Deciding whether to take your shoes off at the door really comes down to two things – etiquette and hygiene. Etiquette varies between countries, but the hygiene argument always remains the same. I make it a policy in my house to ask guests to remove their shoes before entering, and there are some very good health reasons for doing so.
Research has shown that wearing shoes into the houses brings in all kinds of nasty parasites, heavy metals and pesticides. These can pose a risk to your health, as well as to the health of your children and pets. Today I’m going to discuss how removing your shoes can improve your health and prevent you from getting ill.
What are you bringing in on your shoes?
A 2008 study by the University of Arizona gave a pair of new shoes to each participant. After the shoes were worn for 2 weeks, researchers examined them for bacteria. They found that the outside of each shoe was covered by an average of 421,000 units of bacteria, including E Coli. In fact, the E Coli bacteria were found on 96% of the shoes!
Other research papers have looked at the constituents of dust within a home. A University of Texas study found that coal tar was being tracked into homes from driveways and parking lots. This matters because a group of known carcinogens named polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons forms a significant part of coal tar. In fact, in 2011 Washington State became the first to completely ban coal tar-based sealants from use in parking lots and elsewhere.
Another study looked at homes in the Salinas Valley, California region. In the 504 homes examined, it found a total of 22 different pesticides. The two most common pesticides were permethrin (a known carcinogenic) and chlorpyrifos (a neurotoxin).
As if harmful bacteria, carcinogens and neurotoxins weren’t enough, there is also evidence that heavy metals like lead and mercury can be tracked into the house on the bottom of your shoes.
Isn’t a little bit of dirt good for the immune system?
Some blame the increase in allergies among today’s children on excessive cleanliness in the house (this is known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’). They say that the absence of germs in modern homes has left the immune systems of a whole generation weakened. However, this was disproved by a study in 2012. In my opinion, airborne pollution, stress and diet are much more likely causes.
Besides, germs are only one part of what gets dragged into the house on the bottom of your shoe. Exposure to lead can cause a drop in IQ, and many of the other chemicals and pesticides on your footwear are likely to be carcinogenic.
When is it OK to keep your shoes on?
From a health point of view it’s always better to remove your shoes, but the etiquette for allowing shoes in the house does vary between countries. For example, in countries like Japan and Korea you must always remove your shoes before entering someone’s house, whereas in many parts of the US and Great Britain it’s perfectly acceptable to leave them on. This is not a simple East vs. West difference though. Taking your shoes off is also customary in Sweden, Turkey, and is even commonplace in parts of the US like the Pacific North West.
There are also religious considerations (Buddhist houses will generally have a ‘shoes-off’ policy), and of course immigrant populations will each have their own cultural traditions. Not to mention those people who have bunions, arthritis or other reasons to cover their feet. Generally though, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you see any other shoes lying near the front door, you should at least offer to take yours off too.
How to ask your guests to remove their shoes
If you live in the Far East, Canada or any other place where shoe removal is customary, you won’t even need to ask. But in other cultures it can lead to some awkward and uncomfortable conversations. Here are some suggestions for breaking the ice and asking your guests in the politest way that you
- Buy a doormat that says ‘Please Remove Your Shoes’
- Buy a small shoe rack to put in your porch – most guests will take the hint
- Place a basket of clean slippers just inside your house
- Hang a small sign next to your front door (here’s a great example!)