Itchy skin, cracked heels, red feet…athlete’s foot is more than just unsightly, it can be downright painful! When most folks spot an infection, they typically reach for antifungal medications. But in a cruel twist, the creams and powders meant to ease symptoms may cause the same itching and burning the infection does. And prescription varieties can be pricey, plus they require a trip to the doctor. The upside: When it comes to quashing fungus caused by athlete’s foot, garlic, baking soda and other home remedies can be handy helpers. Here, the best study-backed treatments you likely already have at home.
What is athlete’s foot?
Athlete’s foot is a skin infection also known as tinea pedis. It’s caused by a common form of fungus called dermatophyte fungus. And because it feeds off keratin from skin, nails and hair, your feet the perfect breeding ground for the infections. “It’s an opportunistic infection that affects 1 in 10 people, and this number is increasing,” says Suzanne Levine, DPM, RPT, PC, a foot surgeon at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. The fungus is commonly found on the soles of feet and between toes, where warmth and darkness create the perfect environment for it to grow. Symptoms of the infection include cracking or peeling skin, itching, burning and odor, says Dr. Levine, author of My Feet Are Killing Me! (Have a fungal infection on your toenails rather than your feet? Click through to see how to get rid of toenail fungus so that it never comes back.)
The top causes of athlete’s foot
There are a few ways people end up with a case of athlete’s foot. “An individual may be susceptible to an athlete’s foot infection if they tend to have excessively sweaty feet,” says Doug Tumen, DPM, FACFAS, a foot and ankle surgeon at Hudson Valley Foot Associates in New York. “Moisture combined with wearing shoes increases the temperature and provides an environment in which a fungus infection can proliferate.”
Another trigger: Walking barefoot in public spaces. Athlete’s foot is contagious, and coming in contact with the fungus can cause it to develop and spread on your own feet. Common places athlete’s foot may linger include locker rooms, hotels carpets, pool decks and public showers or those shared with other household members.
How to use garlic to clear up athlete’s foot
If you do develop an infection, look no further than your kitchen panty! Though it may seem counterproductive to rub something smelly on odorous athlete’s foot, garlic can help. It contains a compound called ajoene, which researchers in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found to be more effective than the antifungal medication terbinafine.
The garlic compound is tough on fungus but gentle on skin, making it an ideal daily treatment for athlete’s foot. To get the benefits, Dr. Levine recommends doing a fresh garlic foot soak. To do: Grind down 4 cloves of garlic and combine with ½ gallon of warm water in a large bowl or basin. Soak your feet twice daily for 15 minutes, then rinse and thoroughly dry. Repeat daily for a week. (Click through to to learn more health benefits of garlic.)
Tip: Worried about the additional odor from garlic lingering after you’re done? Sweep an old stainless-steel spoon over your feet for a few seconds after you dry them. The molecules in steel bind with sulfur molecules in garlic, whisking any last hints of odor away.
More home soaks that cure an infection
When it comes to athlete’s foot, garlic isn’t the only pantry staple that can clear up the fungus. These other study-backed home remedies can quash the infection.
1. Try a baking soda foot bath for athlete’s foot
To heal a mild case of athlete’s foot, baking soda may be effective at clearing the infection. And research in the journal Mycopathologia confirms that baking soda can kill 79% of the most potent varieties of foot fungus, including athlete’s foot. Dr. Levine suggests combining ½ cup baking soda with ½ gallon of warm water and soaking feet twice daily for at least 15 minutes. “This will help make the skin slightly more acidic, which is a more normal environment for healthy skin,” she explains.
2. Opt for a tea tree oil soak for athlete’s foot
Tea tree oil is one of the strongest natural antifungals, according to a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Credit goes to active ingredients called terpenes. These compounds are considered to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, notes Dr. Tumen, author of the book Ask The Foot Doctor. Multiple studies have confirmed its ability to banish athlete’s foot, including one in the Australasian Journal of Dermatology that found 64% of people cured their athlete’s foot infection when using a 25-50% tea tree oil solution. Use about 30 drops of the oil in a foot bath with warm water and soak you feet for 15 minutes. Or add 3-5 drops of tea tree to a carrier oil, like coconut oil, and massage the blend directly into the affected area. (Click through to see more benefits of tea tree oil for skin.)
3. Consider an oregano oil foot bath for athlete’s foot
“Oregano oil is another favorite of mine,” says Dr. Levine. Oregano oil’s power to fight athlete’s foot comes from its antifungal and antiseptic compounds. In fact, oregano oil is proven to tamp down fungi growth, even in dark, warm environments, according to research in the Brazilian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. To use, Dr. Levine recommends soaking your feet in an Epsom salt bath for 15 minutes, then apply the oil directly to skin. Epsom salt draws out moisture from the skin while oregano oil kills off the fungus the causes athlete’s foot. “The active ingredient is carvacrol, which has also shown efficacy as an antimicrobial agent,” says Dr. Tumen. If you experience burning or itching after applying oregano oil to skin, rinse thoroughly and try combining it with a carrier oil before applying to gently dilute it.
4. Whip up a bleach soak for athlete’s foot
When it comes to stubborn cases of athlete’s foot, bleach is particularly effective at disinfecting and killing fungus. But to get the benefits, you’ll need to take extra precautions. “The bleach, if not diluted sufficiently, can irritate the skin,” cautions Dr. Tumen. That means bleach can worsen athlete’s foot symptoms like itching and redness. Plus, it can weaken the skin barrier and make it easier for the infection to spread. That’s why Dr. Tumen recommends starting by adding just ½ cup of bleach to a full bathtub of water and stopping immediately if you experience irritation or discomfort. If you don’t experience any side effects, continue soaking feet for 10 minutes, then rinse well and pat dry. Tip: Check out the video below to see what other benefits you enjoy from a diluted bleach bath.
The simple steps that block future infections
Once your athlete’s foot infection has cleared, you’ll want to follow a few simple steps to ward off another one. “The key is to keep the skin dry,” says Dr. Levine. Ensuring socks are dry and fresh is one of the best ways to do so. If you notice your socks feel damp throughout the day, switch to a new pair. And considering opting for socks made from moisture wicking synthetic fabrics, like Peds Moisture Wicking Low Cut Socks (Buy from Amazon, $19).
The fungus can also live in your shoes, so airing out your footwear between wears is key. If you had an active infection and don’t want to risk it recurring from your shoes, Dr. Tumen suggests investing in a shoe sanitizer like SteriShoe (Buy from PediFix.com, $125). “At the end of the day, it may be helpful to spray shoes with Lysol or a similar antifungal agent,” adds Dr. Tumen.
Read on for more ways to fight common foot bothers:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.