June 20th is National Flip-Flop Day, and normally that would be cause to rejoice in my life. You see, unless I’m forced to wear heels to something, you better believe you’ll be seeing my feet flying free in a pair of Rainbows. I grew up in Southern California, and the clichés of happy, smiling beachgoers with scantily clad feet are more than true. When I went to college in the Bay Area, did I switch over to my more-sensible, pink Converse high tops for the rainy fall? No, I just didn’t go to class. For three months. After college, in Santa Monica, the bars I'd frequent had but one criteria: They must be the type of establishment where I could wear flip-flops and not feel out of place. So, suffice it to say, when I moved to New York this year, I had no plans on changing my footwear habits once we emerged from our polar vortex. That is, until I found out that wearing flip-flops in NYC is absolutely disgusting.
The realization began to set in when I tossed something into a public trash can on the street. Just as the empty bag hit the top of the garbage pile, an unidentified liquid squirted out of the bottom of the can directly onto my uncovered, flip-flop-clad foot. Two vigorous showers may have removed any physical trace of the disaster, but they did nothing to scrub the close encounter from my mind. Things like this don’t happen in California — in California, you can wear your flip-flops everywhere, because “everywhere” is generally diluted by the fact that most of your time is spent in your car, an environment you control. We just don't walk as much as New Yorkers — and when we do, it's on gorgeous, sparkling sidewalks that all inexplicably lead to the beach. New York, on the other hand? Garbage literally lines the sidewalks, and trash cans are public health hazards. And, while my friend tried to convince me that “it was probably just water,” that accosted me from 'neath the sweltering refuse, this 2009 stunt by the New York Daily News proves otherwise.
The newspaper sent two of its reporters out onto the streets of New York City wearing brand new rubber flip-flops, before sending the shoes to a microbiology laboratory to test just how much bacteria they picked up in a few days. Pair one, which stuck to a fairly routine itinerary of subway rides, walks in the park, and bar hopping, picked up over 18,000 bacteria in a mere four days. Four days! That’s 4,500 bacteria a day or, if you like your numbers even more terrifying, six new bacteria every single minute. The second pair, which followed a similar itinerary but threw in a trip to Coney Island and a public bathroom for good measure, picked up an additional 13,900 bacteria.
But, counting germs doesn't necessarily paint a complete picture — remember your body is full of bacteria, and some of it's good for you. And, your iPhone has 25,107 bacteria per square inch (which is more than what's on a toilet seat, by the way), according to Mashable. Still, the city-hopping sandals did pick up Staphylococcus aureus, a more ominous bacteria, which can cause serious infections and skin boils, and some strains are now being called "antibiotic-resistant superbugs." If that's all a bit nebulous for you, how's this? “If you wear shoes for three months," Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, told the New York Daily News, "93% have fecal bacteria and 20% have E. coli."
The Today show found similar results. As Dr. Charles Tierno told the show, in regards to NYDN’s tested sandals, “These bacteria detected indicate obviously that feces, urine, spit, vomit, and animal droppings were all present.” As someone who has proudly boasted about how long my Rainbow flip-flops have lasted (six years and counting!), I don’t even want to think about what else my pair has picked up over the years. No thanks. No thanks at all.
And, if all that grossness won't deter you, first of all, please never sit next to me, especially with bare feet, and after that, let me know how you feel about permanent foot injuries due to your flimsy shoes. As someone who has once made the mistake of playing an entire game of softball in my thong-shaped slabs of rubber, I can assure you that flip-flops will land you in an orthopedist’s office. To be fair, most of you are probably smart enough not to play intramural sports in open-toed shoes, but even everyday non-athletic wear is well-proven to be pretty injurious to your feet. A 2010 study conducted by UK’s National Health Service found that more than 200,000 people visited doctors in the UK with flip-flop related injuries, and the NHS estimates that it cost over £40 million ($68 million) to treat the issues.
Dr. Andrew K. Sands, an orthopedic surgeon with New York-Presbyterian Hospital and New York Downtown Orthopedic Associates, spoke with me about the risks of such open-air footwear. While foot issues are commonly associated with older patients, he’s seen a good number of young patients with flip-flop related injuries at his practice. “I see plenty [of patients] in my office [who have] been stepped on or [have] hit their forefoot into something, [causing] broken, deformed toes.” He cautions against wearing flip-flops on subways or other mass transit, as “toes get stepped on and sometimes badly crushed.”
And, it’s not just one-off injuries that flip-flop wearers have to watch out for. Per Dr. Sands, “Most flip-flops are not supportive enough, and if distances are going to be walked, then wear a padded, comfortable shoe… They are not good for everyday wear, nor for long hours on your feet. There are now newer types that have padded foot beds, and [those] are better, but still, the forefoot is not protected.” The Huffington Post got a similar lowdown from the American Podiatric Medical Association, which also cautions against repeated flip-flop use. Per the APMA, long-term flip-flop wear can cause tendinitis in the toes from clinging to the strip of fabric next to the big toe, as well as hammer toes and bunions. In addition, overuse combined with a lack of padding and no arch support, can lead to stress fractures in the small bones of the feet, blisters from chafing against plastic or leather, and long-term issues that can lead to a change in gait, which can further threaten the ankles, hips, back, and knees.
Given that I now lay awake at night in horror thinking about flip-flop induced death, I was about ready to retire every pair of non-orthotic shoes I own, but when it came time to throw those perfectly broken-in Rainbows into the trash, I couldn’t bear to part with them, which, according to Dr. Sands, is totally fine. “Flip-flops are good for the beach or pool, or a picnic where you’re going to hang out. [They] are okay in the right circumstances, but…as your mother tells you, use common sense.” Looks like those Rainbows are sticking around for another day — but when death by bunion or drug-resistant staph infection comes to claim me for my stubbornness, please do me one favor? Don’t wear flip-flops to my funeral.