Please note: This article is not about extolling the virtues of flip-flops vs. other footwear for people who usually wear shoes. This article is for people who normally live barefoot, and in that context may occasionally need some temporary footwear when being barefoot may not be possible or practical.
Being barefoot is the most natural and healthiest way for humans to live, as the human foot was never designed to be be closed up in restrictive shoes. Shoes in fact are the cause of at least 90% of all foot problems suffered by people.
Some kind of ‘footwear’ may be needed for special purposes at times
Of course, there are some times and occasions that some type of footwear needs to be worn – whether that need is due to weather conditions or due to some arbitrary and unreasonable “requirement” of some facility we may need to enter, with no other choice or option.
The simple flip-flop is the very closest thing to actually being barefoot that is generally accepted as being “shoes” in our modern society.
Flip-flops are a simple sandal, and date back to ancient times
Flip-flops are a type of sandal, consisting of a flat sole held loosely on the foot by a Y-shaped strap between the first and second toes and around both sides of the foot near the front. This style of footwear, thong sandals, has been worn for thousands of years, dating back to pictures of them in ancient Egyptian murals from 4,000 BC.
In the United States, the flip-flop evolved from the Japanese zori, which became popular after World War II as soldiers brought them back from Japan. They became popular footwear in the U.S. starting in the 1960s, first worn mainly by women, then gradually adopted by men as casual dress in general became more popular.
Flip-flops, worn all over the world, may be referred to by different names
Today, flip-flops are worn regularly by billions of people around the world, either seasonal or year round, especially in countries with generally warm climates.
Flip-flops are called different things in different places, and that has also changed over time. When they first appeared as a product for sale to the public, sometime in the late 1950s, they were called “shower shoes,” and were basically meant to wear when taking a shower, especially in a place that wasn’t so clean.
In Hawaii, where I first saw them actually being worn in public many years ago, they were called “slippers,” and I think they are still called that there. When they later became popular with the mainstream public on the U.S. mainland, manufacturers began referring to them as “thongs,” and that’s the name they went by for many years.
Then, as fashion inevitably changes, somewhere around the early 1990s, a very skimpy style of women’s underwear began becoming popular. It was based somewhat on the string bikini swimsuit, and manufacturers began referring to those skimpy female panties as “thongs.”
“Thongs” as underwear became more and more popular, so there began to be a confusion in terms. Most people then, hearing the word “thongs,” began to think of women’s skimpy underwear, not footwear.
So, to alleviate the confusion, the term “flip-flops” came into existence to refer to the footwear, and the word “thongs” as referring to footwear became a rare use of the term for most Americans.
Some other countries of the world, such as Australia, continue to this day referring to flip-flops as “thongs.” Other countries of the world use even different terms to refer to flip-flops, such as “jandals” in New Zealand.
Flip-flops started being worn and accepted in the U.S. around 1960
When I got out of the Navy, in the early ‘60s, I wore them often outside of work, but very few men at that time – except hippies – would ever appear in public wearing sandals, much less the flimsy flip-flop type of sandals.
Around that time and before, anyone needing a break from wearing regular shoes would simply go barefoot. Being barefoot at that time was quite common, especially among teenagers and young adults, and did not have the negative stigma that we sometimes see today.
Flip-flops have seemed to replace barefooting over the years
As flip-flops became more popular and accepted by society, more and more people who might otherwise have chosen to simply be barefoot began wearing flip-flops in public.
Interestingly, the popularity and acceptance of wearing flip-flops in public paralleled the decline of people being barefoot in public. It can be argued that current flip-flop wearing indeed has been the main reason very few people can be seen going barefoot in public nowadays.
Back when people’s only choice was to either wear closed shoes or go barefoot, a lot of people chose being barefoot. There was just nothing else, since sandals or flip-flops just were not worn by anybody in public. If somebody did, they would be stared at and thought of as kind of weird (kind of like what happens now when you go barefoot in public).
Flip-flops are the closest footwear to actually being barefoot
Flip-flops are the closest footwear to actually being barefoot for the following reasons:
1. Almost all the foot remains bare and open to fresh air and light. The only part that is consistently in contact with the skin is the thin strap (usually about 1/2 inch in diameter) between the first and second toe and around the front part of the foot.
The sole of the flip-flop comes into direct contact with the bottom of the foot only during the step-down phase of the gait when the body weight comes down on each foot.
But with flip-flops, that’s only momentarily, unlike regular sandals that are strapped tightly to the foot front and back, forcing the foot to constantly remain in contact with the sandal sole. During the other part of the gait with flip-flops, the foot is off the ground and the sole is only loosely hanging on by the front strap between the toes.
