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September 1998

Foot Odor: Toxic Sock Syndrome

If your feet are a source of backcountry air pollution, here's how to keep them smelling sweet.

It has been known to wrinkle more noses than a herd of unwashed skunks, and elicit nasty comments (“Who soaked a pig in vinegar?”) from usually compassionate tentmates. Medically, the condition is known as bromhidrosis, and if you suffer from “it” you’ve heard all the jokes about sewer feet and roadkill stuck to the bottom of your boots. You also probably feel creeping dread coming on around bedtime, and have wondered, “How can the feet of a

seemingly healthy, well-groomed person like me get so rank?”

You’re not alone. An estimated 38 million adults in the United States worry about the stench that rises out of their footwear. There’s no need to turn into the Lone Hiker, though. Foot experts say there are a variety of ways to get to the source of the smell and, more important, prevent the situation from evolving into a potentially serious skin condition.

“Foot odor is normal,” says Robin Ross, a New York podiatrist who, over the years, has dealt with more than a few foot-odor problems. “The smell usually comes from bacterial de-composition and causes no problems, except social ones.”

This bacteria breakdown is nurtured by the abundant moisture-sweat, in other words-your feet release. You have about 250,000 sweat glands per foot-more than on any other part of the body-which makes it a minor miracle that your boots aren’t literally filled with liquid at the end of a long hike. As it is, on an average nonhiking day each of your feet pours out only enough fluid to fill a standard coffee cup. All that sweat mixes with microscopic life-forms residing in your boots, and stinky feet result.

Although some folks are genetically predisposed to bromhidrosis, it gets a boost when your shoes are too tight or made of plastic, both of which intensify sweating because of limited breathability. But feet confined in any kind of boots during an intensive workout on a wilderness path are prime habitat for bacterial growth.

The good news for noses, according to Ross, is that “a lot of foot odor can be eliminated by keeping your feet clean and dry.” She recommends that you:

  • Wash your feet daily-even in the backcountry-with warm, soapy water, then dry them thoroughly. Don’t forget the spaces between your toes, which can harbor up to 1,000 times more bacteria than anywhere else on your body.
  • Wear synthetic liner socks made of materials like polypropylene that wick moisture from your skin and into the heavier outer socks. Some feet, like mine, turn a pair of synthetic socks into a major stink factory. If that’s your problem, you’ll need to put on a pair of fresh liners every day, or wash and dry them daily.
  • Take a midhike break each day, dry your feet, and put on clean socks.

Looming on the odor-free horizon is a material currently marketed in Britain under the label Amicor. It’s made from a chemically treated fiber that kills bacteria and fungi, and so prevents odor. No word yet on when “stink-free” socks will be available on this side of the ocean.

Until then, there are various over-the-counter products you can buy to help improve the atmosphere around camp. If you’re a real sweat machine, consider applying an antiperspirant before you don your socks. Those made especially for feet include Dr. Scholl’s Odor Destroyers Deodorant Spray and Tinactin Foot & Sneaker Deodorant (each can be sprayed into boots for extra protection). After giving the two products a try, my informal “the Nose Knows” research revealed that both work equally well, with neither outshining the other.

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