Are Memory Foam Shoes Good or Bad for You?

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Memory Foam Shoes
Good or Bad for You?

Some people say memory foam shoes are bad for your back, knees, feet – bad for you full stop. Others say it's the best thing since Hush Puppies calmed their barking dogs. Let's dig a little deeper.

Memory foam shoes are good for some people and very bad for others. There is no dispute that memory foam has a very comfortable feel but there is less consensus on quality, support, and durability. Some people have found memory foam shoes the cause of serious pain and foot issues.

Memory foam shoes have been much hyped an talked about in recent years. Skechers Memory Foam Shoes are top of the list because the brand has focussed on this material for insoles in almost all of its shoe models.

But if you do a little research you will find many people who think memory foam is bad for your feet – in fact bad for your knees, bad for your back or bad for you – full stop.

You will find other people who think memory foam is almost a life saver and the best thing to happen to shoes since Hush Puppies arrival to calm your barking dogs!

So let’s dive-in and see if we can find the answer to the dichotomy.

What is Memory Foam?

Image showing compressed memory foam
Memory Foam Compresses & Slowly Returns to Shape

Memory foam is a polyurethane that's treated with other chemicals to make it soft to the touch, compressible, plastic and elastic. I use plastic and elastic in the chemical sense – see you knew that chemistry you did at school would come in handy one day!

As a little reminder, plastic means the ability to change in shape if force is applied. Elastic means the ability to return to its original shape after an applied force is removed.

Different density foams and various chemicals used in manufacture will affect its properties such as how soft it feels, how much it compresses, how quickly it returns to shape and its durability.

A Quick History of Memory Foam

NASA started research in the 1960’s looking for a better material for aircraft seating. The research was released in the 1980’s and taken up by manufacturers who saw an opportunity to market the material for medical purposes.

It quickly became a wonder material for people who were forced to be immobile as it reduced pressure sores for bedridden people. Its heat retaining qualities along with its soft compressibility also led to it being used to treat muscle soreness because of the relief heat brings.

Eventually it became widely available for mattresses and more recently pillows and shoes.

Memory Foam Use in Shoes

Everyone wants the most comfortable shoe. Some people understand that they want a shoe that supports their feet properly as without support they will get pain in their foot, knee, back, hip or even neck.

Manufacturers jumped on the comfort angle for marketing because memory foam feels simply awesome under your foot when you first try on a pair of shoes.

For some people that feeling lasts for months and months and for others pain sets in within a few hours or days of wear.

If you want to sell shoes it is the ultimate material since the first feel is simply great and once a shoe has been worn a bit you can’t take it back – sales success even if the shoe does affect some people badly.

The other great quality of memory foam is that it is simply not very durable. Like almost everything elastic, that quality is not 100% and like us past our forties, it eventually loses its ability to get back to shape.

And so the comfort wanes with the flattening of the memory foam. Durability and retention of elasticity and shape is somewhat dependant on quality but affects all memory foam eventually.

Image of Skechers shoe box for memory foam shoes

The issue here is that with good quality shoes using memory foam, the first thing to go will be the foam which renders the shoe useless and potentially dangerous – I’ll get to that in a moment.

So you might reflect on the marketing ethos of a company that glues in it’s low quality memory foam insoles that feel great on day 1 but will fall apart on day 90 and become unwearable.

The first takeaway is to ensure any shoe with memory foam insoles has them removable. At least you can then replace the insoles and not have to replace the shoe entirely.

Can Memory Foam Shoes Cause Knee Pain?

You may or may not know that the way your foot works mechanically can affect a wide number of body parts. Knee pain, hip pain, back pain and neck pain can all be caused by an issue starting in the foot.

It does also follow that issues in those other parts can also affect the foot because of the way our brain compensates to lower pain to the minimum. For example a painful right knee would, subconsciously, introduce a loping gait as your brain reduces how long your weight bears on your right foot.

That in turn would increase pressures on your left foot which could cause plantar fasciitis, metatarsalgia, some pronation issues or ankle problems. In fact a whole range of issues could result from one bad knee.  

This leads to the first potential issue with memory foam shoes for everyone to a greater or lesser extent depending on how long you wear the shoes, how hard you wear them (are you jumping and running or just walking for example), how heavy you are etc.

Gradual deterioration.

Image of worn insoles
You May Not Notice Gradual Deterioration of Your Memory Foam Insoles – Problem!

Because the gradual deterioration of the foam goes unnoticed by you because your brain smartly makes little compensations as support and cushioning slowly disappear.

You will probably be unaware that your posture and gait have changed to compensate significantly until you get a pain which could be in your foot or higher up the body as I alluded to above. This is bad because you will not only need new shoes but also some recovery time to repair the damage done.

Just looking at the shoe, it will not be obvious that the memory foam has deteriorated to a point where it needs changing.  Since the durability of the foam is typically much less than the uppers and sole, the shoe may look great externally so not alerting you to the potential problems gradually affecting you.

This is particularly a problem if the insoles are not removable, and many Skechers shoes do not have removable insoles so please do check.

Why Do Memory Foam Shoes Smell?

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly the memory foam itself emits a smell from the materials used, particularly when you first start wearing them.

This does lessen quite rapidly though as the stench from your foot sweat takes over!

You will recall that one of the qualities of the material is that it retains heat. This is not such a great idea in shoes unless you are an Eskimo because it will lead to sweat which in turn leads to smelly shoes.

