When I was little, I used to take swim lessons at my local YMCA. It was wonderful, it really was, but the one thing I can vividly remember is walking around barefoot in the locker room, my tiny feet (and tiny self) unaware of the bacteria on the floor. Being dirty didn't phase me. I was princess of the Y, after all. Am I mortified? Yes. Would I do this today? Not a chance. And, in case you need convincing, we spoke to podiatrist Miguel Cunha, founder of Gotham Footcare, about why we should keep our bare feet away from gym floors for good.
"Walking barefoot exposes our feet to bacterial and fungal organisms that can infect the skin and nails," Dr. Cunha said. "These organisms can lead to infections that change the appearance, smell, and comfort of the foot, such as athlete's foot or fungal nails." These are "highly contagious" infections that are commonly contracted in communal bathrooms and gyms. Athlete's foot specifically is caused by fungus similar to mold, which feeds on dead skin and nails, he explained. "These organisms first infect the skin, and then they may spread, leading to thickening, discoloration, and brittleness of the nails." Athlete's foot can become itchy and sometimes painful, and can also have an unpleasant odor.
How to Treat Athlete's Foot
"Oftentimes, people with dry, scaly feet assume that their feet need to be moisturized with an everyday cream," said Dr. Cunha, when it's in fact athlete's foot and they really need antifungal medication. "The best way to treat an infection is to first determine whether the infection is bacterial or fungal. Most infections that present with scaliness and itchiness to the bottom of the foot and in between the toes are a result of athlete's foot," he noted, adding that it's worth trying an over-the-counter antifungal medication for two to three weeks to see if the condition improves. If there's no improvement, you'll need to get a prescription-strength medicine from a doctor. If the infection travels to your nails, you might need an antifungal oral medication.
The Simple Solution
"Always wear flip flops to prevent infection from germs that can be picked up when walking barefoot," Dr. Cunha said. He also suggested spraying Lysol on your shoes regularly and changing your socks at least once a day, even if you aren't going to the gym. "Socks are used to provide a layer of warmth and protection between your skin and the outside surface," he explained. "Once they become moist, they are a breeding ground for bacteria." You should change your socks more than once if you're working out and sweating a lot, he noted. Cotton or wool socks "absorb moisture better," he said, and "some athletic socks and medicated insoles are designed to keep feet dry. You can also get special antibacterial socks, which have a deodorizing effect, in your shoes."
So, the next time you want to remove your socks and shoes in any part of the gym locker room without protection (showers included), don't take a page out of my little-girl handbook — take a page out of Dr. Cunha's.