Peels, masks and detox pads: How effective are TikTok’s favourite feet products?

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There’s an abundance of strangely satisfying videos on the internet. Watching people pop pimples or remove earwax may turn our stomachs, but it also seems to scratch a metaphorical itch.

Recently, I’ve been hypnotised by videos of peeling feet. Foot peels, masks and detox pads have bombarded my TikTok feed, as people strive for smooth, non-calloused feet. Not only is it weirdly fascinating to watch layers of skin slough off, the process is also said to make you feel more refreshed and energetic. Sign me up.

Foot peels and detox foot pads have become all the rage on social media, but are they worth the hype?

After buying one of the recommended products (Skin Republic’s foot peel) for myself and slipping my feet into the cold, slippery booties, which felt like shoes made of raw chicken fillets, I spent the next 90 minutes envisioning my feet shedding like a snake. According to the packet, my feet would be good as new after seven to 12 days.

But that moment never arrived. A few measly flakes came off after a week, but there was no mass shedding. I wondered whether I was immune to the peel, so I placed my feet in a bowl of water for hours to try and speed the process along. But two weeks passed, and my heels remained as calloused as ever.

I wondered, was I an anomaly or is DIY foot care just another over-hyped online trend?

How do foot peels work?

Foot peels – like Milky Foot, Plantifique and Baby Foot – are a form of DIY chemical exfoliation says director of Hurst Podiatry Brenton Hurst. Most peels include plastic booties lined with a jelly-like substance containing a variety of acids, such as alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid, citric acid and lactic acid.

Hurst describes these acids as “non-discriminatory”, meaning they will target and dissolve any skin they are applied to – not just the calloused or dry areas.

“You’re not in control of how much or how little the acids take off,” Hurst says. “Accessing your own feet can be a bit tricky depending on your flexibility, so getting them onto the right portion of the foot, or the sole of the foot, can actually be quite difficult. You can make mistakes.”

As I came to realise, not every peel is guaranteed to work. They’re considered a “listed medicine” by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which means they’re tested for quality and safety, but not efficacy. Hurst also notes that everyone’s skin reacts differently to certain substances, so some may be more susceptible to peeling than others.

“It’s a bit of a wild west with these things. People can make all sorts of claims about what they do and don’t do, but they’re not actually tested in any meaningful fashion,” he says.

Are they safe to use?

There is such a thing as too much peeling. The application of foot peels could result in rawness and sensitivity to thin skin, says Hurst. The temptation to manually peel away skin that is beginning to lift could exacerbate the issue, leading to skin damage, irritation, ulcers or skin breakdowns and wounds.

Director of Sole Podiatry Jessica O’Neil says important for people with existing medical conditions to steer clear of foot peels, which can inflame existing skin issues like eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis and tinea.

People who have an underlying medical condition that may compromise their immune system or cause poor circulation – for example, diabetes and some autoimmune conditions – should avoid the use of acids on their feet completely,” O’Neil says.

Instructions on the Skin Republic peel state it should only be used once every six weeks for no longer than 120 minutes at a time. However, O’Neil says people should avoid using them altogether.

“There are much safer ways to self-manage dry and thickened skin by using a urea-based emollient or cream regularly on the feet to moisturise and hydrate the skin. Use of home exfoliating brushes, files or pumice stones can gently work away the dry skin areas.”

What’s the deal with detox foot pads?

Detox foot pads are quickly becoming TikTok’s darling of DIY foot care, with users applying the adhesive strips in the evening and ripping them off in the morning to inspect the blackened, stinky residue supposedly extracted from their feet overnight.

Several manufacturers claim their products draw toxins like heavy metals out of the body, which can allegedly aid weight loss and treat high blood pressure, headaches, cellulite, depression, diabetes and insomnia. However, O’Neil says there’s no reliable data to support any of these claims. In fact, the US Federal Trade Commission has even charged distributors like Kinoki Foot Pads with deceptive advertising.

Some TikTokers, including influencer Emilie Kiser, have said using the pads made them feel more energised, but O’Neil says this is likely a placebo effect driven by the distinct black residue observed after use.

The same residue has been said to appear even after a few drops of distilled water are placed onto the pads,” O’Neil says. “It’s likely that when we sleep, the foot perspires and creates the wet droplets on the pad, which in turn causes the pad to change colour.”

Why are we so obsessed with our feet?

The hashtag “foot peel mask” currently has more than 249 million views on TikTok, while “detox foot pads” has more than 19 million. Hurst says social media is a significant driver in body consciousness, which is exacerbated by influencers constantly spruiking the next must-buy treatment.

Having smooth feet may seem superficial to some – given our feet are often concealed from public view – but healthy feet can have a meaningful impact on our lives.

Kate Waller, St Vincent’s Hospital’s chief podiatrist, says healthy feet are often associated with better function and quality of life, and can therefore impact how well we feel.

“As a podiatrist, I’m always encouraging of any promotion of foot health in the medical world and on social media,” Waller says. “Good management of the skin on our feet to treat and prevent dry skin and cracks can improve overall foot function and comfort, while also reducing the risk of serious complications, like infection and amputation.”

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