Grooming

How to Prevent Foot Odor When Going Sockless

prevent foot odor

You see it in magazines, on the street, and here on Iron & Tweed – going sockless in boat shoes, loafers, even sneakers.

Wearing your shoes sans socks during the warmer months is certainly a popular look, and for good reason.

It helps keep you cool, looks seasonally appropriate, and makes transitioning from sidewalk to sand much easier.

But how can you skip the socks without clearing a room when you take your shoes off?

I get asked about this every time someone realizes that I'm actually sockless and not wearing no-shows. So what's my secret?

Causes of foot odor when going sockless

How can we go sockless but prevent stinky feet?

To answer this question, I'm going to take the Tim Ferris approach and deconstruct the problem. To effectively combat foot odor, you need to know what causes it.

Bacteria causes foot odor

Our feet are covered in two types of bacteria, Brevibacterium Linens (B. linens) and Staphylococcus Epidermis. This naturally occurring bacteria is fine in normal amounts, but can become problematic when they proliferate.

When these bacteria feed, they produce gasses and acids. It's these byproducts that are responsible for the rotten egg/vinegary smell associated with foot odor.

To eliminate, or reduce, foot odor, we need to deprive these bacteria of the things they need to thrive.

Sweat causes foot odor

Our feet have a higher concentration of sweat glands than anywhere else on the body. The actual number is somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter to half a million.

The sweat itself is odorless, but when it isn't allowed to evaporate, it makes your shoes a moist and hospitable environment for the above-mentioned bacteria.

Dead skin causes foot odor

The bacteria B. linens feeds on dead skin and produces a gas that smells like rotten eggs or cabbage as a byproduct.

Confinement causes foot odor

When your feet are confined to shoes, the issues associated with the factors above get compounded further.

Shoes cause your feet to sweat more than usual, trap that perspiration against the skin, and prevent your dead skin cells from shedding normally.

This environment allows bacteria to flourish.

Steps to beat foot odor when going sockless

prevent foot odor sockless

Rather than jumping straight into prescription creams and powders, special insoles, and inconvenient nightly foot soaking routines, make sure you've covered the basics first.

Wash your feet

I know this should be obvious, but I've heard so many guys say “I'm already standing in soapy water so I don't need to wash my feet in the shower.” These are usually the same guys complaining of foot odor.

You should probably be washing your feet even if you don't have any real trouble with foot odor.

But if you do have trouble with foot odor, it's especially important that you make sure to wash them carefully and consider an antibacterial soap.

Why it works – Washing your feet thoroughly removes bacteria, their byproducts, dried sweat, and helps shed dead skin.

Exfoliate your feet

To take washing a step further, use a wash cloth, loofa, or brush to remove even more dead skin.

I don't recommend pumice stones because I think it's beneficial to have some callouses on one's feet. Personally, they help prevent blisters while wearing dress shoes and keep me from walking like a tender-foot at the beach.

The absolute best way I've found to remove dead skin from my feet is to rub them with my hands after a shower.

Since my hands and feet are both grippy from being cleaned with soap and the dead skin is soft, it just rolls right up. I make sure to get the tops, bottoms, and between my toes.

Try this and you'll be surprised by how much dead skin you can actually remove.

Why it works – Exfoliating your feet removes the bacteria's main food source, and thus prevents the smelly gas production.

Rotate your shoes

If you're wearing a pair of shoes for 8 to 12 hours a day, they're going to get sweaty. The sweat soaks into your shoes and takes a while to completely dry.

It's best to let your shoes air out for at least a day between wears, so having multiple pairs is a must.

Most guys who spend a significant amount money on good shoes will have a rotation of at least five pairs to prolong the life of their investments.

Using cedar shoe trees can help dry your shoes faster and more completely. They'll also make them smell great.

Why it works – Even if your feet are completely clean and dry in the morning, putting them back into yesterday's moist shoes means bacteria will have a head start on you.

Air your feet out during the day

If at any point during the day you have the opportunity to take off your shoes, like your lunch break, go for it.

If not, slipping your feet out partially at your desk is another great option.

If you can't do either of those, try wiggling your toes or walking around periodically. Anything you can do to get a cool breath of air into your shoes will help keep foot odor at bay.

Why it works – Odor-causing bacteria love warm, moist environments. Don't give it to them.

Wear the right shoes

Synthetic materials trap moisture against the skin and impede air circulation. Natural materials like canvas and leather draw moisture away from your skin and release it when you take them off.

Most of the shoes I wear sockless are leather inside, like my Sperry Top-Siders or my Florsheim loafers.

Why it works – The act of drawing moisture away from the surface of your skin helps deprive bacteria of their favorite climate.

