How to Get Rid of Smelly Toenails for Good

Smelly toenail gunk is a common problem that is often associated with uncleanliness and sweaty feet. However, it is rare for toenails to smell without an underlying cause.

A tell-tale sign that your feet need attending to is the white smelly stuff under your toenails that gives off an odor akin to mature cheese. This is more than basic toenail jam. It is more likely to be a bacterial infection or toenail fungus.

Fungal infections are not harmful and are common. However, if left untreated, the condition will get worse and cause problems you would rather avoid. First of all, the foul odor will get stronger and your toenails will deteriorate. While is primarily aesthetic, it can be embarrassing and have implications for your self-esteem.

In severe cases, fungal infections can grow out of hand and cause a ‘dead toenail’ This is a situation where the nail lifts away from the toe bed and falls of. This experience can sometimes be painful.

To get rid of smelly toenail gunk, you need to know the cause of the problem. Then you can apply the appropriate treatment.

This guide details what the odorous white stuff under your toenails smells like, what causes the smell and how to treat it. We also discuss the types of toenail fungus and bacteria that cause smelly feet and the symptoms to look out for. Then we’ll wrap things up by explaining how to treat toenail jam and how to prevent the smelly white stuff under your toenails.

What is Smelly Toenail Gunk?

During the day, your toenails and the space between your toes collect dirt and debris.

There are two types of toenail debris; toenail jam and toenail cheese. It’s important to know the difference.

Toenail jam is perfectly normal. It’s the white stuff that gathers under your toenails and in the corners of your toes. It’s not unusual for toenail jam to smell or make your feet smell but should be cleaned.

People get toenail jam by wearing open-toed footwear. In these circumstances, you may find black smelly stuff under your toenails. It is also common on hot sweaty days, or if you’re wearing cotton socks all day that make your feet sweat a lot.

When the white stuff under your toenails has a cheesy smell, it is a sign you have a fungal infection. To distinguish between the two, people call the smelly white stuff under toenails, toenail cheese.

What’s the Difference between Toenail Fungus and Toenail Bacteria?

When the white gunk under toenails has a porous smell, it is usually the result of unhealthy feet. Bad odors are typically caused by one of two pathogens; fungus or bacteria.

It is essential to know whether the white smelly stuff is toenail fungus or a bacteria as the treatments are different. Given both symptoms share a distinctive cheesy smell, it is not easy to distinguish between the two.

Toenail Fungus

This is the most likely cause of smelly toenails. Everyone experiences toenail fungus at some point, but if it goes undetected or untreated, the fungus worsens.

Fungal infections that grow underneath the toenail is known as onychomycosis. It is caused by an organism called tinea ungium and gives off an unpleasant odor. Other symptoms can include hard, discolored toenails which become brittle or even lift up from the nail bed.

Toenail fungus is most common in people that wear shoes and socks for long periods of the day. Because your feet are unable to breathe, the sweat glands work overtime. The situation is made worse when you don’t wear socks with shoes.

Fungus thrives in warm and moist places. If you do suffer from horribly sweaty feet, consider wearing anti-fungal socks made from natural materials such as bamboo, merino wool or polyester among others.

Bacterial Infections

These can often be mistaken for toenail fungus, but have a different cause – typically a trauma to the nail. This could be a stubbed toe or injured toe, or a recurring issue such as an ingrowing toenail.

Both conditions create toenail cheese. However, a bacterial infection is often accompanied by redness, swelling or pain, and in some cases may emit yellow drainage from under the toenail.

The most common toenail bacteria is a staph infection and should be treated promptly. Without correct treatment, the bacteria can spread and irritate your skin.

If the white smelly stuff under your toenails is a bacterial infection, you should attend to it with anti-bacterial treatment. Clean your nails with antiseptic lotion and dry them off with a clean cloth.

You should also soak your feet in a tea tree oil treatment and remove the bacteria with a cream, gel or ointment recommended by a reputable podiatrist.

What Causes Toenails to Smell Like Cheese?

The reason why toenail gunk smells like cheese is due to a type of bacteria known as brevibacteria. It is the same bacteria used to mature cheese.

Most of the time brevibacterium grows harmlessly on the skin of humans, but in moist areas like feet develop a sulfur compound which emits a pungent smell.

When the bacterium is not cleaned out from under the toenails, it can become infected. Common symptoms of a toenail infection are a discharge of pus under the nail. In some cases, this will be accompanied by inflammation which may cause pain when wearing shoes.

The most likely cause of smelly toenails is a fungal infection known as onychomycosis. These types of infections are caused by dermatophytes that produce an enzyme which attaches to the nail.

Onychomycosis can be tricky to treat so you should consult your GP. If left untreated, the keratinase enzyme released by the dermatophytes weakens the keratin in your toenail to nourish the fungi.

