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Some hosts who ask guests to doff their shoes at parties say they're halting germs and dirt at the entryway. But is it really healthier?
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/15/2009 8:47:02 AM ET 2009-12-15T13:47:02

It’s an issue as polarizing as global warming, health care reform or even Sarah Palin. When it comes to gatherings at home, what’s better: shoes on or shoes off?

On one side of the aisle are hosts worried about the dirt, germs and dog poo that can piggyback onto boots, loafers and stilettos — or those who would rather do without the scratches and dents a pair of spike heels can leave in a polished wood floor. On the other side are guests who resent having to semi-undress at their host’s doorstep, not to mention shrink three inches, endure the embarrassment of threadbare socks or suffer an evening of foot pain just to placate a particular friend.

“This issue comes up a lot,” says etiquette coach Jodi R. R. Smith of Boston. “Some people don’t wear shoes in their house for cultural reasons, but it’s usually a health and sanitation thing.”

But is it truly healthier to lose your shoes at the door? To pad around barefoot or in a pair of proffered socks? Or is safer to dig in (and stay in) your holiday heels?

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In a study conducted last year by the shoe company Rockport (as part of a campaign for a new line of washable shoes), 10 people were asked to walk around in a pair of shoes for two weeks. After 14 days, researchers at the University of Arizona analyzed the outside of the shoes and found them to be harboring a host of nasty bacteria (including E. coli) thanks to “frequent contact with fecal material” most likely from public restroom floors or animal doo they’d accidentally stepped in.

But that’s not reason enough to ask guests to doff their shoes at the door (or toss them onto the nearest Yule log), says Dr. Winkler G. Weinberg, chief of infectious diseases at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta, Ga., and author of “No Germs Allowed: How to Avoid Infectious Diseases at Home and on the Road.”

“If you want to prepare your cheeseboard on the bottom of someone’s shoe and eat it without sterilizing it, you could get yourself infected, but in ordinary life, shoes are not a known risk for infection,” he says. “I’m unaware of anyone acquiring an E. coli infection from a contaminated shoe.”

In fact, human bodies may actually be germier than shoes, says Weinberg.

“Your body has more microbial cells than human cells,” he says. “You’re more germ than you are you. I really don’t think there’s any value to these studies where people culture to see how many bacteria there are in any given location. It’s not predictive of human health or transmission of infection.”

The nitty gritty
But what about the dirt and grime you can actually see?

“My house is surrounded by nature so I have a ‘no shoe’ policy inside,” says Carolyn Bartz, a 60-year-old former bookkeeper from Vancouver, Wash. “Otherwise, people will drag in leaves and muck and moss and gravel and all kinds of stuff and it’s a career to clean that up.”

9 surprising places germs lurkBartz says her “no shoe” rule cuts back on carpet wear-and-tear and keeps cleanup to a minimum (because of a disability, vacuuming and mopping can be difficult for her). But her “shoes off” policy has often caused friction between her and her guests.

“I have one friend who takes personal offense and another who says my priorities are mixed up, but I’m not sorry,” she says. “I’m like a soldier; I have my rules. Most people have come to accept my quirky behavior.”

Jessica Gottlieb, a 39-year-old mommy blogger from Los Angeles, says she, too, has rules regarding “no shoe” homes.

“I just don’t go,” she says. “If I get an invitation that says ‘no shoes,’ I make an excuse and say I’m not available. It’s such a control issue. How dare you tell me what to wear? I’ve gone head-to-head with a hostess before and told her, ‘I’m leaving my shoes on. I’ll just stand in your foyer and talk.’”

Jennifer Worick, a 41-year-old Seattle author who writes the blog Things I Want to Punch In the Face, says she also hates encountering that dreaded pile of footwear at the door — not because she doesn’t want to lose control, but because she doesn’t want to lose height.

“I pretty much always wear jeans and pants that require a heel and if I’m caught unawares, I end up looking stumpy and tripping over the hem of my jeans,” she says. “It’s not a good look. Plus between the pant leg and the hardwood floors, I’ve tripped or fallen more than once.”

