When you hop into the shower, certain body parts like your armpits and groin probably get the bulk of your attention. You might totally forget to wash your feet simply by biological design, even though their stink potential can be just as high as the aforementioned areas. But your feet are all the way at the bottom of your body, and they technically get wet and maybe even a little soapy when you bathe or shower…so, isn’t that enough? Actually, no, according to foot health experts. Here’s why.
You should wash your feet to cut down on their smell and to exfoliate.
Let’s start with hygiene 101. Regularly washing the skin on your feet—top, sides, and bottom—with soap and water is an easy way to stop them from smelling so much you can practically see the funk wafting from your toes.
“Your feet are covered with bacteria, just like the rest of your skin,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF. Said bacteria just so happen to cause foot odor and body odor in general. “Bacteria [like] to feed on waste products that come out of your sweat glands, and they produce odor as they build up,” Robert K. Lee, D.P.M., chief of podiatric foot and ankle surgery at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, tells SELF.
On a different note, there’s also the fact that vigorously washing your feet helps slough off dead skin cells. “The actual act of scrubbing or brushing (not just rinsing with water) helps to exfoliate your feet,” Dr. Lee says. Skipping this step can make you more prone to calluses, those hardened areas of skin that build up thanks to repeated friction, like the kind from walking around in shoes all day. That’s not a dire circumstance, as calluses usually don’t cause any tenderness or other real health issues, the Mayo Clinic explains. But washing your feet can prevent those rigid mounds of skin from building up as much in the first place and help to get rid of them after they do.
You should also wash your feet to avoid infections.
When you think of infections, body parts ranging from your ears to your vagina may come to mind. Don’t forget that your feet can be vulnerable to infections, too. That’s especially true if pathogens are allowed to fester on your foot skin and even more of a possibility if you do things like walk around gym locker rooms or public pools barefoot—or if you live with other people who use your shower.
Here are a few common infections that can wreak a bit of havoc on your feet:
A staph infection: This happens due to Staphylococcus bacteria, which exist naturally on your skin, according to the Mayo Clinic. But if this bacteria gets into your skin via a portal like a cut (even a tiny one you don’t notice), it can lead to an infection that may range from mild to much more serious. According to the Mayo Clinic, even a minor staph infection can lead to boils (unpleasant pockets of pus that pop up on hair follicles or oil glands) or painful rashes that can manifest as weepy blisters or red, painful swelling. Not great! Neither is the fact that you’ll need to see your doctor for antibiotics to treat a staph infection.
If you don’t wash your feet, we’re definitely not saying you’re setting yourself up for a staph infection as a consequence. It’s entirely possible that you’ve made it this far in life without ever washing your feet and have gotten by just fine. But it’s still a possibility worth keeping in mind.
Athlete’s foot: Athlete’s foot (or tinea pedis) is a common fungal infection that people tend to pick up when they walk barefoot in moist, public places, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). This is because damp, humid environments allow the fungus involved to thrive.
Athlete’s foot can cause a bunch of unpleasant symptoms like itchiness, a scaly rash, flaky skin, and cracking on the soles of your feet and between your toes, the Mayo Clinic says. It can even spread to your hands, nails, and groin area through your hands or a towel.
Luckily, antifungals can help to kick a case of athlete’s foot, the Mayo Clinic says. But you can do yourself a solid by wearing flip-flops when you walk around wet public places, washing your feet well when you shower, and thoroughly drying your feet afterward, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF.
If your feet tend to be sweatier than the average person’s, like if you have the excessive sweating condition hyperhidrosis, you’re at a higher-than-usual risk of developing athlete’s foot. If this describes you, Dr. Zeichner recommends washing your feet immediately after you work out or otherwise get your feet especially sweaty, just to be safe.
Plantar warts: These growths happen when human papillomavirus (HPV) enters your body through an opening in the skin on the bottom of your foot, the Mayo Clinic says. As with the culprit behind athlete’s foot, this virus tends to flourish in warm, moist areas.
Plantar warts are weird little bits of callused skin that typically grow on pressure-bearing parts of the foot like the heel. These growths are sometimes dotted with black spots, indicating clotted blood vessels. And instead of protruding, they actually grow inward, according to the Mayo Clinic. As you might guess, this can lead to a ton of tenderness when you’re walking or standing. It can feel like you have pebbles in your shoes even when you don’t, the AAD explains. Surely that would qualify as the 10th circle of hell?
Technically you can still pick up plantar warts (and these other foot issues) if you have good foot hygiene, but regularly washing your feet lowers the odds that pathogens will just be hanging out on your foot where they can potentially cause problems, Dr. Lee says. “The more regularly you’re washing your feet, the less likely that viruses, fungus, and bacteria are going to infect your skin,” he explains.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how often you should wash your feet, though.
It really depends on your lifestyle and habits. If you shower once a day or every couple of days and have never had any foot issues but still want to be cautious, add scrubbing your feet to your usual routine. But if you work out enough that your feet are constantly soaked in perspiration or tend to have super sweaty feet as a quirk of your biology, it might not be a bad idea to shower your feet with even more cleansing attention.