2. Flip-flops can be easily just slipped off the foot when not needed to be on the foot. In other words, if just sitting, a flip-flop can be removed without even touching it – and then slipped back on when needed, again without even touching it.
3. Since flip-flops aren’t bound or strapped to the feet – like shoes or regular sandals – the feet are free and unfettered and are able to use all their muscles as needed for each step when walking. That includes unique and subtle movements of the toes at certain points during the gait to keep the flip-flop from sliding off the foot.
The internet abounds with articles condemning flip-flops with blatantly false or misleading statements
A strange phenomenon has occurred in recent years on the internet with numerous articles strongly condemning flip-flops and the wearing of them. Most of these articles include false statements and allegations of how flip-flops damage the feet and other body parts. These statements have no basis in fact or legitimate scientific studies whatsoever, and apparently are based only on personal bias.
Negative statements against flip-flops may also come from a veiled economic interest. Flip-flops are cheap – manufacturers make much more profit selling shoes. Flip-flops also don’t damage feet like long-term shoe wearing does – podiatrists make more money treating feet that regularly wear shoes, not flip-flops (and certainly not bare feet).
Here are a few examples of the false or misleading statements being made in various internet articles about flip-flops. These few statements below were directly copied from one article I saw, but certainly do not represent all or the extent of flip-flop “horror stories” that can be found published on the internet – some listing almost every foot ailment known to mankind and blaming flip-flops for causing them. Almost none of the foot ailments attributed to flip-flop wearing can be backed up by empirical evidence, known scientific studies, or even basic logic.
(1) “Scarce support: If you plan to walk with flip flops on, it could turn out to be painful for you in the long run, since they have no heel cushioning, no arch support and no shock absorption.”
Those attributes – no heel cushioning, no arch support, no shock absorption – are in fact the advantages of flip-flops. That’s why they are similar to being barefoot, and therefore help make your feet stronger and more natural.
(2) “Little protection: Flip flops give your feet little protection in terms of keeping them away from the harsh sun rays or saving them from insect bites. You’re probably going to be left with sunburned toes. They also leave your feet exposed to bacteria and fungal infections.”
No protection from the “sun” or “insect bites”? That’s almost laughable as an excuse to not wear flip-flops.
As to exposed to bacteria and fungal infections, exposure to bacteria or fungi is not what causes infections. Bacteria and various fungi are everywhere, including on human skin at all times. Bacteria or fungi will not survive, grow, and infect unless it is closed up in a dark, damp place like a closed shoe. A flip-flop does not provide the unique environment needed for bacteria or fungi to grown and infect a human foot.
(3) “Lead to bad posture: Flip flops mess with our posture as they are extremely flat. They don’t bend like our foot and tends to alter the biomechanics, which in turn affects our posture.”
No, flip-flops don’t “bend like our foot.” They don’t need to. With flip-flops, the foot is not locked down or strapped to the sole like they would be with shoes or regular sandals, so as each step is made, the foot is free to naturally bend on its own.
“Altering biomechanics” is just nonsensical babble, and flip-flop walking has no negative effect on posture any more than any other footwear does.
(4) “Destroys the heel: With flip flops on, your heel hits the ground with a lot more force with nothing to protect it except a thin piece of sole. “The heel-strike impact increases when you walk in flip flops for a long time and can cause pain.”
This is similar to the myth that walking barefoot with a heel strike is unnatural and will damage the body. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that since flip-flops have no built up heel, the heel of the foot will come down closer to the surface with each step, which is the way the human foot was designed to walk.
Claiming the heel will “hit the ground with a lot more force” in flip-flops than with shoes is simply a false statement, as – similar to being barefoot – without the built up heel, people just naturally will make the initial contact with each step in a softer, gentler manner.
(5) “Damage to toes: Wearing flip flops could lead to hammertoe, where the knuckles of the toes have bent permanently. This happens because your knuckles work harder to grip the flip flops and to hold them on your foot.”
This is a ridiculous and blatantly false statement.
Hammertoes are caused by closed shoes that are too tight against the toes – not by flip-flops.
From the Mayo Clinic:
High-heeled shoes or footwear that’s too tight in the toe box can crowd your toes into a space in which they can’t lie flat. This curled toe position might eventually persist even when you’re barefoot.
“Gripping” something with the toes does not cause hammertoe, any more than gripping something with the fingers will damage and distort the fingers. Gripping something with toes or fingers is just a natural movement of the muscles there for that purpose.
“Gripping” is not even an accurate term for what the toes do to hold on flip-flops. The toe movement is only a slight downward pressure for a split second as the foot in back lifts off the ground during the gait.
