Shoe Allergy Causes and Solutions

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A shoe allergy can cause a reaction to a wide variety of adhesives, rubber chemicals, and leather treatments used in shoes and insoles. Often, the shoe allergy produces contact dermatitis or contact urticaria on the feet. This is itchy, painful, and distressing to those who experience it. But hypoallergenic shoes may help.

Symptoms of Shoe Allergy

You may experience redness, heat, itching, and swelling of your feet after wearing a new pair of shoes. A rash may appear on the ball, sides, or top of the foot. Sometimes symptoms can develop within a few hours of wearing the shoes, but it might take as long as a week to appear. The symptoms can progress to feeling like the skin on your feet is chemically burned or being stung by bees.

Once the rash develops, it can take several weeks to clear once you begin avoiding the shoes or chemicals that triggered it. If you scratch the itch, you may get a secondary infection.

Causes and Diagnosis

A dermatologist can help identify what is causing your shoe allergy through an examination, interview, and testing. It will help if you know which shoes cause the reaction and what part of the shoe may be at fault.

Bring your shoes with you when you visit your healthcare provider so that you can work together to identify the cause of your rash.

A rash on the top of the foot may indicate an allergy to a component in the shoe uppers—dyes, leather tanning chemicals, and adhesives. Irritation on the sole of the foot could point to rubber additives and rubber accelerants in the soles, and/or chemicals from the insoles such as glues, anti-microbial agents, dyes, and fibers. A dermatologist can test common shoe chemical allergens with a "shoe kit" or T.R.U.E patch test.

Research shows that in canvas shoes, dimethylthiocarbamylbenzothiazole sulfide (DMTBS) can cause allergic reactions. This compound is formed during rubber vulcanization. Rubber chemicals and chromates were identified as the most common irritants in a 2009 review.

In a review of children and teens with foot contact dermatitis, the most frequent allergens were potassium dichromate, thimerosal, cobalt chloride, mercapto mix, colophonium, mercury, and nickel(II) sulfate. However, new chemicals are introduced constantly in the shoe industry and new sensitivities are identified.

Treatment of Shoe Allergy

Avoiding the chemicals that triggered the contact dermatitis is the key to clearing the rash. Identify the shoes, socks, or insoles that caused the problem and replace them with hypoallergenic versions. You need to ensure your inflamed feet aren't getting further exposure.

To soothe a rash from shoes, try over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. Some people with shoe allergies find foot soaks to help as well. Suggestions for home remedies include foot soaks made with:

  • Green tea
  • Oatmeal
  • Salt water
  • Baking soda
  • Herbs including mint, basil, and thyme
  • Apple cider vinegar

If you have a severe rash or signs of a skin infection, you may need a stronger topical steroid cream to calm the reaction. If you have developed a skin infection, you will need antibiotic treatment. Your doctor can prescribe these medications.

Prevention

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

Ask your dermatologist if they have 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.

Replace Your Socks

Microair Barrier Socks from Alpretec are designed to protect sensitive feet and have been shown to reduce symptoms. It's a good idea to discard the socks you wore with any shoes that triggered a reaction and get new socks. The allergenic compounds may remain in the socks even after washing. Replace your socks often if you are prone to foot dermatitis.

Find Hypoallergenic Shoes

The Shoe Allergies website offers support to people who are allergic to the adhesive para-tertiary butylphenol formaldehyde resin (PTBP-FR), which is often used to glue leather and rubber, and potassium dichromate (chrome). The site has shopping guides for shoes that are free of those chemicals, and lists of companies who claim to produce hypoallergenic shoes for those with other shoe allergies. Other options:

  • Used shoes: Many of the allergenic chemicals dissipate over time.
  • Crocs are made with closed cell foam resin and don't have any glue or rubber accelerants. Other options for people who are allergic to potassium dichromate include Think!, Hartjes, and La Sportiva.
  • Birkenstocks have a nonallergenic cork footbed. 
  • Cydwoq uses vegetable dyes which do not contain 2-mercaptobenzothiazole (MBT).
  • Kamik makes shoes that do not have MBT or mercapto mix.
  • Sanuks may be safe for people allergic to colophony.
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