Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Used shoes

I wear used shoes. I buy them for me AND for my children.

And if this horrifies you, I apologize. But the truth is, there are LOTS of people out there who buy used shoes, and we all sort of tip-toe around the people who say, “Maybe used clothes are okay, but you should NEVER buy used shoes,” or who say, “Shoes conform to the foot of the person who wore them last, and they’ll damage another persons’ feet.” If used shoes revolt you, you can stop reading here. I’m fine with you buying new shoes, honestly I am. You don’t have to live the way I do.

If you’re still reading this, then, I’ll assume you don’t think used shoes are child abuse, but maybe you’re plagued by people who tell you it is. The rest of this post is supposed to be a bit of oil on your troubled waters. This is going to be a long post because the urban legends surrounding used shoes are so pervasive that we Used-Shoers need a lot of support.

Here’s an important caveat: from everything that I have read and heard about, the real shoe problem is ill-fitting shoes, not used shoes. Some people (like my niece) have feet with special needs, and the only reasonable way to accommodate those needs is by getting special shoes, which are necessarily new. Other people develop injuries from wearing badly fitting or inappropriate shoes (high heels are terrible for your knees, whether they’re new or used). I am NOT saying that any-old shoe is fine. What I AM saying is that used shoes aren’t inherently worse than new ones at fitting right.

To understand the health risks involved with used shoes, let’s compare it to two other issues we know about: processed foods and electronic entertainment. I’ll describe how we get health information about all three (shoes, food, and TV/video) in a variety of ways.

One way we get quick information about the world around us is through stories about people we know (or about people who know people we know). Anecdote isn’t the most reliable way of knowing the world, but it’s the most immediate and personal. Have you ever known a person who
  • got cavities from eating too much candy or drinking too much soda? 
  • watched TV/played videos instead of playing outdoors, and was physically out of shape? 
  • had foot problems because of used shoes? 
For me, the answer is “yes” to the first two (many times) and “no” to the third. I do know someone who had foot problems because his parents only bought him new shoes once every other year, and as a result he often wore shoes the wrong size. But he never wore pre-owned shoes; the problem was the size. Your answers might be different than mine, of course. That’s the problem with anecdote.

Popular media
Newspapers, magazines, and TV give us a broader glimpse of the world than our circle of friends can. I don’t watch TV, and I don’t know what newspapers or magazines you read, so I’ll choose two magazines that are somewhat more numbers-based than what most people read.

My Health Insurance company sends me out an e-newsletter that tries its best to keep me healthy.
  • When I searched for “processed food” I immediately got links to “high blood cholesterol and triglycerieds” and “Diverticulitis”. 
  • When I searched for “video games”, I got 12 results, including articles on “weight control”, “physical activity”, “epilepsy”, and “stress”. 
  • When I searched “used shoes”, I got nothing. 
  • When I searched for "new shoes", I got this.
    Most foot pain is caused by shoes that do not fit properly or that force the feet into unnatural shapes (such as pointed-toe, high-heeled shoes). Women are at higher risk than men for severe foot pain, probably because of high-heeled shoes. Wear well-padded shoes with open toes or a deep toe box (the part of the shoe that surrounds the toes).          
    ... the first few times you exercise in your new shoes, but it is a good start.Your own biomechanics -- ...        
    The latest Consumer Reports has a "you asked and our doctors answered" page. One question was, "What is the single most important thing I can do to improve my health?" None of the doctors talked about shoes. One answered simply, “Eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods." Another began, “Practice prevention consistently. A good diet, exercise, and stress reduction . . . "

    In other words, giving up processed breakfast cereal and video games makes a big difference in health. The health dangers of used shoes was nowhere on this list.

    Our close friends and newspaper reporters (even Consumer Reports writers) aren’t health experts. What do the professionals say?

    The Journal of the American Medical Association lists articles by current medical researchers.  Here are the numbers of hits I got on various  searches:
    • "processed foods":  33 hits
    • "video games": 46 hits
    • "used shoes":  3 hits

      What were the used shoes articles about? One article is about how to sterilize shoes (damp shoes can grow fungus; whether they're new or used, dry those shoes out!) The other two articles describe how the researchers used shoes in their research: for example, the researchers “used shoes around the ankle and plaster of paris around the leg to stablilize the patient.” None of these articles talk about damage caused by wear patterns in used shoes.
    The American Podiatric Medical Association has a page on "Foot Health".   Their sections on “Children’s Shoes”, “Women’s Shoes”, and “Men’s shoes” all boil down to this: wear shoes that fit your foot and that fit the activity you’re doing.  They do have one section that says this:

    Shoe Care 
    For longer service, keep shoes clean and in good repair. Avoid excessive wear on heels and soles. Give your shoes a chance to breathe—don’t wear the same pair two days in a row (you prolong the life of shoes by rotating their use). Never wear hand-me-down shoes (this is especially important for children).
    Is this last-minute-warning against hand-me-down shoes the evidence the new-shoers are looking for? To me, this still smacks of urban-legendism. There is absolutely no rationale given for this advice. It’s buried in shoe care, not foot care. It comes after “don’t wear the same pair two days in a row” – a piece of advice that hasn’t made it into the popular consciousness, for sure. I include this line here because I’m trying to be fair, but I’m not buying it.

    The absence of activism
    Finally, a big piece of evidence about the safety of used shoes comes from what you do NOT see. In the case of processed foods, you can read all the time about activists getting het-up: people suing fast food chains, lobbying schools to include vegetables, opening farmers’ markets in urban areas, pressuring McDonald’s to include apples in addition to processed fries.

