Because we normally wear shoes, the sweat from the foot cannot evaporate normally. This sweat rapidly becomes smelly because bacteria work on it to produce smelly fatty acids. Warm moisture also encourages the growth of the fungi that cause ‘athlete’s foot’, and this can add to the cheesy smell, as well as being unpleasant in itself.
One of the main causes of sweaty, smelly feet is wearing the wrong socks or footwear. Shoes with plastic or other synthetic fabric linings don’t allow any sweat to evaporate and don’t absorb it either, so the foot stays wet. Synthetic socks have the same effect, particularly if they’re tight.
What You Can Do for Sweaty Feet
Deal with your socks
- Throw out all your nylon socks. Replace them with socks that are 60–70% wool combined with 40–30% man-made fibre. Socks that are all cotton are not as good because they do not hold as much moisture without becoming sodden, and all-wool socks become clammy. You could try socks made from bamboo fibre, which are supposed to be draw sweat away very effectively.
- Make sure your socks are not too tight. Some sports socks have ventilation panels and are designed to transport moisture away from the foot. If necessary, wear a second pair of the correct socks over the first pair to increase absorbency.
- Wear clean socks every day. Wash socks on the hottest cycle. After washing, rinse your socks in antiseptic, diluted 20 times, and let them dry naturally.
- You might consider antibacterial, fresh-feet socks. These are impregnated with chemicals to discourage the odour-producing bacteria that feed on sweat, but they are not a substitute for having clean socks every day. And some scientists worry that trying to combat these harmless bacteria could encourage stronger strains to develop.
Deal with your shoes
- Check the linings of your shoes. Leather shoes often have a plastic lining, so be sure to choose all-leather shoes without a lining or ones that are lined with leather.
- Buy some washable insoles for your shoes and wash them every day.
- Every couple of weeks, use the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner to clean the inside of your shoes. This will help to remove dried old sweat. You can also wipe the inside of your shoes with surgical spirit, which you can buy from a pharmacy.
- Avoid wearing trainers for long periods. Most trainers are insulating and synthetic – ideal conditions for cheesy feet.
- Try to avoid wearing the same shoes two days in a row allow them to dry out properly.
Deal with your feet
- Check the soles of your feet for hard skin. Hard skin is dead skin, and it becomes soggy when damp, providing an ideal environment for bacteria. Remove it with a pumice stone.
- Bathe your feet in warm water with a few drops of tea-tree oil added. Tea-tree oil has antibacterial properties. Dry your feet thoroughly.
- Alternatively, soak your feet daily in black tea, which contains tannic acid. Boil two tea bags in half a litre of water for 15 minutes. Add this to 2 litres of cool water and soak your feet for 20–30 minutes. Dry thoroughly.
- Try wiping your feet with surgical spirit (available from a pharmacy) each day. Stop if it irritates your skin.
- Check between your toes for fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. Fungi thrive when the feet are warm and moist. The skin between the toes will look red and soggy. Buy an antifungal foot spray, which is more effective than antifungal foot powders. Keep using the spray for 10 days after the symptoms have gone. If the problem persists, see your doctor.
- If you notice lots of small pits in the skin of your soles – almost a honeycomb appearance – and a very pungent smell, you may have an infection called ‘pitted keratolysis’. The skin on the soles of the feet is often slimy and whitish in colour. This condition is caused by a bacterium and is common in soldiers who wear boots in humid conditions (called ‘Mekong foot’ by US troops in Vietnam). It needs to be treated with antibiotics, so see your doctor.
Other measures. You could also try using a special foot antiperspirant/deodorant or a 20% aluminium chloride solution. It is important to use the aluminium chloride solution correctly. Use it at night. Wash and dry your feet first and then apply the solution when you are lying in bed. Do not miss between your toes. Allow it to dry naturally and wash it off in the morning. Apply it every night until the problem is under control – usually 3 or 4 days – and then twice a week. Do not use it if you think you might have an infection, such as athlete’s foot, or if you have any sores on your feet.
If you are really bothered by sweatiness of your feet, and the measures described above have not dealt with the problem, it would be worth talking to your doctor. If you feel too shy to talk to your doctor, see a chiropodist. Chiropodists are experts on all foot problems, including sweatiness, and give very useful advice.
What Doctors Can Do for Sweaty Feet
Iontophoresis is a treatment available through some hospital physiotherapy departments. It used to be difficult to obtain this treatment, but more hospitals now have the equipment – your doctor can find out if it is available locally.
- It involves placing your feet in a bath of tap water, through which a very small electrical current is passed for about 30–40 minutes.
- You may find it a slightly uncomfortable, tingling or burning sensation, and skin irritation can occur.
- It is not suitable if you could be pregnant or have a heart pacemaker.
- At first, treatment is every few days, so it is time consuming, but it is gradually decreased to once every 3 or 4 weeks.
- If you find it works well, you might consider buying the equipment to use at home – ask the physiotherapist’s advice. (Obviously, you should not try to make home-made equipment, because you could electrocute yourself.)
Botulinum toxin injections (Botox, Dysport; look at the section on sweaty armpits) are probably the best treatment for seriously sweaty feet. It is tedious and uncomfortable because you may need about 36 tiny injections into the soles of the feet and the skin of the feet is very sensitive. This is a new treatment so it may not be available in your local hospital, but your doctor can find out the location of the nearest specialist treatment centre.
Anticholinergic drugs block the action of the nerves responsible for sweating and are fairly effective. However, their side effects – drying of the mouth, blurring of vision, constipation, sedation – are probably worse than the sweating! Propantheline bromide can be prescribed by your doctor. In the UK, glycopyrronium bromide is available only through a specialist dermatologist (because it has to be imported from the USA); this drug has lesser side effects than propantheline bromide.
A sympathectomy operation to destroy the nerves that control sweating of the feet is possible but is not to be recommended because it causes impotence in men and probably also interferes with sexual function in women.
First published on: embarrassingproblems.com
Reviewed and edited by: Fiona Elliott
Last updated: December 2020