Maybe you kick off your shoes at home because you don’t want to track dirt across clean carpets or floors, or maybe it’s just a relief to shed them. But if you regularly take them off because you’re worried about harmful bacteria from the outside getting inside and making you sick, relax. Those concerns are overblown, according to experts, who added that more pressing health risks are often overlooked.
Contaminated shoes are unlikely to make you sick: It’s possible to transmit germs from your footwear if you touch your shoes and then your face or mouth, for instance, or if you eat food that’s been dropped on the floor. But in the hierarchy of potential health hazards at home, bacteria-caked shoes rank comparatively low, according to Donald W. Schaffner, a food microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
He said there are more important considerations. Is anyone in the house sick? Are there frogs, turtles or snakes nearby, which can carry salmonella? Is food being stored and prepared properly?
Sponges, which retain water and food particles, are a “cesspool” of bacteria, said Dr. Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.
Outside the home, there are objects and surfaces that are frequently touched but seldom, if ever, washed, such as money, ATM buttons and gas station pump handles, he said, adding, “Focusing on people’s shoes feels like focusing on the wrong vector.”
Overall, experts emphasized that washing your hands with soap and water remained the most important health practice.
Dirt can be healthy. Really. Considering the benefits of modern-day sanitation, vaccinations and health care, the likelihood of getting sick from our shoes is “infinitesimally small as to almost be unwarranted,” said Jack A. Gilbert, a professor in the department of pediatrics and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
Gilbert, an author of the book “Dirt Is Good,” said there were theories suggesting that bringing elements of the outdoors indoors could help stimulate autoimmune systems, particularly in children.
In the first year of life, physical interaction with a dog can reduce a child’s likelihood of developing asthma by 13%, while interactions in a barn or farm can reduce it by 50%, he said.
When should you take off your shoes? It’s best to take your shoes off if you have young children crawling on floors or people in the home who have allergies, because pollen can be transferred to floors, especially to carpets.
“In cases where your immune system is compromised - people who have cancer, have undergone an organ transplant, have an infection - then there is much more of a reason to take your shoes off when you come home,” Cuchara said.
If the person you are visiting prefers that you take your shoes off, it’s sound etiquette to abide by their wishes, said April Masini, who writes about relationships and etiquette for her website, Ask April.
“Even if you don’t see shoes at the entrance, you can always ask if your host would like you to take off your shoes upon entering,” she said.
It is also a common practice observed in Asian and Middle Eastern countries, said Benjamin Hiramatsu Ireland, an assistant professor of modern language studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
“Removing one’s shoes upon entering a home stems from the respectful observance of religious practices that have been integrated within the cultural fabric and expected ‘to-dos’ of each of these countries and, of course, for reasons pertaining to hygiene,” he said.
The New York Times