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Not Such A Croc
Might a Fad Shoe's Health Claims Stand?

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; HE01

You've tried to ignore them, but they've spread like vermin. Crocs are everywhere. That's often the way with shoe crazes -- think Birkenstocks, Earth shoes, Dr. Scholl's. Crocs wearers are practically evangelical about the shoes' supposed comfort, but really, how can you trust people who go out in public wearing goofy rubbery clogs with vent holes in them? Might as well ascribe health benefits to chopped-off garden galoshes or jelly shoes.

Time to call in the foot experts and expose the things for the frauds they are. Except -- surprise -- that turns out to be more difficult than you might imagine.

Crocs, made of a resin foam called Croslite and listing for $29.99, are featured prominently on the Web site of the Bethesda-based American Podiatric Medical Association ( http://www.apma.org/ ) as one healthy alternative to flip-flops; two Crocs models -- both in the Crocs Rx line, designed for people with diabetes and others with circulatory and foot ailments -- recently have been awarded the APMA Seal of Acceptance. The APMA takes special note of the fact that Croslite "warms and softens with body heat and molds to the users' feet, while remaining extremely lightweight."

Harold Glickman, chief of podiatric surgery at Sibley Memorial Hospital, praises Crocs for their ample toe room, deep and supportive heel cup and secure rear strap. Their loose fit, he said, means no pressure points or rubbing spots, and their nonporous material gives them antibacterial properties that makes them "a huge asset to those susceptible to infection -- those with diabetic ulcerations, wounds or poor circulation."

Glickman, who isn't among the physicians who have partnered with the makers of Crocs to stock the shoes in their offices, began recommending them to patients after he began wearing them himself. "I found them myself to be so comfortable, a bell went off." Now he suggests them to people with plantar fasciitis, a painful stretching of the tissue along the bottom of the foot, and to those undergoing bunionectomies or other foot surgery. "The patient can go right into them post-operatively, bandage and all."

Glickman's sold on Crocs for the healthy-footed, too. Their stable foot bed, he says, prevents wobbling and excessive pronation -- in which body weight falls on the inner edge of the sole, causing ankle, knee and low-back pain. He also says they make a good alternative to flexible bedroom slippers, which he calls a "major cause of foot problems."

The shoes have also been certified by United States Ergonomics ( http://www.us-ergo.com/home.asp ), which Crocs paid to test their capacity for efficient and safe use. In a study in which participants wore both Crocs and the most comfortable footwear they had in their own closets, Crocs caused less muscle fatigue and foot pressure, Ergonomics president Kevin Costello said.

Of course, the whole medical community hasn't gone nuts over Crocs. Several orthopedists contacted for this story had never heard of the shoes. And while Glenn Thomas, a physical therapist at Georgetown University Hospital, says he loves wearing them and "wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to patients," he admits that he doesn't know for sure of any great health benefit tied to Crocs.

Nor is the fashion world enamored of Crocs. Though their maker touts their "ultra-hip Italian styling," lots of folks find them hideous, as evidenced on blogs like http://kelly.typepad.com/kelly/2006/06/to_croc_or_not_.html , where Croc-bashers abound. And don't get Stacy London, co-host of The Learning Channel's "What Not to Wear," started. London knocks Crocs for making wearers' legs look heavy and short and notes that there are other "comfort shoes" that are more flattering.

Crocs were launched in 2002 when three sailing buddies -- one wearing clogs made by a company called Foam Creations -- decided to go into the shoe business. Sold on the clogs' skid-resistant, non-marking soles, vent holes, light weight, quick drying speed and built-in antibacterial to ward off stink, the guys bought the rights to the shoes (they eventually bought the company as well) and started peddling the boat shoes under the name Crocs.

Even without advertising, word spread to others who spend lots of time on their feet. Restaurant workers were early adopters, as were doctors and nurses, for whom closed-top Crocs, without the upper vent holes, were developed; Crocs issued colors such as sage and light blue to match surgical scrubs. Celebrity chef Mario Batali is among the shoes' most prominent (and unpaid) proponents. Crocs Inc. expects sales of around $200 million in 2006.

(Disclosure: Acting on a tip from my best friend, I got my first Crocs last winter. My chronic low-back pain disappeared quickly. I now own two pairs -- as do my daughter, son and normally conservative husband.)

Crocs co-founder Duke Hanson says he and his sailing buddies didn't set out to create an orthopedic shoe but discovered their foot-friendly attributes as they went along. He likes the fact that the Crocs Rx models, which feature a softer foot bed and wider toe box and sell for $39.95 at http://www.crocs.com/ , provide people with ailing feet a comfortable footwear option at a reasonable price.

In the end, though, the Crocs cachet isn't about orthopedics. Says Hanson, "You feel like you're part of a group when you're wearing them." ยท

Jennifer Huget is a frequent contributor to Health. Comments:health@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company