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Apologies to the dudes who packed away their Allbirds and Crocs in order to parade around town with nothing but sweet air between their feet and the ground. “Barefoot boy summer” has been canceled.
That’s according to podiatrists alarmed at recent reports that people (men in particular) are losing their shoes and hitting the streets—heading to coffee shops, hiking trails, airports, and anywhere else their hearts and soles might lead them. Social-media users on platforms like TikTok are sharing videos of themselves (and others) barefoot in the wild. (“Be that primal, hard-to-kill man you know you are, and start walking barefoot outside,” one urges.) The trend is even infiltrating popular media: In a recent episode of Succession, Lukas Matsson (played by Alexander Skarsgard) walks barefoot on the tarmac before boarding his private plane.
“I cringed,” says Dr. Priya Parthasarathy, a podiatrist with Foot and Ankle Specialists of Mid-Atlantic in Silver Spring, Md., describing her reaction when she learned going barefoot was in vogue. “You’re pretty much asking for trouble, and I 100% do not recommend it for a lot of different reasons.”
The risks aren’t worth it
Research suggests that humans began wearing sandals or moccasins more than 40,000 years ago—and there’s a good reason for that. Footwear provides important structural support, comfort, and protection from a wide variety of threats, including sharp objects on the ground, pests, heat, and invisible germs.
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This seems obvious. So what’s the appeal of ditching shoes? “For me, and for most people, it’s getting more in touch with our feet as the foundation of our bodies,” says Eric Cohen, 60, who lives in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He’s been going barefoot in certain situations, like on the beach and while exercising, since the barefoot running boom about 15 years ago—which surely qualifies him as one of the original barefoot boys. “This is what connects us to the ground. Everything starts from the bottom and works up.” He’s not worried about potential harms, and says the rewards outweigh the occasional splinter.
The movement isn’t coming out of nowhere: “Grounding,” an alternative medicine practice that involves putting your feet in direct contact with the earth, has been linked to benefits like stress relief and better sleep. And walking barefoot on carpeted floors can increase circulation and strengthen the muscles in the feet, says Dr. Miguel Cunha, a podiatrist who owns Gotham Footcare in New York. But he doesn’t recommend going shoeless at the gym, communal bathing facilities, or outdoors, especially for prolonged periods of time.
Experts speculate that people are trotting down city streets sans shoes more in an effort to look cool or edgy, and to show off on social media, than to reap any real health benefits. They advise caution to those intrigued by the trend. One of the biggest concerns is stepping on something painful or dangerous, says Dr. Jane Pontious, a clinical professor in the department of podiatric surgery at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine. When she first heard about the barefoot renaissance, she smiled, because it reminded her of childhood days spent near a lake, enjoying freedom of the feet and spirit. “With that said, did I have problems? Yeah, I did,” she says. “I had splinters several times. I had glass in my foot. I had a fishhook in my foot. Even being healthy and young, it wasn’t the safest thing to do.”
Throughout her career, Pontious has removed many things from people’s feet: wood splinters, glass, sewing needles, pieces of shells from the beach, even chihuahua hair (which is “very strong, like a tough fishing string,” she says. “It’s sharp.”) She worries about hypodermic needles on city streets, stinging pests in the grass, and rocks and sticks on trails. If you step on something dangerous while barefoot, see a doctor right away, she urges.
Tiny cuts in your feet can let in bacteria
There are also less obvious threats lurking beneath your feet: You can’t see them, but bacteria, fungi, and viruses are common in showers, locker rooms, pools, and anywhere else with a lot of water or moisture. (That’s why experts suggest always wearing shoes before and after you get in the pool, even though it’s a nuisance, and shower shoes if you’re in a dorm or gym.) These microorganisms can lead to infections that change your foot’s appearance and smell. If you have any small breaks in your skin, you’re at an increased risk of developing an infection. “When you go out in public outdoors, you’re walking on surfaces that hundreds of people have walked on,” Parthasarathy says. “You have no idea what you’re coming into contact with.”
Most people will detect signs that something is wrong within a few days. If you have athlete’s foot, for example—a fungal skin infection that affects the skin on the feet, including between the toes—you might notice dry, scaly, or cracked skin; inflammation that’s red, purple, or gray; blisters; or itchiness. It sometimes evolves into nail fungus, which causes toenails to become discolored, cracked, or even separated from the nail bed. Or you might develop plantar warts, small growths caused by the human papillomavirus. In that case, “you would look for calluses with black dots that aren’t going away,” Parthasarathy says. “They could be painful” and are often difficult to treat.
Ditching shoes leaves your poor feet defenseless
Going barefoot also presents a heightened risk of injury. Every year, people who mow their lawn barefoot run over their feet while cutting the grass, one of the “most devastating” injuries podiatrists see, Parthasarathy says. Another risk—falling down—might be less dramatic, but it’s still unpleasant, and shoes provide important traction and protection from slippery areas. That’s especially true if you’re considering going barefoot hiking, an idea that experts universally pan. Pontious has treated people who twisted their ankle or suffered a ligament sprain from walking barefoot on uneven surfaces.
Plus, going shoeless for an extended amount of time can alter the biomechanics of your feet for the worse, Cunha says. Over the long run, this could accelerate the formation of bunions and hammertoes, or lead to conditions such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and Achilles tendonitis. “The main issue with walking barefoot is that you put a tremendous amount of stress on the foot, allowing it to collapse,” he says.
Another summertime hazard: sunburn. Our feet aren’t used to being exposed to the outdoors, and we often forget to put sunscreen on the tops and bottoms, Parthasarathy says. Walking across hot concrete can lead to burns that are difficult to heal—a particular danger for people with diabetes, who might have neuropathy, which means they won’t feel their feet burning. They’ll also take longer to recover, she notes.
Are there any barefoot-safe spaces?
Not exactly, but there are safer spaces, Pontious says. For healthy people who are not immunocompromised and don’t have underlying foot problems, the ideal environment is somewhere debris-free and freshly cleaned. The problem is that even indoors, we can never be certain of what’s on the floor. “I have people who live in what they claim is a very clean home, and they’ll step on a staple that got into the rug,” she says. “It’s so small that you don’t see it until it’s in your foot.” That’s also why it’s ideal to wear water shoes on the beach. Tiny pieces of shells or coral, jellyfish that have washed ashore, super-hot sand, and shards of glass bottles can all ruin an otherwise sunny day. If you’re determined to go barefoot, keep an eye on the sand and pay close attention to potential hazards.
Pontious advises that everyone practice foot-healthy habits, including checking daily that there aren’t any cuts, sores, blisters, or other changes to the skin or nails. If you sweat a lot, bring an extra pair of socks with you to work or outdoor activities. Halfway through the sweaty activity, wash your feet with a cleansing wipe and some sweat-absorbing powder, and change your socks (and don’t forget to put your shoes back on).
A final word of advice for those still tempted by the podiatric version of going commando: “If you embrace this trend, you better have your podiatrist on speed dial,” Parthasarathy says. “Because I guarantee you will need it.”