    In the case of electronic entertainment, you read about school districts worried about video games, about volunteer groups forming school-aged exercise clubs in response to video sloth, about people suing video game makers for violent acts that (they claim) arose as a result of people playing those games.

    Goodwill and Salvation Army sell lots of used shoes. As far as I know, nobody is suing them for resulting injuries. Nobody is sponsoring “give a kid a pair of new shoes” program in urban schools to counteract used-shoe damage. Nobody has started a charity to rehabilitate people who grew up wearing used shoes.

     All my shoes, like all my clothes, are from yard sales or from friends.  I've worn used running shoes for about two decades now, and my knees are still just fine.   I ran my last couple of races -- including a 10K and a half marathon -- in my two-year-old, $1-at-a-yard-sale, hot pink running shoes.  (I didn't come close to winning the races, though.  No promises there).
    Here's a nearly-new pair of shoes after one month of wear by my younger son.  He loves these, but he's not wearing them again anyway.

    My two sons are hard on shoes.  Really, really hard.  They can destroy a pair of shoes in a month if they're feeling especially peppery, and they have not recently managed to keep a pair of shoes for as long as three months.  (New shoes last no longer than used shoes on my boys, just in case you're wondering). For me, having a large pile of shoes ready and waiting is a crucial part of my clothing strategy.  I might be nuts enough to squirt their feet into used shoes, but at least they always have access to a pair of shoes that is in decent condition and the right size.  And to me, that's what matters most.

    Through yard-saling and hand-me-downs, I have a large collection of shoes in good condition to move my sons into.  I spent about $20 on these 22 pairs of shoes.


    1. I wear them loud and wear them proud! My favorite is the Re-uzit shop where I can buy nice ones for fifty cents to $2.

    2. i love second hand shops theres one i go to alot they have a poopload of toys and cheap babies clothes ill buy almost anything used and i am proud

    3. Frédéric DeslauriersOctober 28, 2011 at 3:19 AM

      I saw a link to your article while looking for some used baby furniture on Craig's List. Thank you for discussing this subject. After reading this article, I wish to point out (what I think to be) a few good and "not so good" aspects of your review of the issue at hand. Also, please forgive my mistakes as English is not my fist language.

      First of all : I do not think that the lack of availability of information on a subject should be used as a core argument on the validity of a certain issue. Sometimes, we have been doing something for so long that we even forgot why we started to do it in the first place. Maybe the founding arguments that justified a certain course of action are still valid, maybe they are not anymore. It appears to me that such an issue as the use of hand-me-down shoes might have been around for so long that we forgot why it is we do things that way.

      I'm no expert on the matter, but it appears to me that the potential problems with the use of hand-me-down shoes reside in 2 categories : 1) presence of fungus - 2) structural issues that could affect one's posture.
      1) I guess there are easy ways to determine if a certain pair of shoes in infected with fungus and, at this day in age, maybe even way to disinfect shoes with bacteria in them.
      2) That leaves us with structural issue. Obviously, shoes need to fit and that criteria could be met by a used pair of shoes. The big problem is to determine if there is such a thing as an acceptable deformation and, if so, what it is.

      After a quick search, I found a few other links that discuss the issue; mostly in favor of your point of view. That being said, I did not research on the validity of the sources used for said discussions. Here are two that sum it all up :
      You will see that there is no detailed explanation on how to determine if a shoe is "not too used" and still ok to be worn by another person.

      Basically, I think we can say that it is definitely possible, with the use of good judgment, to find hand-me-down shoes that will do just fine. That being said, some people would rather not take that chance because the problems that could occur if a mistake is made are severe and could result in long term, irreversible consequences.

      I would be very happy to receive your comments about my post ( More over, if you ever find specific information on how to choose hand-me-down shoes, it would be nice for you to share it because most of us are looking for ways to spend less money on material necessities (while remaining on the safe side).

    4. Mr. Deslauriers,

      I wish that my English-speaking college freshmen could write as articulately and clearly as you do! (Or maybe I don't -- I'd be out of a job if they already knew how to write so well).

      I have replied to your comment at length on my blog on October 31.

    5. Thanks for the great arguments in favor of used shoes:) I referenced them in a post on my new blog focused on daily parenting time & money saving tips. Here's the link:

      It turns out that the experts talked with for the post agree with you that used shoes are a fine money saving tip, with a few caveats.

    6. I buy used shoes all the time, because they're way cheaper and they're already broken-in. I have found that more foot problems come from not wearing shoes. I just had to make my own arch supports because I'm a work from home mom that rarely wears shoes. Here's the tutorial on the arch supports. You can make them for less than $20.

      1. I *love* these arch supports! In fact, I'm going to share this idea with my sister, in case she wants to make some from her daughter. They live in sunny southern California, where shoes are not the necessity they are here in persnickity Pennsylvania. But her daughter definitely needs arch supports -- this might help her out. -MM

    7. I twisted my ankle wearing my friend's shoes out for a night. She overpronates, and the wear pattern of the shoes reflected that. I have a pretty balanced foot, so it didn't work so well for me! I have bought used shoes, in the past, but usually discovered after wearing once or twice wearing, what the original (brief) owner discovered -- that the shoes were cheap and uncomfortable. The blisters and ankle issues aren't worth it to me. I buy new shoes on sale and take care of them.

    8. Hi there, i have recently been trawling through charity shops and have bought 2 pairs of trainers. They had been worn slightly i disinfected them and wear them all the time. I am not hard up just like to have a bargain. From emma