell when you remove them from the freezer it may only take a day or two to re-establish the bacterial growth, whether you wear them or not. So if you're freezing, wear the shoes immediately before the odor returns.

When All Else Fails

When all else fails to reduce the stench wafting from your shoes, it's time to return to your socks. If you enjoy being sockless because you don't want socks to show over the top of your shoes, try low-rise socks. These usually sit below the level of athletic shoes and don't show at all.

Women have the option of wearing ped socks or ped hosiery in dress shoes, serving the same purpose of absorbing sweat and bacteria but without showing over the tops of dress shoes. Socks might not be your choice of apparel, but they will protect your feet from becoming dry and cracked or from developing calluses from rubbing against your shoes.

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