Barefoot in the city

Feeling the beach sand between your toes and the grass beneath your feet feels great. Exponents of barefoot living argue that if we weren’t so prissy about it, we could and should spend a lot more time barefoot. Proven health benefits include some relief from back and joint pain; and the development of stronger and more flexible feet.

Here at Health24, we’re not so sure. As upcountry tourists get swept away by the laid-back culture of seaside towns, we set out to investigate whether going barefoot really extends to going about our business in the suburbs and cities,  and all year round. It turns out… well, read on.


Just because walking barefoot is natural, doesn’t mean the floors we walk on are. Unlike nature, the streets are paved with filth: just taking a walk around the block is enough to cake your soles with gunk made of oil, chemical fallout from air pollution, human spit -which could carry TB one of the world’s most notorious killer diseases, lavish traces of animal and human excrement, and any number of other elements you don’t really want to take home.

Sharp objects

No introduction needed here. Almost everyone knows the sharp shock of stepping into something that cuts our feet.

  • In any city, shattered glass is a factor in parks and beaches, but more so on streets and pavements; and even the smallest glass shard can cause an injury which, if not looked after, can lead to infection.
  • Nails, thumb tacks, needles and spikes are the collective nemesis of bare feet. Apart from the pain, scarring is highly likely. Needles and ill disposed syringes can spread infections; and there are some scary viruses out there.
  • However nothing can compare to the annoyance of a splinter or thorn. It  might not be the most painful, but removing the irritant is often very difficult, and gets harder as infection leads to swelling and reddening.
  • Sharp rocks aren’t as common in the city as it in the countryside, but loose tiles, chipped cement and sharp edges are.


South Africa, summer and tar are a nightmare combination for your feet. Hopping from towel to towel on the beach is nothing as nasty as trying to scuttle from patch of shade to patch of shade in the city. The outcome: burns and blisters.


  • First of all diabetics should never go outside without shoes on. Diabetes can cause the nerves on the soles of the feet to become numb, mean pain can go unnoticed. If this happens, it’s potentially the beginning of something ugly: gangrene and foot ulcers are common problems. Diabetes also affects the blood supply, meaning injuries take longer to heal.
  • Although extremely rare it is possible to become infected with HIV should you stand on a needle that has recently been infected.
  • Gangrene is a bacterial infection that causes the living tissues around it to die. It sets in when a deep cut becomes infected, and that infection is left to fester. The cure is radical: the affected area has to be amputated to stop it spreading.
  • Foot ulcers are extremely painful and may take years of therapy before they’re resolved. They’re caused when there is a lack of blood supply to the leg or foot, infection or a trauma to the foot.

Keep safe when walking. Wear shoes.

(Kyle Boshoff, Health24, December 2010)

Read more:

Know your feet type

Feet 101

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