Toe jam is a nonmedical, umbrella term that refers to the smelly gunk which can accumulate between toes. When feet are sweaty or not washed often, toe jam may be more likely to result.
Luckily, this condition is usually not serious, and responds well to lifestyle changes. In some instances, however, toe jam may signal a medical complaint which requires fast action.
In this article, we’ll identify what causes toe jam. We’ll also tell you when a doctor, instead of at-home fixes, is needed.
Toe jam has many causes, including dry skin, and less-than-perfect hygiene. This condition is usually benign but in some instances, can cause serious complications.
Some causes of toe jam include:
- Lint from socks. Socks can shed fibers, especially when they’re brand new. When these tiny pieces of fabric combine with sweat or body oil, they can become smelly if not washed off.
- Dirt. Walking barefoot in grass or on sand can leave deposits of dirt and soil between the toes.
- Dry skin flakes. Skin conditions such as eczema, dyshidrosis (dyshidrotic eczema), and psoriasis can cause flaking skin between the toes. When combined with sweat or body oil, these skin cells can form tiny, smelly toe jam balls between toes
- Softened corns or calluses. Thickened corns or calluses can form between toes. When these become softened from sweat and heat, they may shed dead skin cells, causing smelly toe jam.
- Fungal infections, such as tinea pedis (athlete’s foot). Fungi that live in warm, moist places can infect toes and feet, causing toe jam. Likely environments for these types of fungi include public showers, the area around swimming pools, and steam rooms.
- Bacteria. When skin is open or cracked, bacterial infections can occur. If left untreated, these infections can become serious, and may even spread up the leg. People with compromised immune systems or with diabetic ulcers need to be especially careful about toe jam which might harbor bacteria.
- Scabies. Scabies is a highly contagious mite infestation caused by Sarcoptes scabiei. These mites live on skin, and lay their eggs underneath the skin’s surface. In addition to itching, scabies can cause the skin to form crusts and become odorous. They’re a less common cause of toe jam.
Anyone can get toe jam, although some people are more susceptible to it than others. They include:
- Athletes and gym buffs. Various areas within gyms can be breeding grounds for the fungi and bacteria that can cause toe jam. These include pools, steam rooms, shower stalls, and locker room floors. Athletes who exercise outside may also be susceptible, if they wear sweaty socks and sneakers for extended periods of time.
- People who don’t wash their feet regularly. Even if you shower daily, crud can accumulate between your toes if you don’t wash there. This can be particularly challenging for older individuals who don’t see well, or who can’t reach their toes easily. Others may have a hard time balancing on one foot while they scrub the other. Concerns about slipping in the shower can also make it hard for some people to wash their feet.
- People with poor vision. No matter what your age, it can be challenging to scrub away dirt and grime between the toes if you can’t see it well.
- People who wear poor-fitting shoes. Too-tight shoes that limit breathability cause feet to sweat.
- People who sweat excessively. Hyperhidrosis is a condition which causes excessive sweating of the feet. Some people with this condition also have very sweaty palms. This inherited condition is more common in men than in women.
- People who live in certain climates. If you live in an extremely wet and hot climate, it can be challenging to keep your feet dry and free from sweat. If you’re very active, or spend lots of time standing, it may be even more difficult to avoid toe jam.
Some people are more prone to complications
Some groups of people may also be more prone to complications from toe jam than others. They include:
- People with diabetic neuropathy. Nerve damage in feet can result from diabetes. This condition can cause numbness, as well as increased sensitivity to touch, making it hard to clean and tend to feet. It can cause diabetic ulcers which bleed and easily become infected. Diabetic neuropathy can also cause vision problems, making it harder for people to see dirt or oozing between their toes.
- People on chemotherapy. Chemotherapy weakens the immune system, leaving people more susceptible to fungal infections. Fungal infections can range from mild to deadly.
- People with skin conditions. If you have eczema or psoriasis, the dead skin cells that accumulate between your toes may become a ripe breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, especially if your feet remain sweaty or grimy for extended periods of time. If you have cracks or open sores in your skin, infections can result.
Keeping feet clean and dry is important for prevention of toe jam. Here’s a list of prevention tips:
- Washing feet thoroughly with soap and water, at least twice daily, is the best way to prevent toe jam from accumulating. When washing isn’t possible, using an on-the-go wipe will do the trick. Make sure to use wipes meant for skin, not for household surfaces.
- Change your socks after exercising, especially if they’re wet. If sweat has soaked through to your sneakers, try to slip out of those as well.
- Corn starch or talcum powder can help keep feet dry. Some medicated talcs can also be used to treat toe jam.
- If you have corns or calluses, soaking them in warm water, and filing them down gently with a pumice stone or pedicure tool, can help eliminate the shedding of dead skin cells.
- If you have an ingrown toe nail on your foot, file it down or have someone else cut it, if you can’t reach it easily. Make sure to do this before the nail cuts into the surrounding skin.
- Never rip or tear off a hangnail around your toe nails. This can cause a wound which might become infected.
- If you’re unable to wash or inspect your feet easily, enlist a family member, manicurist, or medical professional to examine your feet on a regular basis.
Home remedies and OTC products
If the skin on your feet and between your toes is extremely dry or cracked, apply petroleum jelly and leave it on overnight. Make sure to wash your feet thoroughly with warm, but not hot water, in the morning.
Check your footwear for tightness, especially at the end of a long day. If your shoes are too tight, or cause your feet to sweat excessively, trade them in for a roomier pair.
When toe jam is the result of an underlying skin condition, treating the condition should help alleviate the problem. In some instances, your doctor may prescribe topical creams or other medications for you to take.
Any infection on the foot or between the toes should be examined by a doctor. This is particularly important for people with diabetes or with conditions of any kind that compromise the immune system.
Some signs of infection to look out for include:
- redness or change in skin color
- skin that feels warm to the touch
- red streaks near the ankle or up the leg
If you suspect you have hyperhidrosis, a doctor such as a podiatrist can recommend treatment options. These include applying antiperspirants to the feet, taking prescription medications, or getting Botox injections.
Your doctor can also provide medical advice for treating dry skin or skin conditions which might be at the root of the problem. Many medications are available that can reduce the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis.
Toe jam is a common foot malady that anyone can get.
Some people are more prone to toe jam than others. These include athletes who frequent gyms, and individuals who have difficulty washing their feet thoroughly and often.
Toe jam is usually harmless, and can typically be treated with lifestyle and hygiene changes. In some instances, however, this condition can lead to complications, such as infections.
See a doctor if you suspect you have an infection or an underlying condition that may be causing toe jam.