Barefooters have to watch out for a number of hazards in the field, but very few barefooters resources talk about the hazards of just ordinary wear and tear - cracked heels, dry skin, skin infections, and so on.
To that end, I've put together this list of ideas that I think barefooters of all stripes can use to keep their feet healthy and hygienic. Some of these may elicit a negative reaction from more hardcore barefooters, but I hope that you'll give me the benefit of reading through my whole post before making judgments. These are my opinions, based on my almost 20 years of going barefoot as often as possible (I'm able to be barefoot between 80-100% of each day). So without further ado:
1. The Deep Clean - Let's face it...when you go barefoot, you get dirty feet. It's inevitable, and typically it's nothing we need to worry about. If we are practicing regular hygiene (showering, wiping your feet, etc.) dirt shouldn't get to the point where it can impact your health or hygiene. But for every speck of dirt we can see, there are many more that we can't. It's this dirt that I think we should be taking care to address now and then. Many barefooters wear their "black soles" as a badge of office, and I can appreciate that fact. However, even if you relish the idea of your dirty soles clearly demonstrating to everyone around you that you proudly go barefoot, it also doesn't hurt to, every once in a while, break out the soap, the loofah and maybe even a nice gritty foot scrubbing cream, and scrub those tootsies. The truth is, if you're a barefooter 24/7 or close to it, chances are that you won't be able to get them completely clean anyway - some residue of dirt sinks below the epidermis or clings to the crevices of your sole pads, making it difficult to ever eliminate every trace or stain of dirt from your soles. The idea here is not to chase after perfectly clean soles - the object of the Deep Clean is to help your body slough off some of the dead skin cells and keep dirt buildup to a reasonable level. This step is particularly relevant to those of us who do not or cannot go barefoot 24/7, as transferring dirt, mold and bacteria from your soles to a sandal or shoe, even for a few minutes, can actually result in infections like plantar warts.
2. The Sole Scrub - This point is sure to raise some controversy among barefooters. I know I've argued this point with a few of my fellow 'footers and I might very well be alone in my thinking on this. But I am going to stand by my views on this: Every few weeks, we should be using a foot file or a pumice stone, and taking down some of the thickened skin that builds up on our heels, balls of our feet and toes. I know, barefooter blasphemy right? Well hear me out for just a second. There's a distinct difference between thick barefooter's pads and callus. One feels smooth and tough, like polished, supple leather. The other feels rough and gritty, almost like sandpaper. Being a barefooter only requires thickened skin, but not to the degree that the skin forms a callus. I've been going barefoot for almost twenty years, and in that time, I routinely do this myself, or go to get a pedicure and get the worst of the callus removed. Contrary to what most barefooters may think, I have never experienced a decrease in my tolerance level without calluses - in fact I personally find that keeping my soles thick, but callus free results in increased sensitivity, not less. The reason that I believe it's unnecessary to carry calluses around is that eventually, calluses can start to dry out, crack and cause pain and open sores. This is not good for people who walk through dirty streets, as you are at increased risk of infection. Again, as in point 1, if you go barefoot with regularity, you should have a nice thick, but smooth, build-up of skin, and then a layer of callus on top of that. Keeping your skin from thickening to the point of drying and cracking is the aim here, so feel free to use this step to whatever level you feel comfortable with. I know that many barefooters will simply flat out disagree with my way of thinking on this point, and I understand their reticence somewhat, so take it or leave it. But it's my opinion, and is backed up by my own experience, that even a little bit of this is better than nothing at all.
3. Water Please - Perhaps it's a fair bit of irony that exposing our bare feet to more moisture can actually result in our feet drying out more than most, but it's something that I've taken note of, living up here in the Pacific Northwest where my feet routinely splash through puddles and rainstorms, and the winter air and the cold can sap moisture from my skin. But no matter where you live, the climate and the environment we walk in can have an adverse affect on your feet. So it helps to apply some moisturizing lotion or creme to your feet on a somewhat regular basis (every day or every week). Because of the climate where I live and how much water my feet are exposed to, I actually do this once a day. I can see and feel a dramatic difference in the quality of the skin on my feet when I don't. The benefit to moisturizing is that you maintain your suppleness and skin elasticity much more when your feet aren't starving for moisture. However, I suppose some people will look at this step and counter by asking how our primitive ancestors got by without moisturizing lotion. It's true, that this is not a requirement for living barefoot. But as a barefooter living in the modern era, with all the pros and cons that that brings, I prefer to have healthy looking feet, with supple, elastic skin instead of flaky, dry itchy skin.
