I’m Walkin’ on Microbes

I recently bought these shoes online. I happily broke them in immediately upon receiving them, a bit hastily. If I had paid a little more attention to the various paper slips in the box, I would have noticed the excitedly-worded “ANTIMICROBIAL ODOR CONTROL” advertisement. Alas, I did not notice this. Nowhere on the site did it say anything about antimicrobials, and I had missed the tag amongst the billion tiny pieces of paper that came with the shoes (unnecessary paper use is a separate beef I have with this product though).

Why does every product seem to contain antimicrobials nowadays? I’ve come to take for granted the knowledge of antimicrobial resistance I have, but this company is either unaware of the issue or choosing to ignore it. Either way, I plan to write a letter to the appropriate representative (not that it’ll do much, in all likelihood, but you never know). Not only are antimicrobials prevalent in so many products we use, half the time the consumer doesn’t realize it. It’s not required by any law to advertise this. The only reason this shoe company did so is because they’re marketing it as a positive attribute of their product. Even if these shoes did successfully decrease foot/shoe odor, I personally wouldn’t have bought them. Not that there’s any (public) evidence indicating this antimicrobial will control my shoes’ odor…nor information about what antimicrobial was used at all.

It’s frustrating to see the gap between the information scientists and non-scientists have on topics like antimicrobial resistance. I may know how resistance affects humans and why it occurs and ways to prevent it, but many people I interact with on a daily basis are surprised when I happen to bring it up in conversation. There’s always been a lag in time between discovery of a topic and disseminating that knowledge. I don’t know the solution, and we are getting better at it with time, but it is frustrating for now nonetheless.


5 thoughts on “I’m Walkin’ on Microbes

  1. I completely agree with you – whether unthinking well-intentioned industry working with the outdated model of beneficial human sterility, or just ‘we don’t care it sells’, I think there’s a massive underappreciation that unnecessary microbial warfare isn’t at worse harmless, it’s actually doing significant bad stuff. (Viz triclosan in tupperware, silver in… well everywhere…). I’m always interested in finding ways of communicating this.

    Though again I encounter a dichotomy in my mind (similar to working with faecal matter to communicate the beautiful, diverse microbiome whilst going EWWWWWW POOP) between the theoretical agreement that using antimicrobials in shoewear is bad for the microbial world, and an acknowledgement that my trainers do get really quite disgustingly smelly due to the combination of my sweaty feet and microbes sitting there. Permanently removing my feet from the trainers makes said trainers rather unuseful, Replacing trainers when smelly becomes bad for my bank balance, so I have to admit that a bit of Antimicrobial Odor-EaterTM may find it’s way to my shoewear on occasion to discourage the microbial population and quieten down the metabolic party time being had in there. Maybe a bit of short-term benefit, long term badness going on (hello story of most anthropogenic disasters) but honestly, if you ever smelt my trainers, you’d agree it was for the greater good.
    Although now your post has made me feel a bit guilty, and I may have to resort to occasionally bunging my trainers in a freezer, or something else the internet tells me might work.

    1. Oh no, I didn’t mean to make anyone feel guilty! I’m sure there’s some solution to odor-causing bacteria proliferating in peoples’ shoes, I’m just not entirely sure if some nondescript antimicrobial is going to fix that problem. From their little tag, I can’t tell what kind of antimicrobial they’re using and therefore it’s mechanism, whether it’s been proven safe for consumers (triclosan has made me wary), who even picked out what antimicrobial to use (were they even experts of some related field)? There are so many questions unanswered, and if they did any kind of testing, I can’t find it.

      I do think we can find a balance somewhere between what compounds to use to solve certain problems. That’s what humans do, we solve problems (effectiveness variable). We just have to take more information into account now than ever before when we form our solutions.

      1. Not at all, it was a light-hearted comment about guilt! I’m always interested in things that highlight the inconsistency of beliefs and actions (eg. I believe global warming, but still leave electrics on standby/lights on/use hairdryer to speed-dry my socks) and your post made me think. I was wandering around my house yesterday noticing all the things I use that are antimicrobial and asking myself, why? (eg shampoo) The ‘bacteria are bad’ is such an ingrained narrative in our brains… I like things (like your post) that challenge this, and make it relevant to the small everyday things in life that everyone, scientists and nonscientists, can relate to. (like smelly feet…)

    2. More information is always better.
      Note: Not copious amounts of information indiscriminately thrown at every individual passerby. However, it should be readily accessible for anyone who wants to discover it.

      Also, take it from a mom – baking soda works WONDERS.

      1. Noted – thanks!
        Later “outbreak of baking soda-resistant foot-eating microbes traced to scientist”

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Alex Alexiev

Alex Alexiev is a recent UC Davis graduate with a BS in microbiology working in Jonathan Eisen’s lab on aquariums as part of the microbiology of the built environment.