When you come home after a long day at work, of course, you look forward to kicking back, taking off your shoes, and getting ready for a long, relaxing night in. However, you probably weren’t expecting the strong whiff of a familiar food that took over your nose the moment that you took off your socks.
The first thing you probably wanted to do is jump right in the shower to get that smell off as quickly as possible. While the smell of fresh popcorn might be nice in your kitchen, it isn’t necessarily something you want coming off of your feet.
However, in all actuality, when you ask yourself, “Why do my feet smell like popcorn?” you may find yourself surprised by the answer as it isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. Feet take on all kinds of strange odors, and you see people complaining that their feet smell like:
- dead animal
- corn chips
Some of this is normal, and some of this is not. Here’s the basics you need to know about your natural foot odors and what you can do to deal with it if need be.
Bacteria Cause Your Foot Odor, But That Doesn’t Mean They Are Bad.
Believe it or not, your foot is home to a few very stubborn and resilient bacteria that have grown accustomed to the challenges of living on the human foot. However, you don’t need to start worrying quite yet. Most all of the bacterias that will inhabit your feet at one point or another are actually friendly and can even help keep your feet healthy and feeling great.
Really, the human foot is a perfect environment for these organisms. They are kept warm and moist throughout the day and also provide them with a never-ending abundance of nutrients in the form of all your dead skin cells.
In fact, at any given point in time, you probably have hundreds of millions of bacterial cells living the good life on your feet. Luckily, this relationship is incredibly codependent.
How exactly does bacteria cause my foot odor?
As discussed above, bacteria (and other critters, like fungi) live on your foot. When you wear shoes, socks, or otherwise enclose your foot in something, your foot will probably get warm. If it gets too warm, your foot starts to sweat. If the enclosure (sock and/or shoe) doesn’t have any holes, or the fabric/material doesn’t allow any sort of air circulation, the moisture from the sweat get trapped. This warm and moist environment you’ve created in your shoe is the idea place for those bacteria already living on your foot to thrive, grow, and reproduce.
When your foot gets sweaty, the bacteria start reproducing like crazy.
But it is not the bacteria that smell. Bacteria eat the dead skin cells and oils on your skin. Their little bacteria bodies process that food and then they excrete waste products. It is the waste products that cause the smells you don’t like.
So when you get sweaty, the bacteria get active, maybe more active than usual. There are more bacteria eating your dead skin, and consequently there are more bacteria pooping out the chemicals that make your feet and shoes smelly.
Bacterial Benefits: There Are Upsides, Too.
While these bacteria go about their business, they simultaneously release a tremendous amount of natural oils and enzymes that are necessary to keep skin soft and healthy, and that will also break down all the dead skin cells that can collect on your feet over time. Getting rid of this dead skin is incredibly important because it will help to protect against dry and flaky areas turning into calluses and other more serious concerns.
To get rid of dead skin on my feet, I like to use these affordable Pumice Sponges. It’s never that comfortable to scrub the bottoms of your feet and around your toes, but I like how the sponge gets around the curves and angles in a way that the pumice stones do not.
(Disclosure: The links to products in this post are Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Another massive benefit that these microorganisms provide is protection from other, more destructive forms of bacteria. This friendly bacteria will actually create a barrier around your feet that will ward off microbial pathogens that can cause infections and disease.
They do this by producing quite a few antimicrobial peptides which are almost like a natural form of antibiotics and these peptides seek out and destroy all the dangerous microbes looking to take over your feet. Your bacteria are quite happy living in their home and they’re not about to let anyone else come in and take over, which is great news for you.
A Natural and Familiar Odor
While these microorganisms are working hard to keep our feet healthy, there’s a strong likelihood that they’ll end up producing a familiar smell along the way. In fact, sometimes the smell is the only way for us to tell that they’re even there.
Generally speaking, since these bacteria have been with you basically since birth, whatever smell they end up producing will most likely seem incredibly familiar to you. This is a smell that you’ve dealt with most of your life, even if it isn’t the most pleasant aroma in the world.
You may also associate this smell with more known scents such as cheese, corn chips, and yes, even popcorn. However, it’s when things start smelling a little bit off or like grapes that you should start getting concerned.
Strong Smells Can Be a Sign of Bad Bacteria
If you start noticing that the popcorn smell has suddenly turned into more of a grape or yeast-like scent, now would be the time to start worrying. Fungal infections, which can be devastating to your foot health, can often result in a more acrid smell which is most likely because, unlike our friendly bacteria, these fungal invaders are looking for fresh meat to feed them.
These infections can eventually result in rashes, sores, cracks in your skin, and even much larger wounds depending on how long they thrive for. Being aware of your own foot smell and making sure you take the proper steps to keep these types of bacterias from taking over will be essential.
