Straight talk on 9 popular foot products

Published: March, 2013

For some body parts, the drugstore has little to offer. Not so for the feet. You'll almost always find several shelves of products for the pedal extremities. We asked Dr. James P. Ioli, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School and faculty editor of the Harvard report Healthy Feet, to accompany us on a trip to a drugstore near our offices. Here is a list of some of the foot products we saw there, along with Dr. Ioli's comments.

  1. Arch bandage. Might make the arch feel better and more supported, but it isn't going to change the structure of the arch or fix serious problems. As the package says, people with diabetes or poor circulation should avoid these because they could reduce blood flow through the foot.
  2. Callus and corn cushions. Simple and effective. The donut shape keeps pressure off calluses (which usually form on the bottom of the feet) and corns (which form on the top, often on toes). Change them often; otherwise the skin underneath will start to break down. Well-fitting shoes often reduce the skin irritation that causes calluses and corns in the first place.
  3. Callus and corn removers. Stay away from them. The active ingredient, salicylic acid, can harm the healthy skin around the corn or callus.
  4. Detoxifying foot pads. They claim to absorb impurities from the body and aid "natural cleansing." In a word — bunk! The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the makers of Kinoki foot pads in 2009. The best way to naturally cleanse your feet is by washing them with a little soap and water.
  5. Foot files. Okay, but use with care. People scrape and scrape and start to bleed. Old-fashioned pumice stone is a more gentle way of removing dead skin from the heels and balls of the feet.
  6. Foot powders. Better than many sprays. Foot powders can help with sweaty and smelly feet. Some brands contain menthol, which creates a pleasant sensation and smell (if you like menthol). Others have an antifungal medication.
  7. Moleskin. These products are cotton flannel with an adhesive backing, not actual moleskin. Good for reducing friction points in shoes caused by bunions, calluses, or corns. If you're using a lot of moleskin, though, it's time to consider switching to more flexible, better-fitting shoes.
  8. Orthotics. Nonprescription orthotics are worth a try before considering the prescription ones, which cost a lot ($300–$500) and usually aren't covered by insurance. The flat, foam, and gel orthotics cushion the foot nicely — not a bad thing. But if you overpronate or have arch problems, buy a pair with arch support. There's some limited evidence that orthotics can also help with bad knees and backs, but don't buy them expecting those problems to go away.
  9. Toe exercisers. Billed as yoga for the toes. If these make you feel better — sure, why not. But don't expect the minor miracles (restoration of foot health, increased circulation, relief of stress and tension in feet and legs) promised on the package and in late-night TV ads. Investing what you'd spend on toe exercisers on new shoes might be a better use of your money.

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