Skin lubrication is a popular blister prevention strategy. Lots of runners, athletes and hikers remain blister-free using Vaseline, BodyGlide, Hydropel, Trislide, 2Toms Sportshield, RunGoo, BagBalm and the like (watch this video for more). But research shows they can be counterproductive. This quote is from a literature review by Doug Richie DPM (2010):
"Physicians coaches and athletic trainers continue to advocate the use of petrolatum jelly and skin powders to prevent blisters while the scientific literature suggests these measures may actually increase the chance of blistering on the feet." .
If lubricants are not working for you, here are 4 potential reasons why:
Problem 1: Lack of traction
Viscous lubricants reduce friction levels! You can see that in the 3rd graph below - the curve immediately drops below the baseline. This third graph pertains to viscous lubricants (they tested petrolatum (aka Vaseline), mineral oil and glycerine). The first and second graphs are for mildly greasy and moderately greasy moisturisers. These increased friction straight away. So that's one thing to make sure of - that your lubricant is viscous and greasy, not just like a moisturising cream.
When you are dealing with friction levels, it's important to realise that friction is not bad. In fact it's quite necessary to provide traction. When you put lubricant all over your foot, your foot loses traction. Without traction your foot moves around too much in your shoes. The toes can hit the end of your shoe causing bleeding or blistering under the nails. Over time, this trauma causes the nails to get thicker and deformed. And you can even lose the nail (I wanted to post this picture but decided to provide the link only - if you're not squeamish, take a look). This lack of traction reduces your functional efficiency. And puts you at higher risk of proximal musculoskeletal injury as your muscles have to work harder to compensate for the lack of traction.
For these reasons, lubricating large areas of the foot, particularly the plantar (sole) surface may not be a good idea. In preventing blisters, the aim is not to reduce friction all over. A targeted approach is necessary. If you're using a lubricant, apply it only where needed!
Problem 2: Friction levels actually increase
The results from Nacht et al (1981) in the graph above show that although friction reduces initially, it later rises above the baseline friction level. So you should stop and reapply to ensure you are still benefiting from reduced friction. If not, not only has your blister protection gone, you're actually at more risk of blistering.
Problem 3: Lubricants weaken the skin
Lubricants are occlusive which means they form a barrier to transepidermal water loss, a normal function of the skin. If water can't be released from the skin, it stays trapped within the skin, hyperhydrating it. This causes it to become weaker and less able to resist trauma. A bit like how your skin goes when you’re in the bath for too long. Imagine then having to run, accelerate, decelerate, change direction etc on this weak wrinkly skin! In this way, lubricants probably work best in the short term.
Problem 4: Lubricants attract grit
The common lubricant Vaseline (petrolatum jelly) can be counter-productive particularly on off-road surfaces due to a tendency to attract grit. This increases the likelihood of blisters or other skin trauma. In addition, Vaseline's carcinogenic properties have become a concern in recent times as it is a product of petroleum.
Problem 5: They retard adhesion of tapes
Okay, there's another problem with lubricants. Lubricants reduce the ability of adhesive tapes and dressings to stick to the skin. You'll find it difficult to combine the two preventive strategies of taping and lubricants. You'll also find it difficult to combine lubricants with blister dressings
Conclusion: Lubricants as a blister prevention strategy?
Using lubricants as a means of blister prevention may not be the ideal option for the reasons above. If it's already working for you, wonderful. If not, you've probably just found out why.
Written by Rebecca Rushton
Rebecca is an Australian podiatrist with over 20 years experience. She has spent a lifetime dealing with her own blister prone feet in her sporting and everyday life. Rebecca specialises in helping athletes and sports medicine professionals figure out how to manage foot blisters with ease. And for kicks, she enjoys providing blister care at multiday ultramarathon events.
Rebecca is the founder of Blister Prevention and author of "The Blister Prone Athlete's Guide To Preventing Foot Blisters".