What is Keratin Debris under the Toenail?

Nails are predominantly made from proteins, one of which is known as keratin. Fungal infections breakdown the keratin protein and leaves keratin debris under the toenail – dead skin and flattened skin cells.

Symptoms to look for are a build-up of debris under the nails. The dead skin cells form part of the nail and sometimes cause discoloration. Keratin debris is either white or yellow and becomes thick. When too much keratin debris builds up under the nail, it will cause the nail to separate from the bed.

What Are the Signs of Toenail Fungus?

Toenail fungus often goes untreated in the early stages because people do not recognize the symptoms. The earlier you attend to fungal infections in the toenails, the easier they are to heal.

The symptoms of toenail fungus do not always occur the same way in everyone. Some people may also experience worse symptoms than others. However, the signs are all distinguishable and easy to self-diagnose.

Discolored Nails

Other than the cheesy smell, one of the first signs you will notice is a slight discoloration of the toenail. This is caused because of the excess build-up of dead skin under the toenail.

Discoloration does not necessarily mean the entire surface of the nail bed is affected but is an indication you need to treat your toenails for fungus.

The discoloration may also appear as white spots or streaks across the nail or a powdery substance along the edge of the nail.

In some cases, the spots can turn dark, or even black. If you didn’t injure your toe before smelly black stuff appearing under your toenail, it is a clear warning sign that you have toenail fungus.

An injury to a toenail will ordinarily be accompanied by pain. In most cases, people will not feel pain with a fungal infection. The exception is if you have a dead nail that falls off. In this case, the nail comes away from the nail bed.

When the dead nail turns black, the fungal infection is severe and will take longer to heal. You will probably also feel discomfort wearing shoes and putting on socks.

Ridges Across the Toenails

Toenail fungus causes the texture and appearance of your toenails to change. One of the early signs is when vertical ridges form across the top of your nails. These ridges will look almost like raised lines spanning the length of the toenail.

However, when the surface of the nail feels uneven, it is not always a result of toenail fungus, there are several reasons for this.

In the case of vertical ridges, the primary cause is the nails inability to retain moisture as you age. In rare cases, vertical toenail ridges indicate poor nutrition.

If you develop horizontal lines across your toes, you may have an underlying health condition, not a fungal infection.

Horizontal lines across the toenails are called Beau’s lines and could be due to the following causes:

  • Injury
  • Heart attack
  • Malnutrition
  • Pneumonia
  • Diabetes
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Zinc deficiency
  • High fever
  • Arsenic poisoning

Beau’s lines can also be caused by certain medications used to treat cancer such as chemotherapy. The width and depth of Beau lines are an indication of the extent of the damage.

Vertical toenail ridges that are a sign of a fungal infection will be accompanied by other symptoms mentioned above. When ridges start to form, it is a sign the structure and strength of the nail are beginning to change.

Ridges will be pronounced when toenail fungus is compromising the strength of your nail. Take care when cutting your nails as the ridges will cause them to split.

Debris under the Toenail

Toenail fungus will typically start with smelly toenail gunk. When the symptoms worsen, dead skin cells gather under your toenail and smells bad. The white stuff is keratin debris and is caused by enzymes breaking down the protein in your toenails.

If keratin debris is allowed to build-up under your toenail, it could cause the problem to get worse. Keratin is made from multiple layers of dead skin. When keratin is starved of protein, or in the case of fungal infection, the protein is destroyed, flattened skin cells build-up under the nails.

A breakdown of keratin will also cause your nails to crumble and collect more debris. Although a build-up of keratin under the toenails is natural, when the build-up becomes more frequent and discolored, the cause usually is due to a fungal infection.

Hard, Brittle Nails

When toenail fungus takes hold and destroys the proteins in the nail, the health of your nails will weaken. As a result, your nails will become hard and brittle. If your nails crumble easily or chip away, consult your GP to seek treatment for toenail fungus.

When toenail fungus reaches the stage whereby your nails crumble, you could be at risk of other problems. Snagging nails on socks and bed covers becomes bothersome and could rip the skin along the side of your toe.

Not only is a skin tear painful, the wound could develop a bacterial infection which then becomes more difficult to treat.

Brittle nails can also affect the shape of your toenails. Typical problems include unsightly jagged edges and deformed patterns as they grow. Hard nails are also more difficult to look after and are susceptible to breakage.

The more your toenails weaken, the stronger the fungal infection gets. If you do notice your toenails becoming hard and brittle, treat your toenails with a fungal remedy as soon as possible. Don’t leave it too late and risk your toenail falling off.

Thickened Nails

Whereas hard and brittle nails are one of the early warning signs, thickened toenails are a strong indication the problem is getting worse. At this point, you should definitely be looking for an effective treatment.

