The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Stinky Feet? The Bacterial Culprits

Posted by on Monday, April 15th, 2013


Even the prissiest and cleanest among us has experienced foot odor. Everyone has had at least one run-in with this unpleasant symptom, maybe after a day of hiking or a warm summer evening in sweaty high heels. Contrary to popular belief, foot odor isn’t something you make all on your own. The smell is a byproduct of bacterial metabolism. As they eat, they excrete (this is true of all biological organisms, of course). So, you remove those shoes and suddenly you’re hit across the nose with an acrid, vinegar smell or a smell like rotten cheese. Depending on the bacteria in question, you may experience a wide range of strange and unusual odors, none of which are particularly pleasant. Fortunately there’s plenty you can do to fight the malodorous affliction, but first let’s meet the offending bacteria.


Brevibacteria is one of the most common causes of foot odor. This little devil ingests dead skin on the feet, converting the amino acid methionine into methanethiol (methane-based compounds tend to have a rotten eggs or sulfuric aroma… yum.) Most people’s feet are covered with dead skin cells, especially between the toes and on the soles, so the bacteria has a whole lot of fuel to feast on. Some fun facts: this is the same sort of bacteria that gives stinky cheeses like Limburger and Munster their stink. No wonder you think of France when you take off your socks. Studies have shown that mosquitoes are equally attracted to the smell of Limburger cheese and the smell of stinky feet (an interesting tool in the fight against malaria). And rats, while attracted to many smells we might find repulsive, share our dislike for foot odor.


Another common foot odor causing bug: propionibacteria. These guys populate sebaceous glands (those glands that excrete the oils that keep your skin moist, but that can also get infected, causing acne.) This bacterium secretes propionic acid, another smelly compound you could probably live without (at least on your feet).


So what can you do to fight your own personal bacterial infestation? Keep feet cool and dry whenever possible. Bacteria love a warm, moist environment, like the one inside your shoes on a summer afternoon. Always wear breathable socks. If they wick away moisture, they will keep your feet cool and dry. If they don’t, you’ll be swimming in a bacterial soup by lunchtime. And try your best to keep feet clean. Every time you wash your feet (with soap) you vastly reduce the bacterial load living on them. As we’ve learned, fewer bacteria equals fresher feet.


If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.