Are Flip Flops Bad for Your Health?

Flip-flops have no doubt found their way into a permanent part of our summer wardrobe. As temperatures start to rise, we begin to exchange our constricting heels and no-nonsense dress shoes for our favorite pair of breezy flip-flops.

Flip-flops—one of the oldest types of footwear in the world—originated in ancient Egypt, where Egyptians created coiled-sewed sandals. These early flip-flops provided a cooler alternative for the sweltering Egyptian heat. More modern flip-flops appeared in Japan with the zori, which are Japanese sandals often made of straw or rubber. As soldiers returned home from World War II, many brought back the zori as gifts and souvenirs. By the 1960’s, flip-flops became a must-have for beach-goers.

Now, flip-flops are worn virtually everywhere during warm months, whether it be pool-side or in the office. Remember the national attention they received when showing up at the White House? Flip-flops, however, have a darker side that can often be hazardous to health.

Not only do flip-flops harbor risks for injury, such as the sprained ankles after falls, but the amount of bacteria that live on one pair of flip-flops is astounding. According to a 2009 report from the TODAY show and the University of Miami, 18,000 bacteria, such as fecal matter and the dangerous bacteria Staphylococcus often call flip-flops their home. The TODAY show also reported that one six year old child’s pair contained germs that had the potential to cause yeast infection and diaper rash.

The footwear is also a popular choice for days at the lake or the beach, and many are not hesitant to trek their exposed feet into a public restroom. The New York Daily News reported that a single pair contained about 13,900 more bacteria than a pair that had not been in a public restroom.

Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University’s Lagone Medical Center reported to the TODAY show that if flip flops were worn during three summer months, 93% of them would have fecal bacteria present, and 20% would possess E. coli.

Wearing flip-flops frequently can also breed problems with the feet. Auburn University researchers reported that people who wear flip-flops tend to take much shorter steps than those who wear traditional athletic shoes, as well as the tendency to scrunch their toes in order to obtain a better grip of the flip-flop. The researchers found that those who walk in the footwear alter their gait, resulting in foot pain and problems with the hips and lower back.

Lack of support may also lead to troubles with the feet. The Huffington Post reported that the thick band of tissue that runs from the heel to the ball of the foot—otherwise known as the plantar fascia, which creates the foot’s arch—can become inflamed due to lack of support and over-wear. This inflammation is known as plantar fasciitis and can also lead to sharp pains in the heel or arch or allows the foot to eventually flatten out.

The American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) has provided helpful tips about flip-flops in order to insure safe and healthy wear:

•    Try shopping for flip-flops of a higher quality. Soft leather can help minimize possible irritation to your skin.
•    Use the bend-test. Bend the flip-flop gently end-to-end, making sure it bends at the ball of the foot, and not in-half.
•    Make sure no part of the foot hangs off at either end.
•    Wear a sturdier pair in public places such as public pools, the beach, hotel and locker rooms.
•    Throw away pairs after severe wear.
•    Never ignore irritation between toes, as it can lead to more serious problems.
•    Avoid wearing flip-flops if you plan to walk long distances.
•    Never play sports in flip-flops, which can often lead to sprains, breaks, and twists of the foot or ankle.
•    Look for flip-flops that hold APMA’s seal of Acceptance.

It is recommended to avoid excessive wear of flip-flops, and instead to opt for a sturdy sandal. It is important to make sure to not touch feet or flip-flops while they are being worn and to wash feet thoroughly after wear in order to combat exposure to bacteria. Reserving them exclusively for pool, lake, or beach use can also help reduce the risk of health problems and injury.