We hear so much about getting feet ‘sandal-ready’ – but much less about getting them ‘slipper-ready’. Yet feet work just as hard (and have their own beauty and health challenges), during the colder months. Talk to any footcare professional and certainly, they’ll certainly tell you that it’s just as important to give them TLC during the chilly season as during summer – when we get to wiggle our toes, go without shoes and generally ‘air’ our feet.
Actually, feet take quite a beating during the colder months. We squeeze them into boots, sometimes layered over socks and/or tights – creating quite a dank, bacteria-friendly atmosphere in there. Occasionally, we beckon our toes out of hiding to slap on a coat of polish, then promptly expose feet to chilblain-inducing cold in a pair of impossibly teetering party heels. But generally, we adopt an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude to them. If feet were dogs, plenty of us would find ourselves reported to the RSPCA!
That certainly used to apply to me. Then some years ago, trying to sort out a niggling health issue that the NHS really, really wasn’t helping with, I went to see a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine who changed my attitude to feet forever. He explained that in China, the care of feet is taken very seriously, as it’s intrinsically linked to overall wellbeing.
In China, feet are ritually washed before bedtime, for instance. The thinking? That feet excrete toxins during the day and it’s important to wash them away before getting into bed. ‘You’ll have less colds and ’flu if you do the same’, he maintained. And all I can say is that I’ve been doing that ever since, have had one episode of ’flu in 20 years, and rarely get more than a sniffle if I am (very occasionally) afflicted by a cold. Washing and drying feet well before bedtime also makes for a much pleasant experience between the sheets, I think – so if I’m not having a pre-bedtime bath, I make a point of cleansing feet with soap and water and then ‘anointing’ them when I’m in bed.
That would definitely be my first recommendation for winter footcare – but here is a winter footcare action plan to ensure that when it’s time to dust off those flip-flops next summer, you’ll be one step ahead.
Dry thoroughly between toes. Fungus infections love sweaty, fetid conditions – and if you’re wearing socks or tights with nylon or other synthetics, feet can become very sweaty. So when you do wash your feet, sit on a chair (or the loo!) and really dry between the toes before slipping on any footwear or hosiery at all. The more you can allow feet to ‘breathe’, the happier they’ll be. (This applies to bed, too. It’s tempting to wear socks to keep feet warm, but – on the basis of further more wisdom from my Chinese herbalist – I cuddle my hot water bottle to my stomach, where it stokes what’s known as ‘triple burner’: TCM practitioners believe that this is sited in the abdomen and if kept warm, heat will radiate from there to the extremities. I was completely blown away to find that it certainly works for me.)
Buff them with a good foot file several nights a week. Do it lightly, not vigorously; if you’re over-zealous it simply compacts the hard skin. I’ve found that since I set out to hit 10,000 steps (minimum) a day – see last month’s column about how my iPhone is making me healthier – hard skin builds up on my feet twice as fast. I still don’t think you can beat the Alida Foot File, because it’s so hand-friendly, allowing access all areas foot-wise.
Avoid dry, cracked heels. Fact: tights and socks actually wick the oils from feet, so that it’s really easy to end up with rough, dry skin on heels – which can even snag your best fine-denier Wolfords, if you’re not careful. Scrub vigorously in the bath with an oil-based exfoliator – I like the nubbliness (if that’s not a word it should be) of Temple Spa Sugar Buff Mediterranean Body Scrub – or if you’re not bathing/showering, be sure sure to buff with the footfile (gently, gently) and then slather with something rich. My personal favourite is the In Fiore Kashmir Body Balm – yes, it’s an arm and half a leg, but my jar of this, with its fabulous grounding aroma, has lasted me well over a year (and I’m generous with it, I promise!)
Give toenails a breather. (Well, maybe except for that Christmas party.) But really, do you need to wear polish every day in winter…? Going naked, nail-wise, allows you to nourish nails with a nurturing oil, over the winter. (Try Maracuja Oil, which is particularly rich in essential fatty acids and highly recommended for nails.) You can always use a four-sided buffer to build up a shine – but your nails will appreciate the rest from polish and remover, which dry them out. ‘Going naked’ also makes it easier to spot fungal or bacterial infections of nails, which tend to show up as pale patches. (In this case, make an appointment with a chiropodist/podiatrist. For your info, last time I had a minor fungal nail infection, massaging Margaret Dabbs Foot Hygiene Cream into the nail area at bedtime – as prescribed by one of her medi-pedi team sorted the problem in a couple of weeks.)
Choose roomy footwear. I once read that we should imagine playing piano with our toes. If they move freely in shoes without feeling ‘musically restricted’, this qualifies as a good fit. The technical term is, apparently, a ‘deep toe box’ – a phrase you can show off with next time you’re shoe-shopping! If you always wear socks under footwear in winter, your winter shoes may need to be a half-size or even a size bigger, to accommodate that extra layer without squeezing your feet.
Don’t be tempted to warm cold feet on a radiator. It’s a fast track to chilblains! (Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Unbelievably painful, these.) The better way to warm cold feet is to massage the life back into them with a gently warming product such as Napiers Capsicum and Ginger Warming Cream. Use upward strokes and the very act of massaging the area will restore blood flow, turbo-charging the effect of the ginger and the capsicum.
Last but not least, check your footwear by the door. One last health tip I learned from that Chinese health wizard was to leave my shoes near the door. (We’ve actually had a special rack of shoe shelves built and keep ‘indoor’ shoes there to swap whenever we set inside the door.) Shoes track in all sorts of stuff that you don’t really want in the house. There’s The Dog Issue. (Let’s not go there.) There are other bacteria, too; a study from the University of Arizona analysed bacteria on footwear and found 421,000 units on just one shoe – including E.Coli, meningitis and diarrheal disease, among other nasties.
Shoes pick up other toxins – including the agrichemical RoundUp which is used by some councils to keep pavement weeds at bay. Removing shoes also allows your feet and toes to wiggle and breathe – and beyond that, marks an important psychological transition, I always think, between the outside world and the sanctity of our own homes. So: don’t be shy about asking friends, family and even strangers to leave their shoes at the door. We’ve even made the VAT-man and the bank manager leave their shoes at the door. (On which note, it’s surprising how many bank managers have holes in their socks…!)
May you feet have a happy, healthy winter…