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Tea Tree Oil a Cure for Smelly Feet? Studies on Odor, Athletes Foot, and Toenail Fungus

The medical term for foot odor is bromodosis and it is a year-round problem caused by two things: sweat combined with bacteria, and the growth of fungus.

When feet sweat, moisture is trapped in shoes which gives rise to odor causing bacteria and create the perfect conditions in which fungus thrive.

Shoes are then stored in dark closets and under beds and unless the shoes are fully dried by the time they are worn again, bacteria and fungus continue to grow causing the shoes – and the feet – to smell.

Pregnant women and teenagers are most prone to foot odor because heightened hormones produce more sweat, but anyone can suffer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who work on their feet all day, who are stressed or anxious, or those who suffer from a condition called hyperhidrosis (increased sweat in the feet) are all prone to bouts of bromodosis.

In order to treat foot odor, the most common natural remedies include keeping feet – and shoes – dry with frequent changes of socks, adequate shoe-drying time, and foot baths.

But these treatments will not halt the growth of fungus. Warm, damp foot conditions can also promote conditions like athlete’s foot and fungal growth in the bed of the toenail.

For this type of foot odor, a more aggressive treatment is required.

Natural Treatment with Tea Tree Oil

The Aboriginal People of Australia have known about the medicinal benefits of tea trea oil for several millennia.

Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) has well documented antibacterial and astringent properties and is useful in treating a number of skin conditions including abrasions, insect bites, stings, and boils.

But can you treat foot odor with tea trea oil?

There is no well-designed scientific research confirming its effectiveness.  Small scale clinical studies have had positive results for treating athlete’s foot and nail fungus but whether it’s an effective cure for smelly feet remains unclear.

Tea tree oil is an excellent anti-fungal agent and clinical trials have demonstrated its effectiveness in treating both athlete’s foot and fungal nail infections.

Clinical research shows it is an effective cure for

  • Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis)
  • Fungus infections of the nails (onychomycosis)

100% solutions of tea tree oil are recommended here since lower concentrations don’t appear to be as effective as medications such as clotrimazole or terbinafine.

In one double-blind randomized trial published in the Journal of Family Practice, onychomycosis patients either received a twice daily application of 1% clotrimazole or a 100% solution of tea tree oil.

Onychomycosis is a nail condition caused by a fungus. After six months both groups were tested again and had similar rates of recovery. Three months later, they had similar rates of relapse.

In another study published in the journal Tropical Medicine & International Health, patients were given either a cream containing 2% butenafine hydrochloride and 5% Melaleuca alternifolia oil (tea tree oil) or a placebo.

After 16 weeks, 80% of patients treated with the cream were cured compared to none of the placebo patients.

“The chemicals in tea tree oil may kill bacteria and fungus, and reduce allergic skin reactions.” –WebMD

If The Shoe Fits, Clean It

While the science is looking quite favorable and evidence exists that you can treat foot odor with tea tree oil, there are some side-effects with it’s use, typically mild skin irritation.

Nor have the effects of tea tree oil been fully studied in pregnant women and children, so some caution with these groups is appropriate.

And it must be noted that an ounce of prevention goes a long way. Athlete’s foot is quite common in the warm, moist environs of gyms and swimming pools and proper foot hygiene is a must.

Wearing flip flops or other footwear in gyms and public swimming pools, keeping feet (and shoes) clean and dry, wearing the right socks, and replacing old footwear that may have been contaminated by a previous fungal infection are all good preventive strategies.

When it comes to curing smelly feet, I would opt for the more conventional yet proven effective method.

But if the worst happens and fungal infection such as athlete’s foot or a nasty toenail infection occurs?

Reach for the tea trea oil – it’s natural, and it works.