There are more sweat glands in your two feet than anywhere else on your body. And when bacteria breaks down that sweat, it can stink. (That’s right — it’s not the bacteria itself that stinks.)
Because of all the sweat from your feet, which inevitably soaks into your shoes, stinky footwear is a rather common occurrence. While in some cases it’s a minor annoyance that really only impacts yourself, in others it’s a truly embarrassing matter — people can smell it if they’re simply sitting next to you on the subway, and if you take your shoes off around folks, the stink can bowl them over!
The amount you sweat and the pungency of your body odor is partially genetic, and if you’re on the more stinky end of things, you’ll just unfortunately have to do more to fight it (and prevent it).
Below you’ll find how to do just that. We start with a handful of tips focused on prevention, and then move into a number of mostly natural options you can try before you’re forced to throw your permanently putrid footwear in an incinerator.
Prevention (Foot + Shoe Care)
The first part of eliminating stinky shoes is preventing the problem before it can ever take root in the first place. Utilize the below tips to keep your feet and shoes stink-free.
1. Maintain a foot care routine. Stinky shoes start with stinky feet. Wash your feet every day, and no, letting the suds from washing your torso drip down to your feet doesn’t count; actually wash your dogs deliberately with a washcloth and soap. If your feet are really a problem, wash them even on days you might not shower. Also exfoliate with a pumice stone; the bottoms of your feet, especially at the heels, are obviously epicenters of the kind of calloused crevasses in which bacteria like to hide. Give your feet some antibacterial lotion after showering too.
Simply washing your feet each day can in many cases eliminate foot smell, and the stinky shoes that follow, altogether.
2. Treat athlete’s foot/fungus. Your feet stank may be caused not by bacteria, but by fungus. Athlete’s foot (a fungal infection) and toenail fungus are two manifestations of such, and while they’re not the same thing, they often appear together. While it’s not in the purview of this particular piece to go into treatments for these infections, there are a number of things you can do to curb these foot troubles, from over-the-counter powders/creams, to prescription treatments, and DIY remedies. Treating these toe and toenail problems will go a long way towards decreasing foot and shoe odor.
3. Rotate the shoes you wear. This is a tip you’ll often see when it comes to taking care of shoes and extending their lifespan, and it’s equally applicable for the sake of eliminating odor. Again, your feet sweat. A lot. When you wear the same shoes 8+ hours per day, for multiple days in a row, that footwear never has a chance to completely dry or air out. So you just keep adding moisture, and adding moisture, and adding moisture. Instead, give shoes a full day or two to air out and breathe a little. Didn’t know you needed an excuse to buy new shoes, did you?
4. Maintain a shoe care routine. In addition to rotating your shoes, be sure to clean them properly when you do wear them. After a long day, give them a quick sweep with an antibacterial wipe (or use the homemade spray mentioned below) as soon as you kick ‘em off, thereby beating bacteria before it takes hold. Wash the insoles on the regular (more on that below too). Give dirty shoes a wipe with a damp paper towel; dirt and grime can stink when broken down, just as sweat can. Using cedar shoe trees ensures effective air circulation, and absorbs some moisture as well. The bottom line: taking care of your shoes is a great way to keep them from stinking.
5. Wear sweat-sucking socks. There are a lot of socks out there these days that have sweat-wicking properties. Invest in them. No need to stick with the lame cotton whities that you get in bulk at Walmart. Whether it’s a low-cut performance sock or a heavy duty wool option, the socks you wear can make a big difference.
It should go without saying that going sockless in shoes is a recipe for stank. Sometimes though, like with boat shoes, you’re going to wear them sans socks. In those cases, just be especially sure that you’re washing your feet each day, that you’re giving your shoes an antibacterial wipe down at the end of the day (though not with leather, as the alcohol can dry out the material; instead use the homemade spray below), and that your shoes get ample airing between wears.
Okay, now that we know some things about prevention, let’s look at some tips for getting rid of the smell once it’s already infiltrated your shoes. Depending on the level of stink, it’s possible that a single option will do the trick, or you may need to utilize many of them.
1. Throw (some of) your shoes in the washer. Fabric and canvas shoes can usually be cleaned in a clothes washer. Either look at the tag or Google your particular brand/shoe. A gentle cycle with cool water is often what’s recommended. Drying in the dryer creates an annoying racket, and can damage the shoes, or the drum, so stuff them with balled up wads of newspaper (which you replace as they become saturated) and/or just leave them in the sun to dry, which also eliminates bacteria . . .
2. Take advantage of UV power! The sun’s UV rays naturally kill bacteria.(That's why sunlight can purify water). You don’t want to leave leather/suede shoes in direct, hot sunlight for extended periods of time, but they can handle it for an afternoon. And other materials are fine for whatever you want to do. Unlace, lift up the tongue as much as you can, and leave them be. It may not exterminate stink fully, but it’ll definitely eliminate some of it, and it’s obviously totally natural and free.
3. Use baking soda (or kitty litter). While you can buy a specially formulated powder (see below), there are a couple things you might already have in your home that could do the trick just as well. The classic is baking soda, which is universally known to absorb and neutralize odors. You can just toss powder directly into your shoe, but then you have to clean it out (if you don’t, it will clump into gritty sludge the next time you sweat in your shoes). The better option is to put some in a sock; the porousness allows the soda to still work and doesn’t make nearly as much of a mess. Kitty litter does the same thing if you happen to have some in the house. Just be careful employing these methods with leather/suede, as it can dry out those materials if used too much.
4. Use homemade spray. As with powder, there are dozens of foot and shoe sprays you can buy, but this homemade version is wayyy cheaper and far more natural. It’s especially useful for leather/suede shoes that can’t be thrown in the washer.
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 5 drops of tea tree oil
Mix it all up in a small spray bottle and you’re set. Spray it inside your shoes when they’ve become offensive. Also use it as a preventative action once you’ve taken your shoes off after a long day.
5. Put in dryer sheets overnight. Fabric softener sheets not only smell nice, but they also neutralize odors. That little sheet is actually a chemical-laden stink-stopping bomb. While they're not actually good for your clothing or dryers, they can work wonders in a stinky shoe. (In a dryer, the chemicals in the sheet are melting and spreading throughout the clothing; in a shoe, you don’t have to worry about that.) Ball one or two up and stick them in each shoe overnight.
6. Wash the insoles. Some insoles are machine-washable. Check the manufacturer website. Others need handwashing in either a soapy bucket or a water/vinegar mix. If you’re not sure or can’t find the info, go with the latter method. As alluded to above, washing them every 2-4 weeks can also be part of your ongoing maintenance routine.
7. For minor problems, try essential oils and/or citrus peels. If the smell of your shoes is more of a minor annoyance than a truly embarrassing problem, you can go with this easy route. You have some essential oils left over from that DIY beard oil, right? Put about 5 drops of tea tree, lemon, or lavender oil (those are my favorites at least) right into the shoe. It’ll help quite a bit with the smell — though it won’t kill all the bacteria. Citrus peels, which contain a lot of natural essential oils, can do the same thing. Stick a peel or two in the shoes overnight and see what happens.
8. Consider commercial powders/sprays/products. There are a bajillion products out there designed to kill foot/shoe stank. Most are kind of spendy, and tend to include all the same moisture-absorbing/antibacterial ingredients and also essential oils/fragrances to make them smell nice. These are sort of a one-stop shop if that’s how you want to go. But, you can save a lot of money and use less harsh chemicals with the other methods above.
For a chem-free but turnkey solution, we've found success with these StankStix — they absorb moisture and eliminate odors, and you just have to slide them into your shoes and let them sit.