I’ve also seen much more exaggerated terms used such as “clenching,” “clawing,” or “scrunching” of the toes to hold flip-flops on. Nothing of such extreme nature ever occurs.
This is what really happens to the foot and toes when walking in flip-flops
I wanted to see for myself exactly what my toes were doing while wearing and walking around in flip-flops. So I went and found one of my old pairs of flip-flops, walked all around in them, and carefully observed exactly what my toes were doing as I walked.
These are my observations as I walked:
- My toes are generally relaxed on the front foot that I’m stepping down with.
- Since the flip-flop is at a very slight upward pointing angle as I step down, there’s no need to hold it on my foot – gravity takes care of that.
- Upon stepping down and making contact with the floor, I lift the other foot (in back) off the ground.
- I notice at that point I have to apply a slight downward pressure onto the flip-flop with my toes on that foot as that foot lifts up behind me.
- That’s because during that brief downward angle of the foot, the weight of the flip-flop has a tendency to slip forward out of place on my foot.
- That downward pressure with my toes is kind of gently pressing – not exactly gripping, and certainly not “clenching” or “scrunching.”
- It is only a slight downward push with my toes which is causing the top part of my foot to press more strongly against the straps of the flip-flop – thus, in effect, briefly tightening the pressure both below and above that part of my foot to keep the flip-flop from sliding forward.
- And then when that foot touches down, I relax the toes, and the process begins again with the next step.
- So it’s a gentle flexing and relaxing of the toes as I step.
- Not a lot different from what the toes are doing when we walk barefoot.
- In any case, it’s just exercise for the muscles of the toes.
I can’t see any way whatsoever that these movements as I walk with flip-flops could ever cause any harm.
Actual scientific studies of flip-flop wearing show no evidence of damage to feet or toes
There have been a few actual scientific studies related to flip-flop wearing. None of them have ever proven or shown that flip-flop wearing is in any way harmful to the feet or the toes as is alleged by numerous internet articles and claims. These studies are listed below along with conclusions reached:
- The most well-known and quoted study was done in 2009 at Auburn University: “Influence of Various Thong Style Flip-flops on Gait Kinematics and Lower Leg Electromyography“
They found that flip-flop wearers took shorter steps, and their heels hit the ground with less vertical force than those wearing athletic shoes.
From the study,
In conclusion, no flip-flop investigated was exactly like walking barefoot; however, certain structural components of flip-flops do result in a gait similar to walking barefoot. Future research is still needed to investigate and design a flip-flop that results in a gait identical to walking barefoot.
- A 2019 study published in Gait & Posture, March 2020, “Flip-flops do not alter the neuromuscular function of the gastrocnemius muscle and tendon during walking in children,” found the difference between children walking or running in flip-flops vs. barefoot was negligible to their muscular development.
- This 2013 study published in Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, March 2013, “Effect of thong style flip-flops on children’s barefoot walking and jogging kinematics, ” compared the effect of children walking or running in flip-flops vs. barefoot, and found that “foot motion whilst wearing thongs may be more replicable of barefoot motion than originally thought.”
- This 2015 study published in Gait & Posture, September 2015, “Barefoot vs common footwear: A systematic review of the kinematic, kinetic and muscle activity differences during walking,” looked at anatomical and gait differences comparing shoes, flip-flops, and bare feet.Some of the more significant conclusions reached were that “long term use of footwear has been shown to result in anatomical and functional changes including reduced foot width and forefoot spreading under load probably due to the constraints of the shoe structure” and “lighter and more flexible footwear [flip-flops] appears to elicit reduced differences in gait kinematics to walking barefoot.”
- In a 2008 article in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, Sept.-Oct. 2008, “Computerized analysis of plantar pressure variation in flip-flops, athletic shoes, and bare feet,” the researchers set out to determine how flip-flops change peak plantar pressure while walking, and “compared peak plantar pressures in the same test subjects wearing flip-flops, wearing athletic shoes, and in bare feet.”What they found was that “flip-flops always demonstrated higher peak plantar pressures than athletic shoes but lower pressures than bare feet.”
That finding would seem a “no-brainer.” Of course shoes are going to soften the impact on the soles of feet (plantar area) when walking, and flip-flops would also, but not as much as shoes. And bare feet would experience the least amount of softness upon impact. As nature intended.
So their published conclusion regarding flip-flops is puzzling: “[F]lip-flops have a minor protective role as a shock absorber during the gait cycle compared with pressures measured while barefoot, [but] they increase peak plantar pressures, placing the foot at greater risk for pathologic abnormalities.”
