For barefooters however, there is one annual summer tradition we can do without... the numerous articles (such as this one and this one) which caution non-barefooters about the hazards of taking shoes off to enjoy the warmer weather. While I understand the need for perpetually shod individuals to practice caution when doing something they do not normally do (like going barefoot more), the truth is shoes cause almost all of the most commonly reported foot problems, and shedding your shoes permanently can clear up a lot of these issues for most people.
Hopefully this helps clear up some of the confusion when you are looking at taking your shoes off at the beach, the park, or even for a stroll down the sidewalk of your neighborhood this summer!
Bacterial Infections, Athlete's Foot, Warts, and Toenail FungusThe most common bacterial and fungal infections on the foot are caused by picking up the microorganisms somewhere, then sticking your foot into a shoe where the bacteria or fungi can multiply and grow, and continue to be pressed into your skin or under the nails. People who go barefoot regularly pick up these microorganisms, but with our feet exposed and the skin allowed to remain dry, the bacteria or fungi simply cannot gain purchase on our body, and either transfer off or die.
Dry SkinBoth barefooters and shoe wearers deal with dry skin and it is possible barefooters actually have drier skin on their feet than shod people. This can lead barefooters to have more cracked and weather skin, particularly around their heels. However, given the amount of products on the market to combat dry skin and cracked heels, I would hazard a guess that this is a universal problem both groups must contend with.
CornsThis condition is a result of ill-fitting shoes, plain and simple, causing friction on parts of the toes and feet which results in thickened skin where the friction point is.
(A Note from Heidi: Before going barefoot I started wearing FiveFingers. I did not notice before but I had a corn forming on the inside of my small toe - I was very surprised when I found it. I could feel the soreness every time I would put on the FiveFingers. After 1 week in FiveFingers, it was completely gone. I definitely think it was from wearing an ill-fitting type of shoe. Since going solely barefoot I have not had any more issues.)
CallusesMuch like the notes on dry skin above, both groups deal with calluses and barefooters may have thicker calluses from the amount of direct friction our skin gets. Shoes creates calluses in the same way, just in slightly different places. Barefooters will definitely have thicker sole pads overall, which can lead to callus buildup, though personally I keep my calluses from becoming too rough and thick.
BunionsLike corns, bunions can only form from continual use of poorly fitted shoes rubbing against a part of the foot. Although corns are mostly just annoying and/or unsightly however, bunions can cause great pain and should not be downplayed. Going barefoot regularly can improve bunions significantly, if not eliminate them altogether.
Ingrown ToenailsThese can only happen with pressure against the toenail from a tightly fitting shoe, or from impact with the end of a shoe. Barefooter's toe and toenails are allowed to naturally develop so ingrown toenails are just not a concern.
Hammer ToeThis painful and inhibiting condition can only be created by poorly fitted shoes, once again. The toes clench up from being crammed into a shoe with a narrow or insufficient toe box. Being barefoot allows your toes to bend and stretch at their normal range of motion.
SpursThese bony protuberances are generally found in people with plantar fasciitis (which I will cover below), but are caused by putting excessive stress on the heel bone, which is very easy to do in a shoe, and very difficult to do when barefoot. If you want to test this yourself, jump up in the air while barefoot and try to land on your heels... it will HURT. Our foot is designed in such a way that we are meant to land mostly on the forefoot or midfoot, where our natural shock absorbers reside. Although our gait when walking can include a heel strike, when you are barefoot there is more engagement of the entire foot because our supporting structures are not immobilized.
Plantar FasciitisThis horrifically painful condition is (to my knowledge) caused by either an excessive shortening or excessive lengthening of the muscular and connective tissues which make up the arch of the foot. The core of the pain is due to atrophy of the overall structure of the foot, which is exacerbated by modern foot wear which has seemingly been designed to provide more and more "arch support". What this really means is that the arch muscles and ligaments are actually immobilized and held up, like an arched bridge being bolstered by scaffolding, instead of allowing it to function normally. The problem with arch support is that this immobilization leads to the muscles becoming weaker and generally shorter, such that when you then take off your shoes and go barefoot, those muscles which your body needs now to stabilize your foot, can no longer stretch without causing shooting pain. In effect you are now straining your arch just to walk normally. Because of this, plantar fasciitis has also been called plantar faciosis by at least 1 noted podiatrist, Dr. Ray McClanahan of NW Foot and Ankle. This condition is not exclusive to shoe wearers, as there are surely some individuals who have a natural deficiency in their arches, and may in fact need arch support, orthotics or other aids to bolster their feet, but in either case, being barefoot leads to stronger and more flexible foot structures, so it can help alleviate some of the symptoms of plantar fasciitis.
BlistersBoth barefooters and shod people can get blisters, it is true, though where they get them and the frequency are vastly different. Barefooters can get blisters on their soles from walking too far before their soles are conditioned or from the ground being too hot. Shoe wearers generally get blisters from a new pair of shoes rubbing a part of the foot excessively. I would argue though that since barefooters transition once or maybe once a year (Spring and Summer brings warmer temps and ground), their frequency for acquiring blisters is much reduced from those who might buy several pairs of shoes a year which each can cause blisters while they are broken in.
Dirty FeetLastly, barefooters will naturally get dirty feet. It comes with the territory, literally. You pick up some amount of surface dirt on your soles, and long time barefooters often have a semi-permanent "shade" to their soles because some of that dirt can get trapped in the grooves of our thickened skin and our calluses. This dirt is unsightly to some...but wearing shoes can create dirty feet too... just of a different kind. When you put your foot in a shoe, whether you are bare skinned or wearing stockings, socks or hose, your foot immediately begins to sweat. Unless the shoe is brand new, it's already playing host to a wide range of bacteria and fungi and the dampness of that sweat mixed with the warm dark environment draws them to your skin. These bacteria feed on your dead and dying skin cells and excrete substances which give shod feet that characteristic smell which most people find unpleasant. So although barefooter's often have visible dirt on their feet, I would argue that shoe wearers have equally "dirty" feet - it is just less visible, but no less detectable. See my post for 5 Foot Care Tips for Barefooters to read more about caring for your feet.
With all of this information, I hope this blog post clarifies being barefoot is healthy and natural and not something to be wary of. Just take it slow and understand your feet need some period of adjustment from being enclosed in shoes to being bare. As more and more of us are discovering, living barefoot is worth the investment in ourselves, and we should not just wait for summer to shower our feet with the love and freedom they deserve.