Shoe Allergies - Causes and Solutions

Getting Diagnosed and Finding Hypoallergenic Shoes for Your Sensitivity

Shoes
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Can you be allergic to your shoes?

Several research studies confirm that people have allergies to a wide variety of adhesives, rubber chemicals, and leather treatments used in shoes and insoles.  Often, the allergy produces contact dermatitis or contact urticaria. This is itchy, painful and distressing to sufferers.

Margaret writes, "I bought a new pair of walking shoes, wore them for one hour (with socks) on my treadmill, and afterward the skin on the tops of my toes and feet felt irritated and itchy.

  I wore those shoes a total of three one-hour stints, resulting in the tops and soles of my feet feeling chemically burned and incredibly itchy. For weeks, whenever my feet got hot, the intense burning and itching returned, making my feet feel like I'd been stung by bees."

What's Causing Your Shoe Allergy?

A dermatologist can help identify what is causing your shoe allergy. The interview by the doctor is as important as any testing - be prepared to know which shoes cause the reaction and what part of the shoe may be at fault.

A rash on the top of the foot leads to suspicion about the chemicals and fabrics in the shoe uppers - dyes, leather tanning chemicals and adhesives. Irritation on the sole of the foot makes you suspect chemicals such as rubber additives and rubber accelerants in the soles, and chemicals from the insoles such as glues, anti-microbial agents, dyes, and fibers.

The biggest culprits found in a retrospective analysis published in 2007 by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group (NACDG) were

  • p-tert-butylphenol-formaldehyde resin (PTBFR): an adhesive.
  • Potassium dichromate: used in leather tanning
  • Carba mix: a rubber-related chemical

Grouped together, these chemicals were most frequently found in patch testing:

  • Rubber chemicals (40.4%)
  • Adhesives (32.5%)
  • Leather components (20.1%)

A dermatologist can test common shoe chemical allergens with a "shoe kit" or T.R.U.E patch test.

Avoiding Shoe Allergies - Finding Hypoallergenic Shoes

You have to learn how to avoid the chemical that is causing the shoe allergy. Because shoes contain a wide variety of possible irritants, it can be very hard to find shoes that don't cause a reaction.  Even if a certain manufacturer and style is OK today, the next pair may come from a different factory using different components.

Ask your dermatologist if she has access to the Contact Allergen Management Program (CAMP) through the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS) and  the Contact Allergen Replacement Database (CARD) from Mayo Clinic. Both can provide a list of products that don't contain the allergens that are thought to produce your symptoms.

Sharing Shoe Allergy Solutions

The Shoe Allergies website offers support to people who are allergic to PTBP-FR and potassium dichromate (chrome). They have shopping guides for shoes that are free of those chemicals, grouped by country. They list companies who claim to produce hypoallergenic shoes for those with other shoe allergies and Microair Barrier Socks from Alpretec that may protect sensitive feet.

They have a message board for readers to share their problems and solutions.

Shoe Allergy Sufferers Share Their Experiences

We gathered over 160 responses about shoe allergies from our readers, and these were some of the insights they gave us into their shoe allergies:

Canvas Shoes Trigger Shoe Allergies

Many readers reported getting an allergic reaction to canvas shoes from Sperry and Keds. Linda says that after wearing either of those brands on the second day: "I woke up at 2 am and the tops of my feet were on fire! I scratched until I stopped myself because that does no good. I'm willing to go to court with perfectly healthy feet and put the canvas Sperrys and Keds on so the jury can see how the rash develops!"

Crocs Save Soles

Mike suffered for eight years with blisters on the soles of his feet and palms of his hands. He and other readers whose reaction was on the sole of the foot did well when they switched to Crocs, which do not have any glue and are made from a closed cell foam resin.  Mike: "They would itch, crack, and were quite painful. Finally, my dermatologist did patch testing (T.R.U.E. Test) and found I have allergic contact dermatitis related to rubber accelerants (chemicals used in the manufacturing of rubber). I have found that Crocs do not contain these chemicals, because the soles of the shoes are made from a closed cell foam resin. They have more styles than just the typical clog sandals. I have some that are canvas, and some that are leather."

We received over 160 responses from shoe allergy sufferers. Here are solutions they have found to their problems.

Buy Second-Hand Used Shoes:

Roy Firus says: One answer is to always buy used shoes. Many of the chemicals have by then already been worn away or evaporated or at least diluted by time and wear. Always put second-hand shoes in a plastic bag and then in the freezer for 24 hours to kill any possible fungal infections such as athletes' foot etc.

Birkenstock Shoes

Patty says: The Mayo Clinic says Birkenstock shoes are allergy free and the leather is tanned without dichromate organic substances!

Georgie says:
I first noticed that a really nice pair of Clark sandles caused the toes and top of feet to itch like it wouldn’t be scratched! One day a shoe salesman told me about Birkenstock sandals and that is all I can wear that doesn't cause the horrible itch. I have just recently discovered that Crocs, and Toms shoes work for me too, so I am starting to get a small shoe wardrobe again for the first time in 30 years. Birkenstocks have a nonallergenic cork footbed, and I only buy the ones that have the non-leather uppers and these are called “Papillon” series Birkenstocks.

Foot Soaks

Michelle says: I discovered that soaking or washing your feet with green tea foot soaks or Johnson’s baby cooling bath (both with sodium laureth sulfate and menthyl lactate) immediately after wearing your shoes prevents that horrible itching spell.

Jan says:
My daughter wore a pair of canvas Sperry’s without socks and we thought she got athletes foot fungus. Washed several times and still happens. She gets a red rash on tops of toes and feet as well as the sides of her feet. We tried diluted bleach baths, but apple cider vinegar is what eases the itch the best for her.