Check your diet

There isn't any one specific food that will cause or cure foot odor, but an overall poor diet (excessive dairy, minimal plant foods, and tons of processed/fast food) can give your sweat a cheesy odor, regardless of hygiene.

For example, I'm not a stinky guy by nature, but I noticed a lingering, sweaty smell when I was on GOMAD (gallon of milk a day). I gained weight quickly as intended, but it wasn't worth it.

Why it works – Irrespective of bacteria, a poor diet causes the body to emit some funky odors. People who eat a relatively unrefined diet with plenty of fruits and veggies tend to have less body odor.

Use OTC products if necessary

If your feet sweat excessively, you can sprinkle a powder in your shoes. You can also try using medicated insoles or applying a cream directly to your feet.

While I haven't personally used these as they're unnecessary for me, I've heard good things about Gold Bond powder and Odor-Eaters insoles.

Why it works – Over-the-counter products contain time-tested ingredients to manage moisture, kill bacteria, and/or absorb odors.

Still not enough?

If you follow these steps and still have issues with foot odor, you may have just been dealt the stinky genetic card.

Some people sweat more than others, some have more oily skin, and others produce stronger body odor. And there may not be anything you can do about it.

However, if you're following all the good hygiene steps above (and your diet is consistently good) but you still have very strong foot odor, you should consider checking in with a doctor.

Pungent body odors can be an indicator of underlying health problems and you should get it checked out.

Final thoughts about socks

While I know this isn't the sexiest article, I hope it's inspired you to go sockless.

Wearing your shoes without socks doesn't have to be a recipe for smelly feet if you apply these few tips above.

So are you going sockless? I would love to hear sockless success stories from anyone who struggled with foot odor and is now in the clear!

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Brandon Ramlal
    July 11, 2015 at 4:29 am

    I learned a few things about body odor I didn’t know, thanks. I’ve had mild athletes foot seemingly forever and I never get rid of it completely. After reading this I’ll make it a priority. I know you don’t recommend pumice stones but I’ll add using a razor can provide the same effects. I (need to) use it because the bottoms of my feet look like slave feet from basketball and dress shoes.

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 11, 2015 at 2:09 pm

      What have you tried in terms of treating athletes foot? I don’t have anything to add there, so others reading may benefit from your experience.

  • Reply
    Tim
    July 12, 2015 at 3:52 am

    love going sock less, but am one of those guys who just sweats a lot, did try some powders and creams, effectiveness was marginal, one thing that has really worked for me is wearing the no-show socks, in addition to absorbing moisture, has really helped in extending the life of my shoes, am also a big fan of using cedar shoe trees, especially in shoes that you wear without socks. Hit your shoe trees up with some sandpaper every couple months, brings back that great cedar scent.

  • Reply
    Tate
    July 13, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Nate, for the last couple months I’ve been experimenting with baking soda as a deodorant and it DOMINATES everything else I’ve used. Eliminates odor for at least 24 hours, extremely low cost, no perfume smell, etc. Anyway I was thinking that baking soda could work well for your feet as well. Worth a shot at least.

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 13, 2015 at 11:23 pm

      Excellent tip!

      I’ve tried that as well and had great results. I used coconut oil (antibacterial properties) on my arm pits first and topped with a 50/50 mix of baking soda (absorb odor) and corn starch (absorbs moisture).

      The only reason I switched back to regular deodorant was to speed up my morning routine.

      • Reply
        vivien_noir
        May 11, 2016 at 3:34 pm

        Hey there, I’d like to add a thing to this: I did a whole lot of research on the topic of baking soda deodorant, DIY type. A lot of people get rashes and reoccurring skin problems when they use it in too high concentration or even pure, as it’s a very strong base, and our skin tends to be slightly acidic. Somewhere I read the concentration of baking soda in the mixture should by no means be above 2% (can’t find the source although I tried hard, sorry).
        If you don’t want to DIY, here’s my recommendation of the best deodorant I’ve ever used: Schmidt’s Deodorant. It comes in a jar and has a very pleasant, but also very light smell of cedarwood and therefore won’t clash with your perfume (https://www.schmidtsdeodorant.com/cedarwood-juniper-jar.html). It’s made with baking soda and shea butter, and I’ve never ever had a better one. They also come in sticks (and some more scents) now, I just noticed. I’ll stick to the jars, as I like their elegant and a bit old-school appearance in my bathroom.

        • Reply
          Nate
          May 12, 2016 at 9:24 am

          I know what you mean, Vivien. I’ve gotten a little too aggressive with “rubbing in” my DIY baking soda deodorant and it caused a very odd cold/burning sensation not to mention red pits for a day or two. I was using 50/50 baking soda and arrowroot powder so it seems my concentration was way off! Thanks for the tip and I’ll look into product you recommend. It was the process of applying these products by hand that led me away in the first place so the stick option sounds great.

