It happens every morning: Your friend convinces himself the laundry can wait one more day. Now his serial procrastination has led to an empty sock drawer, and a desperate rescue mission to retrieve yesterday’s argyles from the overflowing hamper. It’s nothing a few sprays of Febreze can’t fix. Besides, he rationalizes, his feet will be tucked into his sneakers all day. Just how bad could it be?
Your feet contain nearly 250,000 sweat glands and excrete as much as a half-pint of moisture a day, according to the California Podiatric Medical Association. When this moisture—along with dead skin cells—accumulates in our socks, it creates a near-perfect environment for bacteria to thrive, including potentially harmful types like staphylococci.
“These conditions will increase bacterial growth since the shoe maintains a nice humid environment for organisms to proliferate,” says Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU School of Medicine. The more bacteria there is, the greater the likelihood that your pal’s feet will stink like vinegar and piss.
Dark socks made from synthetic fibers offer bacteria the most ideal conditions for bacteria: “Cotton allows a little more breathing room with regard to that humid environment, as opposed to synthetics, which sort of lock in the humidity, guaranteeing more growth,” Tierno says. The conditions created by sweat and dark dyes in the sock fibers encourage a population explosion of the flora found on our feet.
If enough moisture is present, the concentration of organisms can be so high that, even after washing your feet, the odor sticks around—and can even carry over to a fresh pair of socks, Tierno says.
The Worst That Will Happen
Aside from a smell that may or may not incapacitate a small child, the high level of bacteria growth can affect the ability of the body tissues to regenerate and repair the skin on our feet. It’s not just the bacteria itself you need to worry about, but its byproducts, which include enzymes that degrade organic materials such as fats and proteins, ultimately irritating the skin. Tierno warns that the growth of bacteria, production of enzymes, and skin irritation all make it much easier for your feet to fall victim to a nasty skin infection (especially if you have any abrasions or cuts). But keep in mind, it would take a good amount (like a few weeks worth) of not-showering and re-wearing to get to such a critical—and disturbing—point.
What Will Probably Happen
With all that bacteria enjoying an extended stay at the Sock Inn, you’ll smell extremely bad after several days of re-wearing (and sweating). The greater the amount of sweat produced, the greater the risk of a foot odor problem. And depending on how long you decide to wear a single pair, the stench will only get worse, Tierno says. Generally speaking, the risk for infection is low, but the inescapable smell could help you figure out who your friends really are.
What To Tell Your Friend
Tell your friend to get off his ass and do his laundry already. If re-wearing is unavoidable, Tierno admits one more wear is probably okay, but continuous wear is a no-no. He’ll want to opt for non-dyed cotton socks, which will help reduce moisture and odor. It’s always important to wash feet thoroughly with soap and make sure to dry in between the toes before pulling on any old or new socks. “If you’re stuck on a deserted island, that’s a different story,” Tierno says. “Under normal conditions, rewearing is not a good idea.”
Published on VICE Tonic