Tailor-Made Shoes for PTBFR Sensitive Feet

Ashleigh says: I am allergic to Para-Tertiary-Butylphenol Formaldehyde Resin (PTBFR) which is used in adhesives and glues, particularly in shoes. The hospital I got the patch test done at told me you can get tailor-made shoes free of this resin at Laboratoiere et Clinque Pierre Marchildon, 1269 Bernard St West, Montreal QC H2V 1V8 #274-2411.

Shoe Brands for MBT Allergy

James Connery says:
I’ve suffered from an allergy to the rubber accelerators (mercaptobenzothiazole - MBT). I’ve used Crocs for a few years now and have never had a problem with them. Some of them look like normal shoes and most people don’t even realise they’re Crocs. Definitely worth a look for anyone suffering from MBT allergy.

Jeff says: I have been suffering for over 27 years with mercaptobenzylthiazole (MBT) and latex shoe allergies. If you don’t mind spending $150 to $450 for a pair of shoes, Cydwoq (pronounced “sidewalk’) a California-based company uses vegetable dyes which do not contain MBT.

V Acker says:
After a year of raw, rashy feet, we discovered that my 13-year old son is allergic to MBT & Mercapto Mix, chemicals used in the manufacture of rubber and adhesives, as well as other products. So far, the only shoe manufacturer that has assured me they don’t use these chemicals is Kamik. For boys they sell only sandals and boots, but the sandals are secure and sporty, and sufficient for school gym class.

Brands for Chrome -  Potassium Dichromate Allergy

Dot Byrne says:
Been suffering with potassium dichromate and formaldehyde allergy since 2000. The only shoes I have any comfort with are Crocs, and in fairness they now are updating their styles! Anything man-made is fine but if there is any leather in them I'm in trouble!

Ben says:
I have an allergy against chrome in substances in the glue they use in shoes. Brands Think! or Hartjes from Austria are a huge release for anyone with allergies against shoes.

Monica says: I have an allergy to leather sandals. Clarks etc. After wearing the shoes, my feet break out in blisters like a severe case of poison ivy. They itch terribly on the tops. I have noticed that I can wear shoes manufactured in China, but not in Brazil. BORN shoes are great for people with shoe allergies. It is cheaper to buy BORNs than experiment with other brands. I usually don’t have a problem with shoes when I wear socks.

Julia Good says: This has been my godsend: la Sportiva. It’s an athletic shoe company in Canada, and if you email them and ask them which of their ladies’ running shoe models are chrome-free, they will tell you. Or if you can just list the ones you’re interested in. Not all of their running and hiking shoes are chromate-free, but a surprisingly high number of them are. I buy them in bulk!

Lilian says:
Was surprised by the allergy department of my local teaching hospital when they diagnosed chrome allergy amongst many others. Like one of the earlier postings I had severely cracked heels and balls of my feet and constant itching. With great difficulty I have found vegetarian shoes (plastic) and chrome-free leather shoes and my feet are like a baby’s again except when I make the mistake of wearing something with chrome in it and it starts all over again. Apparently chrome can be used in some plastic trainers so I approach all with caution.

Brands for Colophony Allergy

Amanda says: Is anyone else out there allergic to colophony (pine resin found in shoe glue)? I was diagnosed about 6 months with this allergy and have been unable to wear shoes without socks ever since. The only shoes I have found that do not contain glue and are completely safe are Sanuks. They are a California shoe company and they are my savior!

Get New Socks

Janet says: After patch tests from my dermatologist it was determined that I am allergic to Thiourea, Carba, and thiuram mix. These chemicals are in glues, foams, rubbers etc. I was reacting to my orthotics. My derm said I have to get all new socks because these chemicals stay in the material after washing.

Diana says: Change your socks a couple of times a day and throw them away after a couple of uses.

More Shoe Allergies

Tanya says:
I am allergic to Thiuram Mix. a chemical in latex, rubber, elastic etc and also allergic to colophony which is in adhesives, glues, make-up, etc. It’s a contact dermatitis. I cannot wear any kind of tennis shoe or cloth interior shoe. Socks are an issue finding with no elastic, bras, panties you name it.

Becky says:
After 4 years of suffering with dried, cracked, itching, bleeding skin on my hands and feet, I have been diagnosed with an allergy to Black Rubber Mix which is very difficult. Most shoe manufacturers use this to make soles of shoes last longer.

Lisa G. says:
Allergy testing results: Disperse Blue 106, a dye found in dark colored textiles. P-Tert Butylphenol Formaldehyde Resin: used to manufacture and repair shoes especially those made with rubber. It can be in handbags, watch straps, belts and hats. My feet get red and blistery in the exact print of the shoe, strap, etc.

Amanda says:
I suddenly became allergic to just about every pair of shoes I bought with colored leather insides. Black, Orange, Red, Green, Dark Brown, Pink – the rash would be exactly the same as the shoe and would then be incredibly itchy, burn, blister and weep and bleed. Assistants in shoe shops give you blank stares when you ask for shoes without colored dyes in the linings.

Sources:

Warshaw EM, Schram SE, Belsito DV, DeLeo VA, Fowler JF Jr, Maibach HI, Marks JG Jr, Mathias CG, Pratt MD, Rietschel RL, Sasseville D, Storrs FJ, Taylor JS, Zug KA. "Shoe allergens: retrospective analysis of cross-sectional data from the north american contact dermatitis group, 2001-2004." Dermatitis, 2007 Dec;18(4):191-202.

Matthys E, Zahir A, Ehrlich A. "Shoe allergic contact dermatitis." Dermatitis. 2014 Jul-Aug;25(4):163-71. doi: 10.1097/DER.0000000000000049.

Michael P. Sheehan, "Allergic Contact Dermatitis of the Foot", The Dermatologist, Volume 20 - Issue 11 - November 2012.

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