  • Reply
    Brent Kraus
    July 14, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    I don’t even own socks. I just sprinkle a bit of Gold Bond in my shoes after I wear them.

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 14, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      Haha, when in Florida!

      That’s good to hear that it can be done exclusively. Is it common for people to completely go without socks in your area of the country?

  • Reply
    Grimm
    July 14, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Tea tree oil is fantastic at preventing and clearing up odors and with the added bonus of being anti-fungal. It can be a bit strong so go slow if applying directly to your skin.

    • Reply
      Nate
      July 14, 2015 at 6:46 pm

      I’m aware of the anti-fungal properties of tea tree oil, but never thought of using it for this purpose. Have you ever tried diluting it with another oil or do you only apply it directly to the skin?

      • Reply
        Grimm
        July 15, 2015 at 3:04 am

        I only apply it directly to my skin when I think there is an issue. I personally have never had any problem with a reaction but some may have more sensitive skin obviously. Personally, I like to splash it directly in my shoes after wearing them and leave them air out over night. You are also spot on with stealing clear of man-made materials when purchasing shoes.

        • Reply
          Grimm
          July 15, 2015 at 3:39 am

          I did not respond to your question about using it with other oils. Yes I have . I saw in one of your earlier responses you mentioned coconut oil, I use coconut oil for everything from cooking to oiling the seat and saddlebags of my motorcycle to skin care. The stuff is amazing. I have added tea tree oil to a small jar of coconut oil and used it exclusively as a foot balm. I like what you said about removing dead skin from the feet but definitely leave the callouses, they are there for a reason. I have done the same with coconut oil and some patchouli oil I found from by gone days, and used it as an overall skin moisturizer and hair tonic. Turned out fairly nice if you don’t mind patchouli (fucking hippies) but any essential oil works great.

          • Nate
            July 15, 2015 at 11:09 am

            Haha, patchouli does smell like hippies, but I like it. You’re right about the coconut oil having a million uses. I just purchased a new leather balm that uses it as one of three main ingredients.

        • Reply
          Nate
          July 15, 2015 at 11:07 am

          Yep, the man made materials point also applies to socks. Synthetic materials promote foot stink, but on the plus side, they’re better at preventing blisters than natural fibers. You basically have to pick the lesser of two evils.

          Hopefully someone else will benefit from your tea tree tips, I know it’s a very established method. Tea tree grooming products always smell super fresh.

  • Reply
    Mr Tusk
    July 15, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    I like using baby powder it feels nice……and washing my feet haha

  • Reply
    BM
    January 21, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Loafer liners work too.

  • Reply
    denise Anderman
    March 20, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    Hi Nate, a little late to comment on this post but check out inkblaat insoles. They were designed specifically to be worn without socks – machine wash/dry with 24 fun designs. I am co-founder and they were created with my teenager in mind who refused to wear sock and her sneakers/shoes smelled sooo bad. They prevent odor, absorb sweat, cushion and come in 3 sizes. http://www.inkblaat.com.

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 21, 2016 at 5:14 am

      No worries, Denise. With warm weather just around the corner I’ll be linking back to this article. I’ll check them out.

  • Reply
    CS
    June 14, 2016 at 12:40 am

    It really helps to wear all leather Sperry Top-Siders and not any type of boat shoe that has synthetic insoles or is lined with fabric. I’ve done the later and I had really a bad odor issue with them. Also, they made my feet sweat so much I had to stop at a drug store to purchase a pair of socks one day. As I sat down on the outside bench of the drug store to put the socks on, a lady was also putting on a pair of socks with her pair of non-leather lined boat shoes. It was a very humid day. I wear the all leather Sperry Top-Siders without socks without any issues.

    • Reply
      Nate
      June 14, 2016 at 5:24 am

      That’s the key right there! Every time I mention going sockless some guy always jumps to assumptions of stinky shoes. I think a lot of guys try to wear their synthetic lined sneakers without socks, get sweaty feet that one time, and swear it off for ever. I can even wear leather lined dress shoes for a full day without issue.

  • Reply
    Jason
    February 18, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    Last Summer, I went sockless for the first time. I loved it but it did hurt my feet at first. I wear black Chuck Taylors and I put mini moso natural air purifying bags in them every night because I am scared of them stinking. I didn’t have any odor problems at all and I used them daily all Summer.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 21, 2017 at 8:22 pm

      I’ll have to look into those bags. I’ve recently used cedar shoe trees from my dress shoes to put onto my sneakers or boat shoes if I wore them extended periods.

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