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Tips to Overcome Bad Foot Odor

Taking zinc, applying milk of magnesia or soaking the feet in Epsom salts, Listerine or vinegar in water can help with bad foot odor.

Americans are quite concerned about body odor. We complain bitterly about people in other countries who are not as compulsive about applying deodorants and antiperspirants as we are. But perhaps we should pay more attention to bad foot odor.

Simple Solution for Stinky Feet:

Q. Years ago, I read in your column that magnesium hydroxide (milk of magnesia) works as an underarm deodorant when applied topically. This year, my daughter came home from summer camp with a bad foot odor she’d never had before. I rubbed some milk of magnesia on her feet before bed a few nights, and it took care of the problem.

A. Thank you for sharing this intriguing story.

Seventeen years ago, we received this message from a reader:

“I want to share a remedy I learned about when traveling in Brazil. Just apply milk of magnesia to your armpits. It is the best underarm deodorant!”

We tried this approach ourselves on our underarms and found that it was surprisingly effective against body odor. We have not found any research to explain why magnesium hydroxide, an ingredient in some antacids and liquid laxatives, would control unpleasant smells. One possibility is that changing the pH of the skin alters bacterial balance and discourages odor. This seems to apply to feet as well as to underarms.

When Do You Think About Smelly Feet?

Although we go to great lengths to avoid armpit odor, we rarely think twice about stinky feet. We assume that no one can smell our tootsies as long as they are covered up, but if we take off our shoes, watch out! We even heard from one reader whose wife barred him from the bedroom because of his bad foot odor.

Other readers have related serious foot odor problems, like this woman:

“Years ago my stepson (age 15) had such stinky feet even he couldn’t stand them. I had seen him so exasperated he poured diluted bleach on them to try to get rid of the odor–to no avail.

“His aunt came to visit her sister and they were talking when the boy came home. His mom said, ‘Don’t take those shoes off in here!’ To which his aunt said, ‘What’s the matter?’ His mom explained we couldn’t stand the odor.

“His aunt said, ‘Don’t you remember the old rhyme: zinc for stink? That will do it.”

“We bought a small bottle of zinc. A whole tablet made him sick to his stomach, so we cut them in half. He took half a tablet a day, and in a month there was no more stink.”

Home Remedies for Bad Foot Odor:

Rubbing Alcohol:

Some readers have shared their own favorite remedies.

One woman wrote:

“I spray 91 percent [isopropyl] alcohol on my feet every morning before I put on my shoes. It took several weeks for the odor to be completely eliminated but I have used it for years to keep odor away. My husband sprays his underarms, lets the alcohol dry and then applies deodorant.”

Milk of Magnesia:

Another woman tried a different solution:

“I have found using milk of magnesia on the feet works wonders on foot odor. I have eaten a whole-food plant-based vegan diet for decades with wonderful benefits for my health and appearance. But wearing shoes made of ‘pleather’ caused a problem I had never experienced before-foot odor!

“Nothing I tried helped the situation. When I first heard of using milk of magnesia as a deodorant, I thought it might also help with the foot odor. It did! I have been using it for years.”

Using an antiperspirant on the feet can reduce the sweat that feeds the odor-causing bacteria. (You can read comments on that here and here.)

Foot Soaks:

We don’t like the idea of putting strong aluminum salts on porous skin like the soles of the feet, though. Foot soaks to discourage athlete’s foot fungi such as water with vinegar, baking soda, Epsom salts, hydrogen peroxide or Listerine often seem to diminish unpleasant foot odor as well.

Here’s one reader’s testimony about using Listerine to combat their smelly feet:

“I’ve had success with Listerine for smelly feet. If it kills germs that cause bad breath, it might k.o. germs that cause stinky feet. I applied Listerine to clean feet and wiped out the insides of my shoes as well. At the end of the day, both feet and shoes are odor free.”

The herbal extracts and alcohol in Listerine are versatile for battling fungi and bacteria that can cause odor or itch.

Another possible remedy to consider is tannic acid. Fluffy tannic acid is an old-fashioned remedy that can be dissolved in water to be used as a foot soak.

If tannic acid is unavailable, people could soak their smelly feet in very strong black tea. Tea, after all, is rich in tannic acid. Using such a soak several times may get rid of the odor, possibly because it reduces sweating.

Learn More:

Allowing shoes and feet to dry out can help control bad foot odor. Alternating shoes daily and wearing absorbent cotton socks may also work. So can sandals that allow the feet to air out. We have several other recommendations in our free Guide to Solutions for Smelly Feet.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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