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Your smelly shoes: Kill the smell or ditch the kicks?

Although you may find it embarrassing, shoe odor is a very common issue with many possible causes. It happens to people who are physically active and to people who are not. It happens to those who are engaged with weight loss workouts and those who couldn’t be bothered doing anything at all. It happens to both women and men. Shoe odor can last for a short period of time or become a chronic problem. Whatever the case, there are solutions that often work. If there comes a point where the smell refuses to leave, well, it may be time to get a replacement pair! Let’s take a step forward into the facts of smelly feet and remedies to help.

Why do my shoes smell so bad?

pair of black, yellow and white sneakers
Barrett Ward/Unsplash

Smelly shoes come, of course, from smelly feet. So, what sorts of circumstances cause feet to stink? The most common reason has to do with bacteria. When your feet sweat, it breaks down bacteria in the pores of your skin inducing a terrible scent. Some describe it as a “cheesy” smell. Over time, this smell is absorbed into the fabric of your shoes. In extreme cases, mold can actually grow inside your shoes, making it quite difficult to remove the odor. If your shoes are wet for prolonged periods of time, this can cause some smelly problems, as well.

What can I do to reduce or eliminate shoe odor?

baking powder coming out of jar on its side

There are several favored methods to remedying shoe odor. Most common is the practice of putting baking soda in shoes. You simply sprinkle baking soda inside your shoe, very liberally, and let it sit for 8 to 10 hours — overnight, if possible. Then, in the morning, simply dump the powder out. The only exception to this is leather shoes, which may be dried out by baking soda.

You can also use citrus peels, such as lemon, lime, or even grapefruit. The acidity of citrus is known to fight odor. Essential oils with lemon or orange extract are worth trying, tool. Tea bags are another great solution, particularly minty herbal varieties. An added benefit of tea bags is their absorbing capabilities. If excessive moisture is present in your shoes, the tea bag trick may be just the thing. Dryer sheets may help with the odor in the short term. The good news is, there are many options to try before deciding it is time to toss those stinky kicks.

Are there preventative measures I can take?

Of course, you can always prevent shoe odor from taking over by practicing better shoe care. Always keep shoes dry, and wash your feet daily. Particularly with close-toe shoes, make sure that you keep them away from humidity. If moisture buildup is a challenge, you could try storing your shoes outside in the sunlight. With washable textiles, it is a good idea to clean your shoes thoroughly and regularly. You can also keep your shoes pristine by rotating them often. Not wearing the same pair every day is a helpful and hygienic practice.

When is it time to get rid of smelly shoes?

pair of black Converse sneakers hanging over telephone wire
Sides Imagery/Pexels

If you’ve done everything you can to prevent shoe odor, cover it up, or remove it altogether, and the smells are persisting, it may be time to purchase a new pair. But don’t stuff them in the trash just yet. Recycling is easy and a friendlier alternative. There are such things as shoe banks or shoe specific recycle bins that take the textiles of your shoes and reuse them in another product. You could donate them to your local shelter or thrift shop. Some sportswear companies even collect old shoes. There are many ways to relieve yourself of smelly footwear with minimal impact on the environment.

While you stop to smell the roses, stop and smell your shoes, as well. Foot odor is nothing to be embarrassed about as it is easily addressed. Make sure you are keeping your feet clean and dry before putting shoes on. Keep your shoes dry as well, rotating them as often as you can. If foot odor persists, try different cleansing and scented remedies with home-based products such as baking soda, tea bags, and dryer sheets. If all is said and done, and your shoes continue to smell less than great, don’t hesitate to replace them. You can recycle or donate them and refresh your wardrobe with a new pair.

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To wash or not to wash your shoes in the washing machine
The choice would greatly depend on the material your shoes are cut out from. That said, the first thing you ought to do is to check the care label.  Usually, sneakers, trainers, or shoes made of canvas, cotton, nylon, pleather, and polyester can go in for a gentle cycle or on the hand wash setting. On the other hand, boots and dressy pairs like those made with leather, suede, satin, silk, or those adorned with heels would be best handled with your own two hands.
Prepping your shoes for a wash
Shoes become smelly and grimy no matter the weather, and despite how careful you are. So before throwing it in the wash, you'd want to rub off as much dirt and debris as you can with a damp rag or an old toothbrush. You'll want to focus your attention on the sole since it's usually the part that gets the dirtiest. This is also the time where you'll want to take out your shoe's laces and soles if you're washing a pair of sneakers or something similar. A pro tip to freshen up the inside of your shoes is to scatter about three tablespoons of baking soda in each shoe and have that settle overnight. Dust it off the following morning by banging them together or against a surface before washing.
Balance out your load
Remember how we were told not to stomp our feet when we were little? Well, you can apply the same principle when cleaning your shoes in the washing machine. The trick is to cushion the blow with a few towels -- about four to six towels should be enough. And so as not to get your shoes entangled with anything, lose your laces. It would also be wise to pop them in a mesh bag, pillowcase, or any linen bag and to make sure it is sealed at the top. You can opt to tie it into a knot or use some rubber bands to do so.
Setting up your washing machine
Since you pre-cleaned your shoes already, putting your shoes on a delicate cycle should finish the job. They might not even need a spin cycle. A gentle tumble is all it takes. And since most kicks like trainers and slip-ons are bonded with glue, it is recommended to keep the temperature at 85 degrees or lower to prevent them from cracking or melting. This will also help keep the color of your shoes intact. Any mild detergent should do but liquid would be preferable. Just stay away from fabric softeners because they are harder to rinse off and any residue would draw more dirt once you use them. Putting it in for an extra rinse wouldn't hurt to be certain that it is free of any soap residue.
Leave it out to dry
Tossing your washed shoes in the dryer for a quick dry may be tempting but resist every urge to so as it may cause your shoes to warp and again risk the glue melting. Stretch your patience for another 24-hours and let them air dry. Stuffing your shoes with balled up newspaper not only speeds up the drying process by absorbing excess moisture but also allows your shoes to morph back into their original shape.

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