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Cotton Socks Cause Athletes Problems

May 14, 1999

Cotton socks are worse than old-fashioned for athletes _ they can also be harmful in some situations, a sock expert says.

``State of the art today is using 100 percent synthetic fibers,″ said podiatrist Douglas Richie Jr. of the Los Angeles suburb of Los Alamitos. ``Synthetic fibers are markedly different from cotton or wool.″

Wearing the older fibers gives an athlete or a hiker a higher risk of foot troubles such as blisters and bruises, Richie and other experts say.

``I would avoid cotton socks at all costs,″ said podiatrist Stephen Pribut of George Washington University.

However, an official of a company that makes cotton and synthetic fiber socks said that, for ordinary wear, cotton will do fine.

Synthetic fibers made of such materials as polypropylene and Teflon are better for what socks are supposed to do, said Richie, who has done research on sock performance.

One of those functions is to keep sweat away from the foot, because a wet foot is more likely to blister and become infected.

It’s like what happens to skin when you spend too long in the tub, Pribut said: ``Your skin gets white and a little more mushy.″ Twisting and shearing forces make blisters form.

The pressure created by activity drives sweat back into the outside layer of skin, a covering of protein that is the remains of dead skin cells. The moisture softens the protein, Pribut said.

Movement, such as walking or running, can tear part of the outer layer away from the underlying live skin cells, creating a gap that fills with fluid, which aching hikers and runners know as blisters.

In a properly made sock, however, the movement also can pump sweat away from the foot, Richie said. The moisture enters air pockets in the fabric, and stepping squeezes the sweat out, he said.

But the process breaks down if pressure permanently flattens the fabric, leaving no room for air pockets, Richie said. Cotton is more prone to flatten, he said.

The other part of the sweat-removal process is how to get rid of it once it has been taken away from the foot. Synthetic fabrics do this better because they dry more quickly, Richie said.

A denser weave makes for more air pockets and less compaction. Better socks have more terrycloth loops in them, Richie said. A buyer can tell the difference in the store simply by turning the socks inside out.

Some newer socks also rely on a blister-prevention method that dates from the old days, combining a light liner with a heavier outer sock. By wearing what amounts to two pair, the shearing force that otherwise would fall on the sock and the skin is dissipated to the inner and outer sock.

Synthetic sports socks are far from cheap. They can run $20 or more, although a person can get a decent pair for $8, Pribut said. Cotton athletic socks have the advantage of being cheap, but mere price does not make them acceptable to some podiatrists.

Synthetics will last longer, anyway, so the cost difference shrinks when you factor in the cost of constantly replacing wornout cotton, Richie said.

There are other cost factors as well. Synthetic sports socks are thicker, so people who buy the socks may also need new shoes, said Debbie Lazenby, spokeswoman for Thorlo, a synthetic sports socks company in Statesville, N.C.

``Most people purchase their footwear too small,″ she said.

And if you are not working up a big sweat, you can get by without synthetic sports socks, Richie said. ``Cotton is acceptable for casual wear,″ he said.

``In terms of what most people use athletic socks for, which is just walking around, cotton is fine,″ said Kevin Angliss, president of Auburn Hosiery Mills in New York City.

The company is a sock licensee for Wilson and Converse sports socks in the United States and Europe.

For workouts and games, Angliss agreed that synthetics would be better.

End advance for Monday, May 17