The term “pathologic abnormalities” is unexplained, and I doubt can be explained with any accuracy or factual demonstration of reasonableness of prognosis. Therefore I see that study as rather simplistic at best, and seriously flawed at worst, based on their poorly defined conclusion.
Flip-flops can be hazardous and accident-prone, but that’s their only disadvantage
I do agree with one of the legitimate criticisms of flip-flops – that they are inherently a little riskier to wear than regular shoes as related to slipping or getting caught on something, which is due to their design.
On the other hand, it is their unique design that makes them an excellent choice to wear instead of shoes if or when “shoes” must be worn on occasion instead of remaining barefoot. Any increased risk of having an accident is exceedingly small, especially when compared to the negative effects of wearing closed-toe shoes as an alternative.
When I have to wear shoes, I always wear flip flops. That allows me to kick them off at any time. If I have to wear them into a restaurant as soon as I sit down I kick them off under the table and then I can be barefoot.
When going to other peoples houses I kick them off outside before going in. Having spent 7 years in Hawaii this is a tradition I continue to follow.
Thanks for the comment, Gary.
It’s frankly hard to understand why a real barefooter would even consider wanting to put some other much more restricting and confining footwear on their feet for those temporary periods when some kind of footwear might be needed. Flip-flips are practically nothing – easily put on or kicked off as desired. As close to bare feet as could be and still be considered “shoes.”
When I have to wear any footwear in certain circumstances, flip flops are my choice by far. Best part about them is foot exposure and I can slip them off ASAP! No shoe or type of footwear will ever match the comfort and foot conditioning that comes with being barefoot but flip flops are a nice temporary alternative. Also, the correlation of popularity of flip flops and decline in barefoot people in public is a shame. As a die hard barefooter, I would like to see a return to the days when walking into public places barefoot was not so… Read more »
Thanks for the comment, Neil. Yes, flip-flop popularly most likely has been the main cause of the decline in public barefooting over the years. On the other hand, where it’s now impossible to actually be barefoot somewhere or in some particular situation, flip-flop wearing is about as close as we can get to still remaining barefoot (but be considered as wearing “shoes”).
I also wear flip flops when I have to and carry them for ’emergencies’ such as very hot pavements or entry into places that insist on footwear. However I do find them very uncomfortable. Your comments have given me cause to rethink some of my understandings about flip flops. Certainly the claims you cite about their dangers are indeed false, or certainly exaggerated. However, like shoes, they do not promote a natural gait, and if worn consistently over a longer period, do impact on other parts of the body. I certainly wouldn’t say in that sense they are closest to… Read more »
Thanks for your comment and feedback, Julian. First, I never wrote or implied in any way that flip-flops are an “‘acceptable’ alternative for bare feet.” The article was in fact only about what you also wrote, “I also wear flip flops when I have to and carry them for ’emergencies’ such as very hot pavements or entry into places that insist on footwear.” I’m not sure where you or anyone else sees anything in the article that would say or imply that wearing flip-flops for any other purpose – such as a permanent alternative which is just as good as… Read more »
Hello! I am also a barefooter, and I have 2 big questions about 2 particular situations: It has not happened to me since I began barefooting, but what do you do when you’r invited for a wedding or you have to attend a funeral or something similar? Now, my point is that being barefoot is one of the most important things to me, and it’s already on the “base” of who I am. Is it disrespectful to not wear shoes at these situations? Or should I stick to my principles and just show up properly dressed (but still barefoot)? The… Read more »
Thanks for your comment Josh. As to your question about attending a wedding or a funeral, I can only tell you what I personally would do – and have done. Being barefoot is one of the most important things in my life as well. And it is, indeed, who I am. I have been to at least one wedding and several funerals in the last several years, and yes, I was always barefoot. Everyone who knows me at all knows I’m a barefooter, and those people (those who do know me) would probably have been quite surprised if I had… Read more »
I too am a huge fan of flip-flops so my toes can be free! My Q: do you have a recommendation for durable flip flops that are minimalist (zero-drop heel)? I’ve just had the toe divider break off (again) on a 2nd pair of Havainas and am looking to get a more durable pair. Thank you!
Thanks for your comment, Emily. The purpose of the article was to debunk some negative myths about flip-flops, as well as suggest them as a temporary alternative to being completely barefoot, when barefoot is not possible or practical. In that context, I would not be able to recommend any particular brand or type of flip-flop, other than to get the very cheapest possible, as they should basically be a “throw-away” shoe for only the most temporary and brief use. It sounds like you like to wear flip-flops on a regular basis, rather than being barefoot. So I guess you’d need… Read more »
I bought simple Reef model flip flops 20 years ago and they are still good to use. The only thing to mention is that for the last 10 years I wear them only for a week or two in the summer when I visit my parents, but the 10 years before when I lived back home I wore them for a couple of months every year. So…you get my point, definitely durable.
