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March 22, 2004 | by  | in Opinion |
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Health

The other day, someone I know, Red, took off his shoes in public. Not that going commando foot style is a bad thing – I love going bare foot and running around on grass, one of the best things in the world. However the bacteria that called Red home were just plain out of control. This caused a delightful smell to emanate from his freshly released feet. Consequently, after much encouragement, Red put his shoes and socks back on and the smell dissipated.

It got me thinking about bacteria, and the industry that has sprung up around them pertaining to human health and personal hygiene. Where would GlaxoSmithKlein be if we had no bacteria living on the skin covering our underarms? If at some point our happy little colonies of Staphylococci spp. (amongst others) weren’t deemed to be offensive to the nose?

That would be a lot of money down the proverbial gurgler wouldn’t it? Think of all the deodorants, after shaves, antiperspirants and perfumes that wouldn’t be made, and all the foot care products that try and counter Red’s odiferous problem.

But what causes the smell? Why is it that if we wear antiperspirant we don’t smell until it wears off? Or that spray deodorant covers the smell, but if we are really stinky you just get a worse ‘trying to cover my body odour by excessive amounts of spray’ smell and, really, why does Gran’s remedy work when other foot care products fail?

It all comes down to knowing a bit about our skin. Our skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis, which guard against the invading hordes of pathogenic microbes that our bodies come in contact with each day.

The outermost layer – the epidermis, is colonised by a raft of commensal bacteria, that is, bacteria that generally don’t cause harm to the host. These bacteria eke out an existence on our skin, doing a little quid-pro-quo – well, most of the time. They make it hard for other bacteria to get a foot in the door, which is great for us – just think of all the extra pimples, pustules, boils and other infections we might have if it weren’t for them.

Our half of the bargain is fulfilled by our sebaceous (oil producing) and sweat glands. These glands produce the goodies that bacteria live for. To them, it tastes as good as medium rare steak and they hoe into it with just as much glee. Therein lies the problem – as they metabolise the sweat and oils they give off an odour particular to that colony and to that host. It is this odour that our rarefied nostrils find so hard to live with and we swathe ourselves in layer after layer of agreeable smells.

If we use antiperspirants, it stands to reason that there would be no sweat being excreted for that colony to metabolise and therefore very little odour being produced. That odour is covered by the perfume added to the antiperspirant. Spray deodorants contain at least some of the following: Alcohol, butane, propane and a fragrance, all of which will kill off the bacteria they reach and leave you odour free (assuming you were liberal and thorough in your spraying); that is, until the colony multiplies to its original levels and you are back to where you started. If you didn’t actually spray your underarm area, just spraying it down your shirt doesn’t fix it; it may work temporarily but the underlying cause is still there, eventually you will go back to being smelly.

Feet are a little different to underarms. Our feet run on essentially the same mechanism as I have explained; you sweat, the bacteria metabolize; badabing, badaboom you have smelly feet – intensified by regular use of shoes and socks. When you use a powder such as Gran’s Remedy for seven days you are bound to get all the little bacteria who tried to escape the dousing during the first six days, which is why it works so effectively.

Sometimes it isn’t bacteria that cause our feet to be a bit smelly, it can be opportunistic fungi, which also enjoy the moist sweaty environment of the enclosed shoe.

Fungi, Tinea pedis in particular, love nothing better than to invade the skin between your toes, causing cracking and peeling. They then invite the bacteria to come and play and the next thing you know, you have itchy, soggy areas between your toes and the fun’s all on.

If you have athlete’s foot, you need to go see a chemist and get an antifungal cream, which will clear it up in a jiffy. Hint: get new shoes to prevent reinfection after you get rid of the fungal infection if you don’t wear socks; if you do wear socks, wash your socks thorough in really hot water.

So the next time you take off your tightly laced docs or smelly sandals that just seem to soak up all that lovely sweat on a hot day, spare a thought for all the hard working bacteria that live generally in harmony with you, before you liberally douse your feet with antibacterial soap or powder.

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