But it’s not just the slipping and tripping that causes people to hate a “no shoe” household. Big bunions, bad foot odor, strange-looking toes or a past-due pedicure can all give guests cold feet.

Etiquette expert Smith says “sock shock” is one reason you should always let guests know in advance about a no shoe rule — “You don’t want guests to feel surprised or embarrassed” —but putting it on an engraved invitation is taking things too far.

“If it’s a casual invite, like an e-mail invitation, it’s fine, but if it’s a more formal event, you need to find another way to communicate that information,” she says. “Maybe you can let them know your policy as the responses comes in.”

Also key, she says, providing alternative footwear — i.e., slippers or socks.

“That way you don’t embarrass your guests should they have a hole in their sock or something unusual going on with their feet,” she says.

Health hazards
Of course, while communal slippers and socks can hide chipped nail polish and holey heels, some feel they conceal much worse.

“I don’t wear second-hand slippers,” says Gottlieb. “Who wore the slippers before me? It’s the same reason why I’ll never get a pedicure at a nail salon. The foot fungus issue is big to me.”

And going barefoot is no better, say Gottlieb.

“I don’t go barefoot in the gym and I’m certainly not going to get plantar warts from someone’s kitchen floor,” she says. “It’s revolting. Also, I could go my whole life without seeing most husbands’ feet.”

Brooklyn podiatrist Dr. Howard Dinowitz says a basket of communal slippers and sock means one thing to him.

“I think it’s an opportunity for communal fungus,” he says. “It’s not ‘Can it happen?’ It does happen. But I’ve seen people do that at houses. They’ll put on a communal slipper that Uncle George, who’s growing potatoes between his toes, had on yesterday. You have to share that and it’s disgusting. People can also catch athlete’s foot off a bare floor that’s laden with the fungal organism.”

Dinowitz says slippers and socks need to be both laundered — and bleached — to kill contagious fungus and bacteria. But even if hosts insist their alternative footwear is fungus-free, there are many other health reasons why guests might want to remain shod, he says, including plantar fasciitis, neuropathy (a common condition among diabetics), debilitating arthritis, or overuse injuries like Achilles tendonitis.

“Some conditions or disabilities absolutely require arch support,” he says. “You’re in incredible pain without it.”

Etiquette schmetiquette
Unfortunately, some hosts don’t seem to realize their guests may have good reason for refusing to kick off their Keds, says Sherri Bergman, a 44-year-old marketing executive from Sewanee, Tenn.

“I have nail fungus. I’ve had it for 10 or 11 years and it’s fine as long as you don’t make me take my shoes off,” she says. “But when I go to peoples’ homes [with a 'no shoe' policy], there’s usually this awkward moment at the door. Then it’s like, ‘Fine, you can leave them on.’ But it’s clear it’s not OK. You feel like you’ve done something wrong.”

Dinowitz says guests who don’t want to remove their shoes can always “blame the podiatrist.” But a good host shouldn’t need a note from a doctor, says Smith.

“There are bad hosts who browbeat their guests at the door until they take off their shoes, but that’s not right,” she says. “A guest’s feelings and preferences always outweigh the needs of a host.”

Smith suggest a compromise as party-goers try to reconcile weather that’s frightful with footwear that’s delightful. Guests who are traveling through icky weather can either wear boots or old sneakers to their host’s house, then change into clean party shoes upon arrival. Or they can bring a pair of their own slippers or socks to change into. Or if the shoes make the outfit, they can politely decline to remove their fancy footwear.

Hosts worried about the damage their floors might suffer should keep a chair and a basket of freshly-laundered slippers and socks at the front door, roll up and put away rugs they worry might be ruined and, if they have wall-to-wall, should invest in a good carpet cleaning service.

Dinowitz, the podiatrist, says there’s one more thing people might want to keep in mind.

“There’s this new scientific discovery that’s available in many department stores now,” he says. “It’s called a doormat.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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