I am not a barefooter, for the cowardly reason that the undersides of my feet are very sensitive and it’s extremely painful to walk on gravel, pebbles, etc. For several years, I have worn flip flops pretty exclusively. I recall one time that I attended my niece’s wedding, and I had intended to wear shoes but forgot to pack them. So I went in a full suit and flip flops! Those who noticed were amused.
Well, Jon, as the article states, if you aren’t or can’t be actually barefoot, the closest footwear to that is flip-flops. However, the undersides of your feet are only sensitive because you’ve never given them a chance to get stronger and less sensitive to things like gravel. If you never give them a chance to actually directly touch the ground, it will always be painful to walk on such surfaces. I hope you will try doing that some day. Just start out on surfaces that aren’t so rough. You don’t have to immediately start walking barefoot on gravel. Choose concrete… Read more »
Hi Kriss, I just found your site. I wear xero minimalist sandals which offer the smallest cushion I can find. Since starting my BF journey 10 years ago, I have found that any cushion under my feet will cause me discomfort. My feet don’t need any cushion. I recently was told at my job, a middle school teacher, that I can no longer teach barefoot. They told me there was no policy, but it was professional expectation. I am still going BF since supervisors rarely visit my class. Plus, I got a note from my doctor saying that it helps… Read more »
I live in Brazil and have some issues with flip flops: – They have very narrow toe box, hence my big and small toes will be innermost above the footbed and outermost below the footbed touching the ground – I’m always strongly “pinching” the strap with first and second toes – When it’s raining my feet slides a lot inside the footbed – Some years ago started some tendency to add a drop to flip flops here. Now every model has a drop. – I can’t walk more than 30 min without the friction between the top of the rubber… Read more »
I’ve never said flip-flops were the “ideal” footwear. There is no “ideal” footwear. They’re all bad to some extent. I’m just saying they are the very “closest” to being barefoot and still have on something most people or businesses regard as “shoes.” But I’ll try to address each of your points. – They have very narrow toe box, hence my big and small toes will be innermost above the footbed and outermost below the footbed touching the ground. If you have wide feet, that’s probably always going to be a problem, unless you have the flip-flops custom made. – I’m… Read more »
Great information shared.. really enjoyed reading this post thank you author for sharing this post .. appreciated
I’ve never liked flip-flops at all; I always felt like they’d fall off at every step if I wasn’t gripping the thong with my toes. Some time back I made a pair of these: https://xeroshoes.com/make/ All I spent on them was a few bucks for some paracord; I made the soles from a scrap of old anti-static floor mat, about 3.5mm thick. This material has a fiber scrim molded into it and is very tough. In some ways I liked these very much; they’re nearly weightless and so flexible I could feel every tiniest thing I stepped on. As well,… Read more »
Why go to all that trouble to make something like that?
What you’re describing is more like a permanent shoe. Not easy to slip off and on. If you plan to wear something like that on a regular basis, then you’re not a barefooter.
On the other hand, flip-flops, by their very design, are temporary. You don’t even have to touch them with your hands to put them on or take them off. Flip-flops are perfect for a quick, temporary slip on for a few minutes when it’s impossible, for one reason or another, to be barefoot.
“On the other hand, flip-flops, by their very design, are temporary. You don’t even have to touch them with your hands to put them on or take them off. Flip-flops are perfect for a quick, temporary slip on for a few minutes when it’s impossible, for one reason or another, to be barefoot.”
The same can be said of boat moccasins; I know because I used to use them just that way.
But moccasins – boat or otherwise – completely cover the foot. Flip-flops do not.
There’s simply no comparison. As a barefooter, if you absolutely must wear some kind of footwear, flip-flops are the very closest of any footwear to actually being barefoot, since no other footwear covers so little of your foot.
Flip flops have replaced being barefoot long ago. For example it’s very rare to see women barefoot these days, as they are always in flip flops. Flip flops have won. Being barefoot in public now is over. And even if flip flops are really easy to take off, women still won’t take them off whilst sitting down, etc., or even down at the beach. It’s like women just don’t want to take them off or their feet to be seen barefoot for some reason. Whilst flip flops are just fascinating, as it shows the whole foot almost barefoot and they… Read more »
I really like reading through a post that can make men and women think. Also, thank you for allowing me to comment!