Ask people to list their top three reasons for not getting pedicures and we bet that one of their answers is foot odor. Who wants to take off their shoes in front of someone they don’t know when their feet have been cooped up all day in a pair of too-tight shoes? Body odors, in general, are embarrassing and unacceptable in today’s world. While most body odors can be dealt with very easily by practicing good hygiene, foot odor is sometimes more difficult to control due to the nature of the problem.
Chances are if your feet are healthy, you probably don’t think about them very often. But take a step back and actually consider how important your feet are – for starters, they help you balance and they carry you from place to place.
According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, an average day of walking brings a force equal to several hundred tons to bear on the feet. And how about these facts and figures? The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, and 19 muscles. A quarter of all the bones in the human body actually reside in the feet. The average person takes 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, which adds up to about 115,000 miles over a lifetime – that’s the equivalent of four times around the earth. But the largest number of all is 250,000. That is the number of sweat glands in one pair of feet. There are more sweat glands per inch of your feet than anywhere else in the body, and they excrete as much as a half-pint of moisture a day.
Those Dogs Are Barking
OK, so we all know how embarrassing it is when someone else notices the rank odor emanating from our feet. Imagine how your clients must feel when they know that you are going to be working on those barking dogs. The better educated you are as a service provider, the better informed your clients can be.
Sweaty feet (hyperhidrosis) and smelly feet (bromohydrosis) are common – and annoying – conditions that usually occur together. The human foot by nature has normal bacteria and normal fungus present.
According to Dr. Robert Blaine, a podiatrist and owner of Blaine Labs in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., and AB Foot and Ankle Care Center in Artesia, Calif., shoes are the main factor of increased bacterial and fungal levels on feet. “Fungus has an odor, but it is not foul like the smell of bacteria,” he says. “When your feet smell, what you are smelling is increased levels of bacteria.
“If you provide an environment that is warm and moist, you are creating environment where normal levels of bacteria and fungus will be increased,” says Dr. Blaine. “And when the levels of bacteria increase, the byproduct is a scent that is less than optimal – even foul.” The warm moist environment that is created inside a pair of shoes promotes that growth of bacteria on the feet. “The inside of your shoes is a fantastic environment for bacteria to grow. You can have a clean, wonderfully scented foot and if you put it into your shoe that is an existing reservoir of bacteria, fungus, and yeast, you are going to have smelly feet. People who are barefoot all day don’t have smelly feet.”
We all sweat. Our bodies are designed to produce sweat as a thermoregulation tool for our bodies – simply put, sweating reduces body temperature. “Dogs pant to reduce their body temperature because they don’t have as many sweat glands,” notes Dr. Blaine.
Some people are more prone to sweat because of their genetics, but many people sweat because of environmental factors such as heat, too much caffeine, and stress. “Type A and nervous people tend to sweat a lot, which will lead to foot odor,” says Dr. Blaine. “And people who drink a lot of caffeine do as well.”
Wash Your Feet
To solve the problem of foul odor, there are a number of steps that can be taken to help alleviate the problem. It is important to remember that while you are making recommendations to you clients, they ultimately should check with their medical providers if their odor problem is extreme.
In rare cases, smelly feet can be a symptom of a more serious, systematic problem, such as anemia (low iron) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Dr. Blaine stresses that nail techs and pedicurists are in the perfect position to notice if something smells so rancid or has a weird odor that they need to recommend their clients see a doctor.
But for the most part, the condition known as stinky feet can be “cured” with basic good hygiene. Washing and scrubbing the feet with an antibacterial soap all over, especially in between the toes, is the first step to ridding yourself of any unpleasant odors. After you have washed them, make sure to dry them completely – a hair dryer can be used to ensure that there is no moisture remaining.
“If the foot odor is mild to moderate, it is important to remember to change your socks often and don’t wear any socks that have any nylon in them,” says Dr. Blaine. Cotton or wool socks or a blend of the two are the most moisture absorbing.
When selecting shoes, it is important to make sure that you choose a pair of shoes that “breathe.” Leather is a very breathable material. “Another key thing that people don’t realize is not to wear shoes with a dark inner lining. Dark colors attract and retain heat, which makes your feet sweat more,” he adds. “Even people who wear black flip flops have stinky feet if the part where your foot rests is black because it attracts heat.”
