December 11, 2023/Primary Care

Foot Soaks: What To Know and Whether To Try One

Except in certain medical scenarios, foot health experts rarely recommend foot soaks

person sitting in chair soaking feet in warm tub of water

Looking for quick relief from achy feet, fungal toenails, foot calluses or everyday stress? You’ll find a variety of DIY foot soaks online, using everything from vinegar and mouthwash to baking soda and hydrogen peroxide.

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But be careful. Most lack scientific evidence and, in some cases, can be harmful.

“If you routinely shower and clean your feet, there are very few medical reasons to add a foot soak,” says chiropodist (foot specialist) Megan Grantham, DCh, “and for most foot problems, there are better treatments than foot soaks.”

When a foot soak may be beneficial

Healthcare providers typically don’t recommend foot soaks, but Grantham says they may be advisable for a few very specific conditions.

Ingrown toenails

An ingrown toenail is a nail that presses into your skin, causing redness, swelling and pain. Over time, it can lead to an infection.

You can get an ingrown toenail from:

  • An injury, like a stubbed toe.
  • Tight shoes.
  • Trimming your toenails too short.

“If you have a minor ingrown toenail, I recommend soaking your feet twice a day,” Grantham says. “Between soaks, apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment and cover the area with a bandage.”

But skip the far-out social media suggestions and follow the doctor’s orders for a safe soak. Here’s how to do it the right way:

  1. Fill a clean container with lukewarm water — somewhere between room temperature and body temperature.
  2. Add Epsom salts or a mild soap, like a body wash.
  3. Immerse your feet for five to seven minutes, wiggling your toes to circulate the water.
  4. Use a clean towel to dry your feet thoroughly, especially between your toes.

If you don’t see improvement within three to five days, contact your healthcare provider to figure out next steps.

Musculoskeletal injuries

Foot soaks can help reduce inflammation from soft tissue injuries, like a sprained ankle or plantar fasciitis.

“A hot-and-cold contrast bath can speed the healing process,” says Grantham. “The varying temperatures cause your blood vessels to open and close, which increases blood flow to the area.”

Still, it’s always best to check with a healthcare provider before you go this route. If you have another injury, like a tear or a fracture, a soak isn’t going to help. If they say you’re good to go, here’s how to do a hot/cold foot soak:

  1. Fill two containers, one with hot (but not scalding) water and one with cold (but not icy) water.
  2. Soak your affected foot for a minute or two at each temperature.
  3. Alternate between hot and cold several times.
  4. Dry your foot completely.
  5. Following an injury, repeat several times a day for seven to 10 days.

If you don’t start to feel some relief, it’s time to circle back with your healthcare provider.

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Foot soak risks

Foot soaks may sound harmless enough, but they can be risky for several reasons, Grantham says.

Fungal infections

Fungus thrives in a warm, moist and dark environment.

“Frequent foot soaks can increase moisture, which can lead to a fungal infection like athlete’s foot,” Grantham warns.

This may be especially risky if you have peripheral artery disease (PAD), which can affect your ability to heal from fungal infections — including those caused by foot soaks.

Diabetes-related concerns

If you have diabetes, you may be more susceptible to fungal infections. Nerve damage (neuropathy) and poor blood flow caused by diabetes can also slow the healing process and lower your ability to feel heat and pain.

Skin sensitivity

It may not seem like a big deal to add common household products like vinegar, anti-dandruff shampoo or mouthwash to your footbath, as is sometimes suggested by so-called wellness influencers. Alas…

“Many of those items contain harsh chemicals that can irritate your skin,” Grantham states. “Plus, there’s no proof they actually work.

Foot soaks can lead to other skin issues, too, including:

  • Cause burns from hot water.
  • Dry out your skin.
  • Make small sores worse

Foot soak alternatives

Before reaching for the footbath, Grantham suggests trying alternative treatments for these common foot ailments:

Fungal nail

Fungal nail causes your toenail(s) to become thick and yellow. The main treatments for fungal nails are pills you take by mouth and creams you apply to the nail. Both strategies can be effective but take several months.

“It’s easy to get impatient and look to an alternative strategy like foot soaks,” Grantham recognizes, “but again, fungus loves a dark, moist environment, so soaking the nail and allowing it to absorb moisture isn’t helpful.”

Foot calluses

Moisture can help soften cracked heels and calluses, which makes them easier to remove with a pumice stone or foot scraper.

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“But soaking isn’t necessary,” Grantham says. “You can do it at the end of a bath or shower.”

Another alternative is to use a urea-based lotion. Some lotions just spread moisture on top of your skin, but lotions with urea bring hydration into the deeper skin layers. Grantham recommends looking for a product with at least 20% urea.

Achy feet

After a long day on your feet, you may turn to a footbath for relief. But again, there are better ways.

“It’s the temperature that’s therapeutic, not necessarily the water,” Grantham clarifies. “A heating pad can be equally soothing.”

Other remedies to try for sore feet include:

  • Elevate your feet for 10 minutes to reduce swelling.
  • Roll your feet on a tennis ball or foam roller to massage the soft tissues.
  • Rub your feet with a magnesium-based cream to ease muscle aches.

Is it OK to do a foot soak for relaxation?

Healthcare providers don’t really suggest that you soak your feet for wellness or so-called detoxification purposes. But if an occasional soothing footbath is part of your self-care routine, that’s probably fine.

Before you soak, just make sure your feet are healthy — no ingrown toenails, fungal infections, etc. And be sure to use a foot soak additive that prevents fungal and bacterial growth, like:

Limit your soak to a couple of minutes, and afterward, dry your feet completely with a clean towel. Apply a urea-based moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated and callus-free.

Your feet carry you throughout your busy day, so foot issues can really get in the way of a healthy, active life. Soaking your feet may not be the best solution for most foot concerns, but there are plenty of other ways to give your feet the TLC they need.

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