To offset this, manufacturers have taken to incorporating gel beads in the memory foam. Back to chemistry and you may recall that a material will absorb heat differently when solid to when it is liquid. You may also recall latent heat – heat given off from a change in state.

So these gel beads change state as a result of the build up of heat from your foot which turns the gel into more liquid form and helps cool the foot. Isn’t chemistry fun?

Another way to counter the smelly build up from sweaty feet is to line the foam with a moisture wicking material and introduce air flow through the foam as it compresses to aerate the material. It works – to a degree.

The breathability of the uppers is another factor. Shoes with fabric, knit or mesh uppers breathe much better than leather or closed synthetic materials which enables air to flow more freely through the shoe and reduce sweat and moisture. The downside is these materials give less lateral support than leather and closed synthetics.

This is another reason you should look for shoes with removable insoles (footbeds) as you can then take these smell harboring babies and stick them in the wash to freshen up.

Images of sneakers being hand washed
Washing Memory Foam – Better to Hand Wash & Squish

Can You Wash Memory Foam Shoes?

Maybe. It depends on the other materials in the shoe. The memory foam itself can be washed, though by hand is better as you can really get a better through-flow of soapy fresh smelling water through them better squashing-washing than a machine can. The other materials the shoe is made from may be damaged by washing though.

If the shoe is all synthetic and the footbed is not removable then you can usually get good results by washing in the machine  If you’ve ever tried it is pretty hard washing a shoe by hand.

If the shoe has leather, fur or other materials that do not respond well to washing then better not try. Fur tends to get matted and leather tends to crack up and that ain’t funny!

If you have removable memory foam insoles then, so long as they are not leather lined or fur trimmed you can safely remove them and give them a quick hand wash.

Regardless of whether you wash by hand or machine, wash the entire shoe or just the insoles, do make sure to dry them very thoroughly. You may find my article on shoe drying handy for tips.

Are Memory Foam Shoes Supportive?

Memory foam on its own will compress and mold to your foot shape and so support everywhere in one sense. But your heels, your arches, the balls of your feet and your toes all need different kinds of support which single density foam cannot give alone.

Also, different people need different support in different places and for some, cushioning is more important under some parts of the foot than others.

Older people need different support than the younger footed typically.

How is this?

An overpronator will need support to stop the foot rolling inward too much. A high arched person may supinate and need higher but less resisting support to allow inward roll, such as there is, yet still support the higher arch.

An older person will likely have flatter balls of the foot and need more cushioning there to avoid metatarsalgia. A diabetic will need more cushioning overall and so on.  

Orthotic Arch Support & Heel Cup Positioner
Orthotic Arch Support & Heel Cup Positioner

The problem is that some people need a lot of good arch support and some need less.

To get good arch support the main body of the shoe will need some contouring under the memory foam to provide the supportive surface needed.

It is this contoured surface that will provide the support you need and not the memory foam itself which is designed to compress.

It is conceivable that an insole can be made from multiple density foam, more compressible in the forefoot than under the arch and heel. Indeed there are insoles with gel inserts in the heel for shock absorbing resistance, denser material in the arch area and more cushioned at the toes. These will work well if the contour and resistance suit your foot shape and the activity you are doing.

Image of multi density insoles
Multi-Density Insoles Can Give Better Support & Cushioning Too

Athletic shoes tend to need more cushioning than walking shoes because of the higher forces running and jumping produce. Unfortunately, that use tends to lead to the memory foam losing its elastic property more quickly.

This explains why some people say that memory foam shoes have lasted them for years (though they probably don't realise they aren’t supportive or cushioned any more as they have just got used to the lack of either). In contrast some runners who’ve bought a pair of memory foam running shoes and loved the initial cushioning they provided or people working in them all day and walking extensively will say they have gone flat in no time and are hopelessly non-durable.

So Are Memory Foam Shoes Good Or Bad For You?

The answer is they can be good or they can be bad depending on you..

For some people the way they walk will not be suited to memory foam which can be likened a bit to walking on softish sand. If you have ever walked on a beach then you will probably have felt your feet fatigued walking in soft sand and change direction to the more solid sand after a while.

Woman with pain in her ankle walking on a road surface
The wrong shoe support can cause problems. The right support can eliminate pain.

Some people can walk on soft sand all the time though. The reason why that is lies in the way their muscles work, the way they balance themselves and the strength of their muscles.

In the same way some people will find walking in memory foam shoes to be tiring, force them to change how they walk, compensating subconsciously eventually leading to foot problems, foot pain or pain elsewhere.

This is why some people find memory foam shoes great and others are in pain after a few hours of wear.

If you are using memory foam shoes and find you begin to get pain in the foot, knee, back, neck or hips I suggest you immediately stop wearing them for a few weeks as soon as you notice the pain.

Wear other shoes and see if the pain goes away. If it does try the memory foam pair of shoes again and see if the pain comes back. You’ll soon be convinced if the shoes are the cause or not.

If you do find the shoes were the cause then swap to wearing sneakers as you will find them much more supportive. You might also remind yourself that most (not all) flip flops and flats are equally unsupportive shoes you might do better avoiding.

Finally, if you like the relaxed fit and comfort of Skechers shoes then by all means get a pair but do bear in mind that support may not be enough and limit how long and how often you wear them to avoid problems they may cause.

If you like wearing Sketchers then you are probably an artist or just a bad speller like me. It took me a while to realize Skechers was spent without the ‘T’ – duh!