Mention air pollution, and most people, including me, think only of outdoor air quality. We rarely question the quality of air in our homes, but we should.

The concentration of air pollutants in our homes can be two to five times higher than what is typically found outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Have you thought about the indoor microbiome in your home? The indoor microbiome is a complex community comprising all the living microorganisms in an indoor environment — think bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other single-celled organisms — as well as people, pets, pests, air and water.

What contaminants are in our home, and how did they get there? The matter inside our home includes more than just dust and dirt from people and pets shedding hair and skin. About a third is from outside, either blown in or tracked in on the soles of our shoes.

When we’re outdoors, many gross substances attach to the bottom of our shoes. Just think how much visible dirt is on the soles of our shoes, such as mud, sand, gravel, debris from outdoor parks, and stuff from all the other filthy places we walk on in a day. Spit, gum, and bird droppings can be found on city sidewalks. Public restrooms floors are covered in contaminants.

Numerous tests have shown that bacteria, fungi, and viruses on the bottom of shoes do not wear off the more we walk. Those contaminants cling to shoe soles and eventually end up on our home’s tile, wood, and carpet floors.

Scientists discovered that whatever microbe is on the soles of our shoes transfers to our floor 90% of the time. And if we have carpet, that number is 99%.

When we wear shoes indoors, we spread all those icky substances throughout our home, contaminating indoor air and exposing us to harmful germs. Consequently, we need to do more frequent cleanings. 

To wear or not wear our street shoes in our homes is a significant decision. It is customary in many cultures to remove shoes before entering a home. Doing so keeps the indoor space clean and could help keep everyone inside healthier.

The most obvious benefit is that dirt and other contaminants will not dirty our floors, which translates to less time spent cleaning and vacuuming.

But walking barefoot inside poses some health risks, too. Being shoeless or wearing smooth-sole slippers inside may make us more prone to accidents. More than half of older-adult falls happen to barefoot individuals or those only wearing socks or slippers.

Older adults should consider sneakers or other sturdy shoes that are only worn indoors to reduce the risk of falls in the home. We can leave our outdoor footwear at the door, then slip into something comfy while protecting indoor air quality.

First, we need to remove our shoes at our home’s entrance. This is a difficult habit to acquire, so design experts suggest creating a friendly entryway space. Include a bench to sit on to put on and remove shoes, and add shoe-storage shelves or baskets where we can place our footwear for safekeeping and to keep them out of the way.

We will also want to encourage guests to remove their shoes. One way to help enforce the shoeless rule is to hang a sign inside the door or on a welcome mat. Include a message, “Leave your worries and your shoes at the door.”

Making guests feel more comfortable with having their shoes off is a significant first step toward ensuring their cooperation. Offer guests indoor slippers, keep the floors visibly clean, and use shoe covers for people who are not quite ready for our new shoeless lifestyle.

An old African proverb states: “When you leave your shoes at the doorstep, you leave your troubles behind.” Removing shoes before entering a home is also an easy and courteous method to keep floors free of bacteria, chemicals, and other harmful substances found on our shoes’ soles.

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