If you've ever had athlete's foot, you know just how irritating the itchy, burning, and peeling sensation of this pesky fungal infection can be. You don't have to be a workout maven to contract athlete's foot; 20 to 25% of the world's population has experienced it at some point. It's highly contagious and, if left untreated, can cause nasty cracking on the skin of your feet that can spread all the way up the heel. But not to worry: you can get rid of athlete's foot with the right over-the-counter products, as well as a few lifestyle modifications.
Ahead, a leading dermatologist and celebrity medical pedicurist offer tips on how to treat athlete's foot at home, and when it's time to see a doctor.
Meet the Expert
- Marcela Correa is a medical pedicurist and owner of Medi Pedi NYC.
- Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery, as well as an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell-New York Presbyterian Medical Center.
What is Athlete's Foot?
Athlete's foot refers to a condition known as tinea pedis, a superficial fungal infection which can cause scaling, flaking, and plaques on the soles, according to Garshick. It is caused by a type of fungus known as a dermatophyte.
Keep Your Feet Dry
There's actually more than one type of athlete's foot, according to Correa. You may have experienced moccasin type infection. "A clear way to tell if it's Moccasin, is if the fungus covers the bottom of your foot," she says. The rash can spread to heels and up the side of your foot in this variety as well. You can also experience interdigital athlete's foot, which is when there's peeling and cracking skin between your toes. "Your toenails may also get thick and crumbly and, in severe cases, may even fall off."
The first line of defense in treating both types is to keep feet dry. Correa notes: "This fungus thrives off of warm and damp environments making it multiply and spread quickly." Therefore, Garshick advises, "It is important to avoid prolonged moisture on the feet. If you find your socks get damp easily, make sure to change them regularly, and wear cotton socks to absorb moisture."
Make sure to dry your feet thoroughly after a shower or bath, including the area in between your toes.
Use a Shoe Sterilizer
Wearing fresh socks daily, as well as keeping your shoes clean, is vital to preventing and treating athlete's foot. "Most people don't realize bacteria buildup happens inside the shoes," says Correa. "Our feet sweat just like our bodies, and dark, damp shoes are perfect to house the fungus-causing bacteria." Garshick adds that occlusive shoes provide damp conditions that allow dermatophyte fungus to thrive.
One solution might be to use an ultraviolet light shoe sterilizer to clear shoes of bacteria. Garshick suggests alternating shoes, which can help allow them to air dry between use.
Treat With an Anti-fungal Cream
One solution to relieve the symptoms of athlete's foot is a medicated cream. "In general, anti-fungal creams are often best to treat the fungus as they are likely to penetrate the best," says Garshick. She recommends one with clotrimazole, an anti-fungal. "It helps to relieve the itching, burning, cracking, and scaling that can occur with athlete's foot," she says. She also likes it because it spreads easily, and can be applied twice daily.
Try a Medicated Foot Spray for Relief
Garshick is a fan of Arm & Hammer's medicated foot spray to treat athlete's foot in between the toes and on the feet. "It uses tolnaftate to help prevent and provide relief for symptoms that may be associated with athlete's foot such as itching and burning," she says. "It also contains shea butter to soothe the dry, cracked skin." Use twice daily. Spray is favored for its ease of application.
Use a Powder to Absorb Excess Moisture
A medicated powder is a great treatment for athlete's foot because, as Garshick advises, it can absorb excess moisture, while also treating the fungus with miconazole. Apply to the affected area twice daily. "Powders and sprays can also be helpful for shoes, which can be a source of reinfection," she says.
Soften Scaling With a Repair Cream
If the skin is hyperkeratotic, which according to Garshick means it's thick and scaly, "it can be helpful to use something to soften the scaling." She recommends using a keratolytic with salicylic acid or urea, such as Kerasal or Eucerin Roughness Repair. She also adds that when treating fungus, it is important to "apply not only to the affected areas but also to a rim of normal skin." Continue treatment for one to two weeks after you've seen improved results to try to prevent it from reoccurring.
Avoid Sharing Towels
Direct contact with skin isn't the only way athlete's foot is spread. Garshick notes that the fungus can exist on towels, so it's best not to share towels and to wash them after every use. And be mindful when handling towels, as "some people can experience two foot-one-hand syndrome, where it can spread to involve one hand after only involving the feet," says Garshick.
Take Caution When Getting a Pedicure
Garshick notes that fungus can live on metal and for this reason, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends disinfecting nail tools between every use. "With pedicures in general, it is best to go to a place that uses equipment that has been cleaned or to bring your own tools," she says. If doing an at-home pedi, be sure to practice good hygiene with your tools.
Avoid Pumice Stones
Correa says pumice stones are a breeding ground for bacteria and should be avoided. "The tiny holes and crevices in pumice stones and stone files provide a damp, dark, and wet environment that help the bacteria multiply," she says. "Avoid using pumice stones or pedicure files that are 'cleaned' by a simple rinse."
Consult a Dermatologist
When is it time to see a dermatologist for athlete's foot? Garshick says, "If you are experiencing symptoms or what you have tried over-the-counter isn't effective, it is best to see a board-certified dermatologist." While often topical treatments are enough, occasionally oral medications may be needed. Additionally, she says a doctor is needed to confirm the diagnosis of athlete's foot with a skin scraping. "There are other skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis which can also occur on the feet and may be confused for athlete's foot initially."
Finally, she adds that if there is "nail involvement, it is also best to see a dermatologist to help guide the treatment for the nail fungus as well as the foot fungus."
Gupta AK, Daigle D, Paquet M, et al. Topical Treatments for Athlete's Foot. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;2018(1):CD010863. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010863.pub2
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nail Hygiene. Updated July 26, 2016.