Thickened toenails are a sign the fungus is thriving and is much more difficult to manage. You may even start to notice that your toenails are painful when you wear certain footwear.

black smelly stuff under toenail

At this stage, you should invest in a set of tools to manicure your toenails effectively. Thick nails are harder to trim and file, but shorter toenails mean the treatment for toenail fungus will work better.

Dead Toenails Smell Bad

The most intense symptom of toenail fungus is when you experience a “dead toenail.” This condition is accompanied by a putrid smell and accompanied by pain.

When toenail fungus flourishes, the more your nails weaken. Subsequently, the more debris builds-up under your toenail. When this happens, there is the potential for the toenail to come loose. At this point the toenail is dead.

When toenail fungus causes the toenail to lift from the bed, the condition is severe and should be attended to by a doctor. In some cases, the doctor will decide to remove the toenail surgically so they can treat the fungus underneath.

It is far better to pay attention to the early warning signs and treat toenail fungus before the condition gets worse. Dead toenail smells bad and can be painful for several weeks until a new toenail grows back. In the meantime, you should continue to treat the fungal infection.

Is Toe Fungus Curable?

It’s quite common for people to believe that a mild case of toenail fungus will heal on its own. While fungal infections are treatable, they do require attention.

If fungal infections are left unattended, the condition will become worse. At the very least fungal infections that are encouraged to grow will irritate, but can also be painful.

Foot fungus is widespread. It thrives in dark, moist places such as a shoe or a sock. When the foot is unable to breathe, the 250,000 sweat glands perspire heavily and release around a quarter pint of sweat a day.

These are precisely the type of condition in which toenail fungus thrives. It is recommended that you take care of your feet and clean the white smelly toenail gunk on a regular basis to avoid encouraging fungus to grow.

How to Treat White Smelly Stuff under Your Toenails

If the white smelly stuff under your toenail smells, you probably have toenail fungus. You should treat toenail fungus as soon as possible to avoid the problem getting worse. If you don’t the fungus will grow and you could lose your toenail.

Treating toenail fungus can be performed at home. All you need is a good set of pedicure utensils and some over-the-counter foot cream that is specially formulated to treat fungal infections. Selected ointments and gels work as well.

To get rid of the white smelly gunk under your toenails follow this daily foot hygiene routine:

  1. Dry your feet well after washing or coming in from the rain. Leaving your feet damp encourages fungus to grow.
  2. Wear anti-fungal socks.
  3. Change your socks every day.
  4. If your feet perspire a lot, use a foot antiperspirant or talc to reduce the amount of sweat your feet perspire.
  5. If possible, wear shoes or sneakers that allow your feet to breathe.
  6. Clean under your toenails and scrape away the smelly white gunk with a nail file
  7. Keep your toenails trimmed and filed. If you have thick or brittle nails, use a good pair of heavy nail clippers
  8. Apply anti-fungal treatment to your feet and toenails at least twice a day after washing; in the morning and before you go to bed.
  9. If you are already suffering from toenail fungus, you should also soak your feet when you get in from work, clean your nails and apply anti-fungal treatment.

If the condition does not improve after several months, you might want to consult a doctor and ask them to recommend a stronger treatment. However, you should note that it can take up to 18 months for toenail fungus to heal completely.

white stuff under toenail smells

Which Treatments for Toenail Fungus Work?

Because toenail fungus is so common, there are many treatments including home remedies. However, many home remedies are not scientifically proven to work even though there are studies that suggest they might.

If you do have toenail fungus or think you may be developing a problem, the best thing to do is apply a treatment that is specially formulated to treat fungal infections.

How to Prevent Bad Smelling Toenails

The best way to treat toenail fungus is to prevent it. If you are worried about the white smelly gunk under your toenails running rampant, take the precaution of looking after your feet on a daily basis in order to reduce the risk of infection.

Preventing toenail fungus follows the same process as a treatment for fungal affections. There are other preventative actions you can take in addition to taking care of your feet. Being aware of how fungal infections are contracted and grow, as we explain in the guide, is a good starting point for practicing general foot hygiene.

You should, therefore, be careful to protect your feet against the risk of fungal infections. Make sure your feet are covered with appropriate footwear or socks in public spaces that are typically riddled with fungi and bacteria such as public changing rooms, swimming baths, and the airport.

You should never wear anybody else’s shoes or socks and avoid treating toenails that have suffered a trauma. If you have an open wound on your feet, clean it with antibacterial lotion and keep the wound covered.

Toenail fungus should be treated as early as possible to avoid the condition getting worse. So make sure you clean the white smelly gunk under your toenails and apply anti-fungal treatments on a regular basis.