Not to state the obvious, but smelly shoes start with your feet. "The odor in feet is caused by the sweat and moisture 'fermenting'—it's actually a byproduct and can be any combination of bacteria, fungus, mold, or yeast," says podiatrist Jacqueline Sutera, DPM, a member of the Vionic Innovation Lab. Cute! "These odor-causing germs thrive in dark, damp spaces, which makes your shoes an ideal environment. Feet that are not well ventilated can deposit moisture, sweat, and odor into the shoes which will become absorbed into the materials of the shoe from prolonged contact with feet." This explains why the colder months—when your feet are usually shoved into thick socks and non-ventilated shoes—can make the situation particularly smelly.
There are a few things you can do to avoid shoe stink from happening in the first place. Dr. Sutera suggests sprinkling your feet with powder or antiperspirant to help keep them dry, and wearing socks that are designed to help absorb moisture and sweat. "When you don't wear socks, there isn't any barrier and the material in your shoes so they end up absorbing the sweat, which in turn grows odor-causing bacteria," says Dr. Sutera. "Wear socks made of natural fibers, or that are infused with copper, which has antimicrobial properties." Leather shoes tend to be better than other materials (since they're easy to clean), and no matter what shoes you choose, be sure to alternate them every day and let them dry out thoroughly between wears.
Proper foot care can also help. Any time you wash your feet, you'll want to truly lather them with soap, and take special care to wash between your toes. "And dry in-between your toes!" says Dr. Sutera. "Putting socks and shoes on right after a shower without letting the skin properly dry creates a moist, dark environment, which is perfect for fungus, and bacteria to grow in." If your feet need a little extra love, try a black tea foot soak. "The tannic acid in the tea helps to prevent the feet from sweating and causing odor," says Dr. Sutera. All you need to do is brew two tea bags in a quart of water, let it cool, and soak your feet for 10 minutes every night for a week. "Once the problem is under control, soaking your feet once a week will keep the odor at bay."
If you're past the point of prevention and have already got some BO-infused boots on your hands, you'll want to get in there and kill the odor-causing germs. Dr. Sutera recommends using a sanitizing UV light, like Sterishoe ($100), or spraying them with Lysol. For a $0 solution, try putting them in a plastic bag and popping them in the freezer overnight. "The freezing temperature can kill most odor-causing bacteria," says Dr. Sutera. These fixes apply to boots, sneakers, flats—really, any of your go-to closed-toe footwear. Try them out for yourself, and you won't have to be worried about getting called out for your ripe-smelling shoes ever again.
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