Many Americans become uneasy when asked to remove their shoes upon entering someone’s house. But in many Asian and Scandinavian countries, the custom is commonplace. It signals to people’s bodies and minds that they are transitioning from the stresses of the outside world to the sanctuary that is their home.
“Sex and the City” fans will likely recall the episode in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie is asked to remove her expensive Manolo Blahnik stilettos at a party, a request that makes her deeply unhappy.
She was averse to going barefoot because her shoes were an essential component of her outfit; others reject the idea for more explicable reasons, such as holey socks, foot ailments and non-manicured toes. With some light preparation, these potential embarrassments can be easily avoided. But wearing shoes in the house can cause damage for years to come, some of it being irreversible.
Though many people are comfortable enacting a shoes-off policy for themselves and their family, they feel awkward imposing such a rule on guests. Etiquette expert Anna Post of Emily Post Etiquette, however, says it’s a perfectly acceptable request to make. She suggests always keeping clean pairs of house slippers to offer guests who are caught off-guard.
“I think the important thing is to be clear about what you want,” she says. “Try to speak in positives instead of negatives, so instead of saying, ‘You can’t wear shoes in the house,’ say, ‘We are a no-shoes house.’”
Post also believes it’s a good idea to designate an area near the front door for shoes, so the fact you don’t allow them inside is apparent to guests.
If the notion of a no-shoes household doesn’t appeal to you, the following list may make you reconsider.
1. Shoes track more dirt than bare feet.
Many people are repulsed by the thought of bare feet, seeing them as unsanitary. But the sheer number of germs that can be brought into your home by shoes is far greater than the number of germs that could be sticking to your feet.
“With regard to germs like dirt, few will be tracked into a home because of bare feet,” says Dr. Daniel Howell, biology professor and anatomy coordinator at Liberty University. “Ironically, the vast majority of germs on our feet come from shoes, which possess dark, warm, moist environments for the growth of microbes.”
The microbes to which Howell is referring contribute to such ailments as athlete’s foot, toenail fungus and foot odor.
2. Many types of harmful bacteria latch onto the soles of shoes.
The ground is one of the dirtiest places there is.
Nine different types of bacteria live on the bottom of shoes, a 2008 study by the University of Arizona found.
These bacteria have the potential to cause infections in our lungs, eyes and stomach. Making matters worse, our shoes are constantly collecting more debris, feeding the growth of new bacteria.
“With every step you take, you are able to pick up the microbes and transfer them to other areas, such as your home,” says Dr. Jonathan Sexton, research specialist at the University of Arizona. “This can include pathogenic organisms such as E. coli or MRSA.”
3. Shoes bring dangerous toxins into the home.
Pesticides, toxic coal tar, lead and fecal matter comprise just a few of the toxins that could be making their way into your home via your shoes.
Long-term exposure to these toxins has been shown to adversely affect health.
“It’s ingesting toxic substances that can cause inflammation and disease in the body,” says Jackie Damboragian, a health coach working at Dr. Frank Lipman’s integrative medicine practice in New York City. “You’re gong to be exposed to the stuff anyway, because of being in the world, but if you can keep your home as a kind of sanctuary, that would be beneficial.”
A shoes-off policy won’t dramatically transform your physical health; it’s a preventative measure.
“I don’t know that you would necessarily feel some effect from these things, but it’s more for the long term,” Damboragian says. “It’s like lead. You wouldn’t want to have long-term exposure.”
4. Carpet is a magnet for toxins, which can be especially harmful to infants, young children and pets.
You should be especially cognizant of the risks involved with wearing shoes indoors on carpets if you have infants, young children or pets, all of whom spend a significant amount of time on the floor and are closer to it because of their size.
Given the difficulty of having carpets cleaned regularly, the cumulative levels of chemicals caught in them should be of major concern. The immune and central nervous systems of children are constantly developing, so anything that could potentially affect their growth should be avoided.
“Carpet in the home is a perfect environment for microbes to survive,” says Sexton. “Each time you touch the carpet, you could potentially come into contact with one of the pathogens.”
5. Your feet need to breathe.
Many people spend hours upon hours in shoes. The feeling of relief when kicking them off at home is hard to beat.
“Shoes are casts that immobilize the feet and change the way we stand, walk, and run,” says Howell. “Those changes have slow-acting but decidedly negative effects on the body. Shoes are also a major cause of knee arthritis and hip and back pain.”
Howell, known as the “barefoot professor,” spends 95 percent of his time without shoes and encourages others to do the same, as long as dangerous conditions such as snow aren’t a factor.
“People should absolutely give their feet a break from shoes as much as possible,” he says. “I know this from years of personal experience.”
6. Your carpets and floors will have to endure less wear and tear.
Your bare feet can’t damage your carpet and floors to the extent shoes can. Pockmarks on your hardwood can not only be a huge pain to repair but also quite expensive, as can carpet cleaning.
7. It’s easier thank you think – even if you hate going barefoot.
If the sight of bare feet makes you queasy, you can keep a pair of clean house slippers to use indoors only, or you can maintain a steady supply of clean socks.
These options will allow you to prevent germs and toxins from making their way into your home and exposing you and your family to the health risks.