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by Susan Dawson-Cook

February 3, 2015

Secrets for soft, disease-free feet

The barefoot swimmer’s lifestyle can be hazardous to your feet. First, there’s the chafing and drying that comes from walking on rough pool decks and soaking in chlorine-rich water for hours on end. Then there are the bacteria and fungi that grow wildly in moist environments such as pool decks, showers, and locker rooms that can hitch a ride on unsuspecting feet.

Long Beach, Calif., podiatrist Lyle Nalli has treated and operated on foot-related maladies since 1988. Peeling, irritated skin between the toes is the most common problem he sees in patients, but this annoying condition often isn’t accompanied by disease.

The most common infections swimmers encounter are toenail fungus and athlete’s foot. Both are caused by dermatophytes, a group of fungi that grow on the hair, skin, and nails. The fungi associated with athlete’s foot most often cause flaky skin or blisters between the toes. When the fungus penetrates the toenails, the nails may become darkened, thicker, ragged, or distorted in shape. Older swimmers are more susceptible to fungal infections as are those who have suffered previously from fungal maladies.

Corynebacteria can also wreak havoc on the feet. Signs of this less common type of infection are white spots or pits on the soles of the feet.


Bacteria and fungi thrive in warm, wet environments. A simple way to avoid exposure to an infection such as athlete’s foot or toenail fungus is to wear shower shoes or sandals on deck and in locker rooms and showers and always dry feet thoroughly before putting on footwear.

Nalli warns that shoes may harbor fungi and bacteria and should be routinely disinfected and recommends that people who sweat excessively apply an antiperspirant to the bottom of the feet to inhibit moisture.

If, however, you’ve picked up a fungus or bacterial infection, don’t despair. There are many options available to remediate these conditions.


After consulting with a dermatologist, Illinois Masters swimmer Skip Montanaro of Evanston, Ill., began applying Lotrimin antifungal cream to his feet and shaking antifungal powder into his shoes. He also recommends washing socks in hot water and changing them daily.

These types of topical treatments are sometimes preferable to ingested anti-fungal products, which are often prescribed for toenail fungus, because internally administered medications can cause undesirable side effects such as diarrhea and headaches.

“I prefer [prescription-only medicine] Ecoza as it not only treats fungus but also repairs the skin,” says Nalli, emphasizing that topical treatments are only effective in cases where the fungus hasn’t penetrated the nails. Once that occurs, he says oral medication or laser treatment are the only viable solutions.

Anecdotal studies suggest holistic remedies can help. Swimmers looking for a natural solution for foot infections may want to heed the advice of natural health practitioner Pam McMahon-Vorrasi. McMahon-Vorrasi, who has a Ph.D. in Natural Health and owns Journey to Wellness, a Tucson-based holistic wellness practice, says that keeping the body alkalized can help curb these infections.

“Most holistic therapists and physicians believe citric acid can kill fungus. Tea tree oil and colloidal silver are great, too, as well as chaparral. Squeezing half a lemon in water and drinking [it] first thing in the morning is a great way to do this. No bacteria can grow in an alkalized environment. Contrary to what most may think, lemons cut out all acidity,” she says. She also recommends soaking your feet in a bin of water with half a cup of vinegar and half a lemon.

If over-the-counter or holistic remedies don’t improve the condition, or if you have diabetes or other conditions that can complicate foot infections, you should consult your primary care physician or podiatrist. 

Other Irritants and Solutions

Arid and hot climates can induce calluses and dry, cracked feet. Arizona Masters Swim Club member Carl Marriott struggled with the skin on his heels cracking “for as long as I can remember. My wife kept telling me to put hand lotion all over my feet before going to bed and to wear socks,” but he ignored her suggestions. “When we moved to Arizona last summer it got worse, so I finally took her advice. My feet are baby-soft now. I’m almost embarrassed by how unmasculine they feel,” he jokes.

To treat cracked feet holistically, McMahon says emu oil or coconut oil will do the trick. “Put this on before bed at night,” she suggests.

For other unsightly foot concerns, some swimmers have simple remedies. New York City swimmer Rich Bernstein skims off calluses with a pumice stone and uses Flexitol Heel balm to soften the skin. Neil Salkind, an Arizona Masters swimmer who lives in Lawrence, Kan., says he uses Cerave with salicylic acid and Aquaphor healing ointment.

With myriad solutions available, swimmers no longer have to resign themselves to having painful, ugly, infected feet.


  • Health and Nutrition