Anyone who has ever pounded the pavement in strappy sandals knows that, by dusk, your soles are the color of the asphalt you’ve been strolling. We won’t even get into the “tan line” of grime around your ankle strap.
After finding out what your feet have picked up—a seriously unappetizing stew of germs—you may be ready to ditch your Havaianas for a pair of knee-high boots.
“When walking on the street in something like a flip-flop, you are exposing your foot to vomitus, human waste, dog feces, sputum expectorated by people—some of whom may have microbacteria—and a wide variety of other things like food or liquids that have been brewing in the hot sun,” says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center and author of "Secret Life of Germs."
The kind of cooties you find on city streets, he says, include norovirus (that scourge of cruise ship passengers), staph aureus, types of strep, E. coli and drug-resistant superbugs like Pseudomonas, Klebsiella pneumonia and MRSA. “The summer heat,” he adds, “acts like an incubator.”
If your feet have cuts or open blisters, you may unknowingly be laying out a welcome mat to the viruses and bacteria stuck to the street. But even if you’re abrasion-free, you can transfer all of that nasty stuff the moment you handle your flip-flops when you slip them off or drop them in your bag to change into heels.
Explains Tierno, “You’re exposed to something even worse—these organisms on your hands.” According to Dr. Tierno, 80 percent of all infectious diseases are transmitted by direct or indirect touching—kissing or picking up a dirty shoe—then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
But before you reserve a spot in the nearest plastic bubble, there is good news. “Your skin is built to protect you from getting infected by its very nature,” says Jeannette Graf, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. The dead skin layer known as the stratum corneum is thickest on the hands and feet and is considered your body’s first line of defense. “Our skin makes antimicrobial peptides that fight against bacteria and viruses and lots of different pathogens,” explains Dr. Graf.
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