Sure, they make you feel breezy and comfortable, but you might want to send your go-to pair of flip-flops on a permanent vacation from your wardrobe. The summertime staple can walk its wearer straight into a world of hurt.
True, flip-flops can be your friend when used for their originally intended purpose, states WebMD. Their best use is to provide a protective surface for the bottom of your feet when walking across hot sand or pavement for short distances. Since they offer little to no arch support, heel cushioning or shock absorption, health issues develop over time as people sport their flip-flops everywhere from the poolside to the supermarket. Last year’s National Foot Health Assessment revealed that a whopping 78% of adults age 21 years and older report having experienced one of the foot issues listed in the survey. Of those concerns, ankle sprain, blisters, calluses, foot fatigue and cracked skin top the list.
Research has shown that wearing flip-flops actually affects the wearer’s gait. A 2008 study at Auburn University found that when wearing flip-flops, compared with athletic shoes, participants took shorter steps and their heels hit the ground with less vertical force. Possibly because the participants were trying to grip the flip-flops on with their toes, researchers hypothesized, they did not bring their toes up as much during the leg’s “swing phase.” The study concluded that this altered method of walking could ultimately result in pain in the foot, hips and lower back.
A more recent study published in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association looked specifically at flip-flops in the physical development of children, and found that children who jogged in flip-flops had greater forefoot inversion than when they jogged barefoot. A 2008 study from the same journal observed that flip-flop wearers always demonstrated higher peak plantar pressures than athletic shoes.
Plantar pressures is a fancy way of identifying the various amount of pressure of the foot as it strikes the ground in stride. Higher peak plantar pressures predispose the wearer to foot problems and may exacerbate any existing conditions.
Over time, flip-flop wear can lead to the development of plantar fasciitis, a common cause of heel pain attributed to inflammation of the thick band of tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes, the Mayo Clinic explains. To prevent plantar fasciitis and its crippling pain, avoid loose, thin-soled shoes and opt instead for shoes with arch support or flexible padding to absorb shock.
Other health issues that point to flip-flops as the culprit involve the foot’s exposure when wearing the sandals. Sure, there’s the greater risk for stubbed toes, but as anyone who has ever grimaced upon sloshing into a grimy city puddle will tell you — myself included — there’s also the germ factor.
In 2009, the New York Daily News partnered with Dr. Dennis Kinney, manager of the microbiology lab at EMSL Analytical, and sent two reporters traipsing about Prospect Park, West Village bars, multiple subway lines and, gulp, a public restroom on Coney Island — while wearing $3.50 pairs of flip-flops.
The results? After only four days of flipping and flopping about the concrete jungle, the EMSL lab team found 18,100 bacteria on the shoes. Most were common, harmless bacteria, but two bacteria that reside in the mouth — Aerococcus viridans and Rothia mucilaginosa — and a bacteria linked to skin infections, Staph aureas, also were present. Sometimes there’s just not enough Purell in the world to wash away the disgusting thoughts of subway bacteria partying on your feet.
But let’s be real: No one wants to struggle with tennis shoes amid the sand and the surf. If you must wear flip-flops, the American Podiatric Medical Association asserts that not all flip-flops are created equal. Bargain-bin rubber flip-flops can’t hold up against their pricier cousins when it comes to proper support.
The APMA suggests opting for flip-flops made of high-quality, soft leather, which minimizes the likelihood of developing blisters and other types of irritation, and checking to see if the flip-flop bends at the ball of the foot, not in half. Certain brands, like Reef and Chaco, offer products that hold the APMA’s Seal of Acceptance, so they’re a safe bet.
When you do find the shoe that fits your sense of style and supports good health, remember not to overdo the flip-flop wearing. Never wear flip-flops when trekking long distances, doing yard work or playing sports. Relaxing poolside with a frozen drink and a magazine, however? Flip-flops have never looked better.