For people with a more moderate foot odor problem, there are a variety of home remedies that you can recommend to your clients with skunky feet. “You can recommend that your clients soak their feet in black tea,” says Dr. Blaine. (For further instructions, see page 110.) Black tea contains tannic acid, which is a natural astringent. “It squeezes sweat out of the glands and completely dries them out.” The only side effect of the black tea remedy is a stained foot – but that’s better than a foul foot, right?
Another at-home treatment to combat odor is the application of underarm deodorant to the soles of the feet. This is another example of reducing odor by decreasing the production of sweat.
If the smells coming from your feet are too extreme, you may need to see a doctor. There are a number of things a doctor can recommend or prescribe, including Drysol, topical antibiotics, or electrical current therapy (drionics).
“In my office we actually use a product called Formylin, which contains a very low concentration of formaldehyde,” says Dr. Blaine. “The formaldehyde dries out the feet. I don’t recommend that patients use it for more than five nights in row though, because it could cause the feet to dry out too much and begin to crack.”
There have been extreme cases of foot odor where surgery is necessary and a nerve is cut in the lower back to permanently stop the production of sweat in the feet, but this can be extremely dangerous and is not usually recommended.
All in all, the average person with a foot odor problem can greatly reduce the amount of bacteria present on the foot – and therefore the stenchy smell – by following a regimen of good hygiene.
Urge your clients to follow the steps below and hopefully it will help clear the air about foot odor.
A More Pleasant Odor
While daily hygiene is essential to getting rid of any unpleasant odors, it doesn’t always cure foot odor completely. There are a number of other things that you can suggest to your clients to help eliminate some of the bacteria. Here are some healthy tips for you to pass along to your clients, as well as practice yourself:
Scrub your feet thoroughly when bathing. Using an antibacterial soap will help eliminate the source of the odor. Be sure to scrub your entire foot – and in between your toes.
After rinsing, dry your feet immediately with a coarse towel. A blow dryer may also help. (Don’t forget to dry between your toes!)
If your feet sweat excessively, you can apply an underarm antiperspirant. The aluminum chlorhydrate found in many over-the-counter deodorants helps to decrease moisture. Spray formulas are generally easiest to apply.
Wear cotton socks or socks made of other absorbent materials and change them frequently. If your feet perspire a lot, you may want to bring a charge of socks with you to work for the middle of the day. (Make sure you wear socks whenever you wear closed shoes.)
Wear shoes that “breathe,” or ventilate well. Leather is usually a good bet.
Change your shoes daily. Shoes typically need 24 hours (or more) to air out. Allowing them to dry out overnight usually doesn’t do the trick, alternate your footwear.
Sprinkle talcum or foot powder into the toes of your socks to help keep your feet dry and discourage the growth of bacteria.
Expose your feet to fresh air as often as possible.
If you are still experiencing foul odor, try soaking your feet daily in black tea. Containing tannic acid, black tea can have a deodorizing effect on your feet, temporarily making the sweat glands shut down. You can do this by brewing two tea bags in boiling water for 15 minutes. Add this to two quarts of cool water and soak your feet to 20 to 30minutes.
If practicing the above regime still has not successfully decreased or eliminated foot odor within a few weeks, you may need to see a doctor who can offer stronger prescriptions to conquer the odor. Aluminum chloride hexahydrate 20% solution, also known as Drysol can be prescribed and is applied to the feet overnight.
Doctors can also prescribe antibiotics for patients with extreme foot odor. Erythromycin 2% or Clindamycin 1% solutions are effective in killing most odor-causing bacteria when applied to otherwise healthy feet. An alternative to these antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide 5% or 10% gel, can be applied to the feet, and it is available over-the-counter. (Note: benzoyl peroxide may bleach colored fabrics.)
Doctors can perform lontophoresis, or electrode therapy, where feet are immersed in a pan of water and a small electric current is passed through the skin, which can temporarily diminish perspiration.
*List compiled from “Foot Odor: How to Clean the Air,” by Michael L. Ramsey, MD, an associate in the Department of Dermatology at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa.