“Toe jam” refers to a buildup of debris and gunk between the toes. It can result from sock lint and dirt, but inflammation, pain, and a strong odor may be a sign of infection.

Many factors can cause toe jam, ranging from lint from socks and poor hygiene to fungal infections and underlying health conditions.

This article discusses toe jam, its appearance, and associated symptoms. We also examine why it happens and the potential treatment and prevention options.

the feet of a person wearing sandals standing on pebblesShare on Pinterest
Kitti Sakdi Suwrrnkhiri/EyeEm/Getty Images

Toe jam refers to the unpleasant-smelling debris that may collect between a person’s toes. The term describes the resulting matter between the toes rather than a specific foot condition.

Anyone can experience toe jam, and it can result from several medical conditions or environmental factors. The condition is not typically severe, and it is usually easy to treat with a few simple lifestyle changes.

For some people, toe jam may be a symptom of a more serious medical condition that requires treatment by a healthcare professional.

Toe jam is an umbrella term for the debris or gunk that can build up between the toes. Despite its name, toe jam does not look like jam. Its appearance can differ from person to person, depending on the cause.

If the toe jam results from dirt, sweat, or lint from socks, it is usually straightforward to wipe away. Other causes of toe jam, such as fungal infections or dermatitis, may look redder and more inflamed or become yellow, crusty, and odorous.

A person may notice the following between their toes if they have toe jam:

  • a buildup of lint from socks
  • a buildup of dirt and sweat
  • dry, flaky patches of skin
  • moist areas of peeling skin
  • redness and irritation
  • cracked or bleeding skin
  • crusty, odorous patches

Several factors can cause toe jam. The most common factors are lifestyle-related, and people can prevent them with some simple changes. However, some medical conditions can cause toe jam that may require treatment from a pharmacist or doctor.

The following factors may cause a buildup of toe jam:

  • Sock lint: Lint from socks, especially new socks, can build up between the toes and mix with sweat to form toe jam. People who find this unpleasant can easily wipe it away or wash their socks before wearing them for the first time, to reduce the number of fibers they shed.
  • Dirt: Walking barefoot can cause soil, sand, or other everyday debris to build up between the toes.
  • Contact dermatitis: Contact between the skin and the shoes can inflame the skin, and certain allergens or irritants may cause it to flake and peel. Potassium dichromate, often found in leather processing, is a common irritant. Canvas shoes can be responsible, according to a 2017 study.
  • Skin conditions: Eczema, psoriasis, and a condition called dyshidrotic eczema, which causes tiny blisters to form on the hands and feet, can cause dry, flaking skin between the toes. It can become moist and odorous when it mixes with sweat or body oil.
  • Fungal infections: Athlete’s foot is a common fungal infection that affects the skin between the toes, causing redness, itching, flakiness, and white, swollen skin. Up to 15% of the population has athlete’s foot, which is more likely to affect males and older people.
  • Bacterial infection: Any bacteria that get into the skin through cracks or wounds can cause a buildup of toe jam. People with diabetes and compromised immune systems should pay particular care and attention to infections in their feet, as they can spread and cause serious complications.
  • Corns and calluses: People who have corns and calluses between their toes may notice a buildup of dead skin cells. As the skin cells mix with sweat and body oil, they may smell unpleasant and become moist.
  • Scabies: Rarely, a mite infestation called scabies can affect the webbed area between the fingers and toes, causing tiny lesions that crust over. Scabies needs treatment, as it is highly contagious.

Because many factors contribute to toe jam, anyone can get it at some point during their lives. However, certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of toe jam, including:

  • Poor foot hygiene: Not washing between the toes to remove daily dirt and grime can cause a buildup of debris, lint, and sweat, all of which can increase toe jam.
  • Wearing ill-fitting shoes or shoes that cause the feet to sweat: Certain materials, such as patent and plastic, reduce airflow and cause the feet to trap sweat. A tight fit can also tightly pack the toes, increasing sweat.
  • Physical activity: People who exercise often are more prone to foot sweat, worsening toe jam.
  • Excessive sweating: Hyperhidrosis causes excessive sweating in the feet and palms.
  • Existing skin conditions: People with skin conditions that cause dry, flaky skin may be more likely to experience a buildup of toe jam.
  • Existing health conditions: People with reduced mobility or vision may have trouble washing their feet or spotting the signs of infection that can lead to toe jam.

Good foot hygiene is key to preventing or reducing toe jam and ensuring bacteria do not enter the skin and cause an infection. The Institute for Preventative Foot Health (IPFH) offers the following tips for good foot hygiene:

  • Washing the feet thoroughly every day, using a mild soap. Wash between the toes and dry the feet thoroughly, including between the toes.
  • Wearing a fresh pair of socks every day and changing them more frequently if physically active or if the feet become sweaty.
  • Cleaning the insides of shoes, as well as the outsides.
  • Rotating shoes so not to wear the same pair every day.
  • Inspecting the feet regularly for signs of infection or damage, such as blisters, cuts, cracks, or inflamed skin.
  • Asking a family member, friend, or healthcare professional to examine the feet if vision or mobility is an issue.
  • Applying a topical cream or powder to the affected area if there is a fungal infection. A pharmacist can recommend the most suitable product.
  • Applying petroleum jelly or another emollient to the skin between the toes at night to help soften and moisturize the skin for eczema and other dry skin conditions.

If symptoms do not improve or people experience excessive amounts of toe jam, they should seek the advice of a healthcare professional or a foot specialist, such as a podiatrist.

Toe jam refers to the debris that builds up between the toes. Many factors can cause toe jam to increase, including poor hygiene, fungal infections, and underlying skin or health conditions.

People with toe jam should practice good foot hygiene to prevent toe jam and keep the feet free of infection. Applying antifungal creams or moisturizing creams and keeping the feet clean and dry may help reduce toe jam.