Find the right medical professional to help you address your concerns the moment you start to notice any smelly changes so that you can get things taken care of quickly.
How to Deal with Popcorn Smelling Feet
While your foot health might depend on these natural bacterias living their lives, you don’t necessarily want to put up with that overwhelming smell every time you take off your shoes. Luckily, there are certain steps you can take that will help you combat foul odors while still keeping your natural bacteria happy and healthy.
Wash Your Feet Regularly
The first thing you need to do is to make sure that you clean your feet regularly, to make sure that you don’t have an abundance of bacteria on your feet. You can wash your feet with antibacterial soap if you like, but I think it is just best to wash your feet with your regular soap, even between the toes. But here is an important step – let your feet dry completely if you can before shoving them into sock and shoes, so that you don’t immediately create that moist and happy environment for bacteria.
Let Your Shoes Dry Out Completely
Next, you’ll want to make sure that your shoes have a chance to completely dry out before you wear them. If you are shoving your feet into shoes that are damp in any way, you’ll again foster that environment that bacteria love. If your shoes don’t always dry out, try adding another pair of shoes to your wardrobe so that you can let those wet shoes completely dry out before you don them again.
Try Changing to Shoes and Socks Which Let Your Feet Breathe
And while we are talking about shoes, think about the environment that bacteria thrive in – a place warm and moist. Can you avoid creating that happy place by wearing confining shoes and socks less? Can you switch things up and wear flip flops, sandals, or loose fitting shoes? Can you wear shoes with fabrics that breathe, or perhaps socks that are made with moisture-wicking materials?
Or perhaps spend your time at home with bare feet rather than with shoes and socks?
If you can’t wear different shoes, then try changing your socks more regularly during the day. If you work out during the day then head back to work or class wearing the same shoes, make sure you put on a pair of clean and dry socks. Or just make a habit of putting on clean and dry socks every day at lunchtime.
Simple Products Can Help With Moisture and Smell
If you can’t change up your shoes, one of the next things you can try is to add a bit of talcum powder or charcoal inner soles (Amazon links) to your shoes. These products will actually absorb some of the sweat that your feet generate when confined, which can make it harder for the bacteria to be happy and active. These products can also suck up the not so great smelling chemicals produced by your bacteria which will result in significantly less odor.
There are many other foot smell type products such as medicated insoles, foot deodorant/antiperspirant, and sprays for your shoes that you can try.
If you’re finding yourself put off by the way your feet smell even when you’re laying around at home, then you might want to try investing in something like limonene or citral, which are naturally derived and can help you combat this more serious odor by shifting the chemical reaction in the bacteria and stopping isovaleric acid from being produced in the first place. Most pharmacies will carry these products so you should be able to find them fairly easily.
Soaking Your Feet to Kill Bacteria
Some folks recommend doing more to try and kill the abundance of bacteria living on your feet by soaking your feet in vinegar, epsom salt, or even listerine. I wouldn’t use straight vinegar or listerine. Instead, I’d recommend no more than a 50-50 warm water to vinegar mixture. As a side benefit, you’ll notice that a good scrub after the soak will take off a lot of your old dead skin, and help address calluses and cracks.
You can also try soaking your smelly socks or shoes in vinegar in order to make sure that the bacteria living there are dead and gone.
Try Essential Oils
You can try using essential oils to battle the bacteria and/or the smell. There are many oils which have antibacterial properties, such as thyme, peppermint, tea tree, cedarwood, and lavender. You can put the oil on your feet, or in your shoes. It’ll be up to you to determine how strong/concentrated you want the oil to be if you put it in your shoes, as the major downside (or upside as you see it) is that the oil may be rather pungent.
Some people find that their skin is sensitive to undiluted oil, even if they aren’t allergic to them. Make sure to try the oils in your shoes or on your feet in a diluted form before you ramp up the concentration to avoid irritating your skin.
Improve Your Lifestyle
People disagree as to the importance of eating healthy and reducing stress to the resolution of foot odor. Just know that there are folks out there who believe that foot odor can be caused by poor diet and stress. If your foot problems can’t be resolved as discussed above, then you may want to consider addressing diet and stress as a source.
If All Else Fails, Seek Medical Attention
If you have tried everything in this article and nothing seems to put a dent in the smell coming from your feet, seek the opinion of your doctor. There are prescription level medications and sprays which can assist you to prevent the happy moist environment from occurring, and to keep the bacteria under control.
Dealing with off-putting odors on your feet can be extremely upsetting, especially when you aren’t sure why they could possibly smell that way in the first place. Just remember, in the end, dealing with foot odor is about keeping your feet from developing the moist and warm environment that bacteria love.
If you can keep your feet cool and dry, there you’ll never struggle with foot odor.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.