“Shoes off, please.” A reasonable request? Or are those fightin’ words?
Arguably, no other three monosyllabic words have ever led to more irritated house guests, resentful homeowners and thriving sales of shoe racks, slippers, and sing-songy, passive-aggressive signs. (“Since little fingers touch our floor, please remove your shoes at our door!”)
So which side of the wearing-shoes-in-the-house argument is right? Turns out, there’s no squeaky-clean answer. But we’ve got some scientific reasons that can help you decide which side you want to be on.
The disgusting argument for ‘shoes off’
New York City board-certified pediatrician Dr. Alison Mitzner admits that she’s “that annoying friend” who asks people to take off their shoes when coming into her home.
“So many germs and bacteria can be brought in from your shoes, including toxins and E. coli,” Mitzner explains.
After all, think about what what those shoes encounter when you’re outside. City dwellers, in particular, are likely stepping on “animal feces, food garbage, people’s spit and nasal discharge, perhaps some vomit, gasoline, oil, pesticides, fertilizer, and a thousand other biological materials,” points out Irwin Stromeyer, owner of Sterile Space Infection Defense, a company that offers a range of infection control services.
In fact, according to a recent University of Houston study, more than 26% of shoes worn inside the home are contaminated with Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a bacterium that can cause stomach pain and explosive diarrhea. In a separate study from the University of Arizona, researchers found that 96% of shoe soles also contain fecal bacteria. Gross.
Beyond being utterly disgusting, these stats are especially concerning if you have kids or an elderly person in your household.
“Because their immune systems are weaker, they have a higher chance of getting a more serious infection,” Mitzner points out. “Also, we all know that children, especially younger toddlers, crawl and put everything in their mouths. Keeping shoes off will reduce their risks of being exposed to these bacteria.”
In defense of ‘shoes on’
And yet, despite those scary and repulsive numbers, you might not (necessarily) need to freak out.
“In general, the concern with shoes ‘tracking germs’ is very misplaced,” says Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a board-certified infectious disease physician and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“The planet teems with germs of every type, and our bodies are covered with germs,” Adalja says. “There may be aesthetic reasons to remove shoes if they’re soiled with mud or animal feces, but there are just as many bacteria on socks or bare feet.”
“So, if one removes their shoes,” he asks, “what about all the potential bacteria on their socks?”
Plus, even if you abide by a strict rule of “no shoes,” you can’t escape the fact that the interior of your home is still covered in germs, Adalja says. How reassuring.
Of course, Adalja admits there are some unavoidable exceptions to the shoes-on-indoors policy.
“Obviously, if one is stomping on the dung of livestock and then putting their shoes on the kitchen table, it would be a recipe for infection,” he says.
Put your best foot forward
While there are scientific arguments both for and against pulling off footwear the moment you enter the front door, experts do seem to agree on one thing: To minimize the risk of getting sick, go out of your way to keep a clean home.
Vacuum and clean the carpet. “You should be doing this at least once a week,” says Richard Ciresi, franchise owner of Aire Serv, an HVAC service provider.
Air out your home. Open windows and allow for some cross-ventilation. “The air quality inside is usually much worse than outside, so allow the fresh air to come in and purify,” Ciresi advises.
Read labels. “Many conventional household cleaning products contain powerful chemicals that are toxic to your skin and lungs,” Ciresi says. To keep your immunity system strong, consider making your own household cleaners using common items such as vinegar and baking soda. (Just consult a recipe so you don’t accidentally make a volcano—or worse.) You can also look for nontoxic, ready-made options at your store.
Avoid pesticides. Using pesticides in your yard means you’ll track chemicals all over your house. Whether you’ve got pests inside or out, opt for baits and traps.
Remove smells naturally. If a smell’s dragged into your home on your shoes, don’t pull out a can of potpourri spray to cover it. “Air fresheners cause the buildup of potentially harmful VOCs in your home,” Ciresi says. “If your home is smelly, remove the offending item or air it out naturally.”
If you decide to allow shoes on in your home, at the very least, “I would suggest washing your shoes in the washing machine and cleaning your carpets frequently,” Mitzner says. But “to me, taking off your shoes is so much easier!”
Stephanie Booth’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Real Simple, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Psychology Today. Follow @stephanieBbarth