4. Toe Tips - The basics of caring for your toes are even more important for us barefooters than for most. Although not wearing shoes helps us prevent many toe conditions and ailments, we should pay careful attention to the state of our nails and cuticles. Almost all of the injuries I've sustained while barefoot have been to my toes, and could have been prevented with more careful attention to their care. Uneven or long toenails can snag, even on blacktop (and this can actually rip part or all of your nail right off - I have personal experience with this one) or tear, or gather dirt or fungus, which if left unattended could present larger problems. So keep your toenails trimmed, which will help keep dirt from gathering underneath the nail bed, and take care of any ragged cuticles that could peel back to an open sore, which could cause you discomfort or get infected. There are some good products out there (nail oils, etc.) that can help keep your cuticles in good shape, as well as give your toenails an extra does of Vitamin E, which helps them stay strong and prevent chipping and breaking.One note on nail trimming - unlike shod people who are counseled to trim their toenails straight across to prevent ingrown toenails, barefooters can, and should, follow the natural curve of their toes. Without the constrictive forces of shoes to pinch the nails into the skin surrounding the nail bed, ingrown toenails are not an issue for barefooters, even with curved toenails.
5. The Whole Enchilada - This is particularly relevant for barefoot runners, but the lessons here apply to anyone who goes barefoot frequently. As often as we can, we should be checking all the structures of our feet, and doing regular stretches and strengthening exercises to keep them in top shape. Push, pull, flex, point, and massage your feet every way possible. Do this for about 10-15 minutes a day, and make note of any pains, strains, and unusual sensations. In my own personal routine, I do daily check-ins, and every other day I do stretches and strengthening. Very often, our body can send us very subtle signals that something is wrong BEFORE we suffer a debilitating injury. Don't wait until you suffer an arch pull when running...check in with your feet on a regular basis! If something seems out of whack, play gently until if feels back to normal. This is also the easiest step, because it's a great thing to do while sitting at the computer reading an article like this one, or while watching your favorite show or reading a book before bed.
One other minor point before I conclude this post: Perhaps one of the reasons I subscribe to these things is that I see myself as a barefoot ambassador. In other words, one of the goals I have when I go out barefoot is that am presenting "the case for bare feet" in the court of public opinion. And as an ambassador trying to win acceptance from people to let us live our lives without being hassled for our lack of footwear, the image I present to them is important. Like it or not, I have seen the negative stereotypes of the "barefooter" in the eye of the public: grungy, hippy, long-haired, dirty, smelly, etc. Irregardless of how accurate or inaccurate these stereotypes are, I think that the more effort we put into showing that barefooters can and do take good care of themselves and their feet, the more chance we have of swaying others and changing their minds about what a barefooter actually is. It's easy to dismiss the guy or girl who looks like he doesn't care. I hope that by changing people's views on who they expect barefooters to be, and how well they care for themselves, that we'll be able to get others to stop and think just a bit about their preconceptions about us, rather than make a snap judgment.
So that's it for now. In closing, I acknowledge that some of these tips and suggestions may not be every barefooter's cup of tea. That's OK - each person can choose what works for them. But my philosophy about being a barefooter has always been: put your feet first. We barefooters know - they're pretty special, these feet of ours! And yes, they're amazing in so many ways, and have evolved to take tremendous amounts of punishment and come back fighting. But even with that, we should not simply expect them to handle whatever we throw at them! Treat your feet well, and your whole body will thank you. Barefooters more than any other group of people appreciate how much joy healthy, strong feet can bring. I hope that these tips can help more of my barefoot brothers and sisters keep their feet healthy longer.