Foot Odor: Toxic Sock Syndrome

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

If you'd rather shake than spray, there are numerous types of foot powders on drugstore shelves that'll absorb excess moisture and help nip foot odor in the bacterial bud. For extra cushioning underfoot plus odor control, all for only a few bucks, try Dr. Scholl's Odor Destroyers Insoles. They are treated with an antimicrobial agent that inhibits stench.

Although impractical on the trail, you can make your own odor-killing concoction by adding 10 drops of lemon oil to 2 ounces of water, and then squeezing in the juice of one lemon. Wash your feet thoroughly with this brew.

Soaking in tea has also proven effective, since the tannic acid contained in tea is a great odor eliminator. Boil a few tea bags in a pint of water for about 15 minutes. Add the brew to 2 quarts of cool water. Soak for 30 minutes. And believe it or not, soaking your feet in vinegar will help keep away stink because its acidic qualities kill bacteria.

If your feet stink despite all efforts to stem the stench, or if they itch, you may have a more serious problem. According to Ross, persistent smell is sometimes caused by "a fungal growth, such as athlete's foot, which can lead to an infection if untreated."

The athlete's-foot fungus thrives on hot, sweaty skin; nowhere does skin stay hotter or sweatier than inside hiking boots. The most common places to acquire this highly contagious fungus is from the floor of a locker room (hence, the name) or public shower, but you can also pick it up from the soil outside your tent.

Athlete's foot starts with a mild scaling of the skin and progresses to burning pain and incessant itching-the kind that makes you want to scratch the hide off your toes. Your skin will eventually crack, blister, and stink. The inflammation starts on the bottoms of your feet and between the toes, then spreads up the sides and onto the tops of your feet.

Almost half the sufferers of athlete's foot claim the problem comes and goes for years. Ross says that's because people don't treat the condition correctly in the first place. She recommends that you:

  • Start treatment as soon as the first signs and symptoms appear.
  • Keep your feet as clean and dry as possible. (Author's note: If you're on the trail, this is your best treatment option. I was once on the Arizona Trail with a guy who had a sudden fungal outbreak. He caught it early enough, and as a result, frequent washing and air-drying cured what could have turned into an extremely uncomfortable situation.)
  • Apply an over-the-counter antifungal cream, lotion, or spray-Tinactin Antifungal or Lotrimin AF, for examples-twice a day.
  • Keep up the treatment for four weeks, even if you think you've got it whipped sooner. This is where most people slip up.
  • Briefly expose your feet to direct sunlight every day to curtail fungal growth.
  • If the itch and smell persist after four weeks of self-treatment, see a doctor.

If you follow these tips, you'll create an unfriendly environment inside your boots for any fungus. You'll also spare yourself the "agony of da feet" jokes you've heard a thousand times and have a happier tent life.