Should you take your shoes off before entering your home?

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

While there are many countries where removing shoes before entering the home is customary, for some reason the practice is far less common in Australia.

In a poll of 122 of my family and friends, 74 per cent said they didn't remove their shoes at the door, with some saying they see it as germ avoidance overkill. 

In many countries there's a dedicated space inside the front door of even the tiniest apartments, where shoes are traded for house slippers. The custom is adhered to not only for cleanliness, but for some, to delineate public and private time.

Mum Ana Lucia Komori says that leaving shoes at the door before entering the home is for leaving the day behind. "When we take our shoes off we are free from all the things that happened to us during the day but that don't belong to our intimacy and spirit at home."

It's a noble notion, and families who remove their shoes are not only contributing to their sense of family cohesion, but according to science, also their health.

Essential Kids spoke to Michael Gillings, Distinguished Professor of Microbiology at Macquarie University, who says we need to remember why we wear shoes in the first place. "We wear shoes to protect our feet - to stop us stepping on things and cutting them - but also to protect them from harmful bacteria that lives outside."

He says, "it's a very good idea to take your shoes off before you enter the house," and research proves that shoes frequently carry dangerous bacteria that can make us sick.

A study done by the University of Arizona discovered how vastly unclean the soles of our shoes are. 

The bad news

Microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba and researcher Jonathan Sexton conducted an experiment where a new pair of shoes was worn for two weeks, and found 440,000 units of bacteria on the soles at the conclusion of that time.

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DW reports that they also "...tested 26 shoes that had been worn for three months and found between 3,600 to 8,000,000 units of bacteria per shoe with the average being 421,000 units."

The shoes harboured lots of harmless bacteria, but also dangerous bacteria such as Clostridium difficile - which can cause diarrhoea, fever, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain and pseudomembranous colitis, a severe and sometime fatal inflammation of the gut lining.

The study also found, "Escherichia coli, known to cause intestinal and urinary tract infections, meningitis and diarrheal disease; Klebsiella pneumonia, a common source for wound and bloodstream infections as well as pneumonia; and Serratia ficaria, a rare cause of infections in the respiratory tract and wounds."

"The common occurrence - 96 per cent - of coliform and E. coli bacteria on the outside of the shoes indicates frequent contact with fecal material, which most likely originates from floors in public restrooms or contact with animal fecal material outdoors," said Dr. Gerba.

The researchers also tested how effectively bacteria transferred to household surfaces when the shoes were worn in domestic environments and found that "90 per cent of the time the bacteria transferred directly," onto sterilised household tiles.

Another study testing for 'Clostridium difficile contamination in household environs' and found that about 40 per cent of the shoes were carrying the difficult-to-treat spores. It also identified shoes as harbouring the "...highest percent of positive samples," among the items tested, which contributed to "...a high rate of environmental contamination."

Dangerous bacteria also survives for long periods of time on shoes. So if you trod in dog poo this morning, you're likely bringing it inside the house this evening.

Scary stuff.

The good news

Yes there is some good news amid these rather horrifying revelations about our shoes. Washing them in ordinary laundry detergent is very effective in removing bacteria. The researchers noted a 99 per cent "...reduction of the bacteria coliform on the outside of the shoes after washing."

For those wondering if foot bacteria is just as bad as bacteria we tromp in on our shoes, the news is also good.

Professor Gillings says that, "...out of nearly 100 million different species of micro-organisms on the planet, there are only about 300 that actually do us any harm. So the chances of transmitting micro-organisms from feet (that have been covered with shoes while outside) and causing disease, is really minimal."

"The exceptions are places where there's lots of water, like showers, bathrooms and changing rooms where we never wear shoes," he adds.

Changing your family's shoe habits

With a family of five, complete with three sneaker-mad boys, I wasn't at all confident we could change the culture of our family.

I made a shopping list including five pairs of slippers, along with two IKEA shoe racks for our hallway that double as benches for putting them on before going out.

With somewhat of a sinking feeling, I looked out to the backyard and realised we need outside shoes to slip on for going out to the washing line and compost bin.

I added five pairs of inexpensive shoes from Kmart and a basket for the back door.

We're a few days in and the kids have adapted to the new world order like ducks to water. I realised the kids do it naturally anyway, often leaving their shoes around the loungeroom. That particular mess has been eliminated.

With the right infrastructure, it's pretty easy and we only need to remain mindful about why we're doing it.

In short, take your shoes off before you enter the house; it's good for your health.