Stylish Italian and French dudes have been baring their ankles for years, and now the sockless trend has reached the fashion mainstream for men. But if you're thinking about rocking a pair of loafers sans socks, medical professionals want you to know that you could be putting your feet at risk.
Dr. John Chisholm is a podiatrist in Chula Vista, California, and president of the California Podiatric Medical Association. Chisholm, like most foot doctors, is a big fan of socks. He says that socks serve two important functions: they reduce friction between the shoe and the skin, which prevents blisters and abrasions; and they provide a physical barrier between the foot and the microbial petri dish that is a sweaty shoe.
Of course, from the standpoint of style, the debate will continue to rage as to whether socks with sandals is the ultimate in cool or the very ultimate in nerdy dad no-nos. For our purposes, sandals, flip-flops and any open-toed shoe that allows for air circulation can be worn without socks, causing no damage to the feet, aside from issues with shoe structure itself. Rule of thumb: If it’s warm enough to wear sandals or flip-flops, then it's too hot to wear socks. And if it's cold enough that you need socks to keep your feet warm, then it’s too cold to be wearing sandals.
Fungus, Fungus, Fungus
"If you were to take a scraping off a well-worn leather shoe, you'd find it's a zoo of microorganisms that can cause disease in the human foot," says Chisholm, noting that the No. 1 threat is the athlete's foot fungus. "It likes places that are dark, warm and don't have a lot of air circulation, like the inside of a shoe."
Chisholm notes that the athlete's foot fungus is not only the cause of the classic raw, scaly patches between toes, but also most toenail fungal outbreaks.
Socks can stave off athlete's foot in two ways. First, they prevent the fungus from transferring directly from the shoe material to the skin or nail. And second, socks stop sweat from pooling in the shoe by absorbing and wicking sweat up the ankle and calf, where it can evaporate.
So if you ask a podiatrist like Chisholm if it's OK to wear leather dress shoes without socks, he'll make a colorful but clear analogy.
"Wearing shoes day after day without socks," he says, "would be like wearing your underwear day after day without washing them."
Nasty enough for you?
Next Best Thing to Sockless
If you're going sockless entirely for fashion reasons, there's a simple solution — no-show socks. These extra-low-cut dress and athletic socks are designed to stay hidden below the shoeline while providing protection against blisters and sweaty feet.
Previously only available for the ladies, there are now lots of no-show socks designed just for men.
Some people just can't stand the feeling of socks on their feet. And since it's not sandal weather year-round in most places, you need to learn how to keep those paws healthy inside closed-toe shoes.
Powders and Antifungals
First a word about shoe powders. Chisholm isn't a fan. He says that a light dusting of talcum powder directly on the foot will keep things dry (for a while), but never pour powder into the shoe itself. It just piles up and soaks in sweat, trapping it in the shoe. If you're prone to athlete's foot, try an antifungal powder.
Next, keep your sockless shoes on a rotation. Chisholm says to give each pair 24 to 48 hours to air out and dry out between sockless sessions. The longer the rest, the better.
But the coolest solution, hands down, is the SteriShoe ultraviolet sterilizing device. This handy gadget slips in your shoe and uses UVC light to kill 99.9 percent of fungal and odor-causing microbes in a 45-minute treatment cycle.
The SteriShoe isn't cheap, so if you're looking for a more cost-effective way to eradicate microbes in your shoes, try a disinfecting spray sold expressly for shoes. Not Lysol or similar household disinfectants, says Chisholm, because they're not supposed to make contact with skin.