Toxic leather shoes? Don’t panic!

“Warning: toxic leather shoes sold here” This scary headline appeared on page 5 of today’s The Sunday Independent, over an article about the potential danger  to the environment from the toxins/chemicals used in the tanning process of many of  the leathers used to make our shoes.

Chrome tanning has been the method of choice for years now and the article describes a report from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and its partners, expressing their concern at their findings. The major concern is the amount of chromium the could spread to the wearer and into the environment. This, coupled with the various dyes used in tanning is the source of the society’s concern.

As a podiatrist, I occasionally see a patient with a skin rash that is clearly associated with the patient’s footwear. Called contact dermatitis, it shows as a clearly demarcated rash at all sites where the skin has been in direct contact with the shoe. It is frequently associated with leather sandals and it shows the patient’s skin is irritated by the chemicals in the leather. However, there are numerous other causes of contact dermatitis, as any Dermatologist will tell you.

For example, with the need to produce shoes at lower cost, synthetic materials are more widely used. This also brought its own problems of skin sensitivity, increased sweating and sometimes burning feet. Environmental experts frequently point out that Plastic is of course another blight on the environment. 

From a foot health point of view, we recommend the use of natural materials, such as leather, because we believe it ‘breathes’, absorbs natural foot moisture (sweat) and is altogether more healthy. Unfortunately, all leather shoes are expensive and over time become dry and cracked due to the cycle of moisture and dryness associated with the normal foot. [which is on reason why leather is tanned in the first place].

So don’t panic, rather read the article and if possible the original report, before throwing out or burning your shoes; the smoke is also toxic! We are polluting our environment with far worse things than leather shoes.

Try to alternate your shoes from day to day. Keep them clean and polished to preserve the leather [if they are leather]. wash and dry your feet carefully to prevent the build-up of bacteria which cause smelly feet. Socks of natural fibre will protect your feet from direct contact with the materials used in manufacture, if you are sensitive.

If you do develop a rash or an itchy foot, after wearing a particular pair of shoes. Stop wearing them and see your podiatrist or doctor as soon as possible, because their are tests that will be done usually by the skin specialist – Dermatologist – to identify the exact cause and what you are sensitive to.

Whilst I think this particular article is a bit sensational, it does appear to be based on research evidence. Perhaps the take home message should be a timely reminder that we should all be doing more to re-cycle paper, plastic, metal and household refuse than we are.


Andrew has taught at the University as well as providing podiatry services in South Africa since 1977. Twice chair of the Podiatry Association of South Africa and a commentator on care of your feet on both radio and television he now works in private practice in Cape Town and Hout Bay.

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Charlene - March 9, 2010 Reply

I am SUFFERING severely from contact dermatitis. At the moment my feet are covered with huge blisters where my feet came into contact with a new pair of Green Cross shoes, which I bought hoping that it will not affect my feet. Is there any way to treat shoes to try and counteract the chemicals in the leather?

    Andrew - May 9, 2010 Reply

    Dear Charlene,
    If you have a contact dermatitis then the basic treatment is to remove you from the irritant source and it appears that you have identified it.
    I assume that a Dermatologist is teating your dermatitis and that you have had the tests to find out what agents that your skin is sensitive to? usually the solution is to wear something that acts as a barrier between the shoe and the irritant.
    Certainly some shoes cause dermatitis and some don’t, but is impossible for the consumer or doctor to know in advance which ones until you get the dermatitis, then you can avoid them.

    Best wishes

home remedy - June 12, 2014 Reply

Take a look at what natural treatments for removing warts, moles,
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