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
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.
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.
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.