Sally Turkel never had a problem with her feet. Tape on her big and little toes was all she needed before slipping on her pointe shoes. But when she joined Colorado Ballet as a young dancer, the new demands of company life took a toll, and blisters became a constant enemy. "I wasn't prepared for it," says Turkel, now a principal with Ballet San Antonio. "I became known as the one who always had terrible feet issues." It took a few years of experience and tips passed down from senior company members to learn how to avoid blisters.
"A blister is a sign from your body that it's time to take a step back," says Monara Dini, a podiatrist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco. "Ignoring it for too long can lead to infection, and a breakdown of the skin and wounds that ultimately take a long time to heal." Fortunately, the right foot care can help dancers speed healing, minimize pain and even avoid blisters in the first place.
Find the Right Fit
Blisters are caused by a combination of friction, pressure and moisture. When the skin is subjected to repeated force, it creates tears in the second and third layers of the skin, while the uppermost layer remains intact. A serum-like fluid flows in to fill the space.
The culprit can be too-big or too-small shoes that create unnecessary friction and aggravate "hot spots," such as bunions and hammertoes, says Diana Werner, also a podiatrist and assistant clinical professor at UCSF. Proper fit is essential. Keep in mind that feet evolve over time, sometimes growing in size or developing new pressure points. "Chronic blisters are a sign that your feet have changed," says Werner. If blisters suddenly become a problem, consider getting refitted.
Slightly damp skin blisters more easily than either very wet or very dry skin. A little petroleum jelly dabbed onto vulnerable spots just before dancing (and reapplied as frequently as possible during long rehearsals) can reduce friction to minimize chafing.
To keep skin dry, Werner recommends sprinkling foot powder inside pointe shoes just before dancing. Also, wear tights made of synthetic, "wicking" materials, such as polyester or microfibers; cotton tends to absorb sweat and exacerbate chafing. When it comes to padding, Werner says old-fashioned lambswool is still the best at wicking moisture away from skin.
And smokers, take note: Studies suggest blisters are more likely to develop among cigarette users, possibly because tobacco damages the skin and constricts blood vessels in a way that weakens the skin's friction defenses.
Tape the Trouble Spots
For extra protection, Dini recommends taping any spots where your shoes rub. Look for a high-quality adhesive bandage that can survive sweat. Using a stretch of tape that's about twice as long as the diameter of the toe you want to protect, fold one end of the tape so that you have a nonstick surface to place over the "danger zone," and then wrap the rest around your toe. Keep in mind that your feet will likely swell throughout the day, so avoid wrapping too tightly.
Drain the Fluid
When a blister appears, Turkel lances it with a sterile needle as soon as possible. "You don't want it to pop in your shoe," she says. Lancing right away will help relieve pressure and pain. But the procedure—and the potential for infection—should not be taken lightly. It is only safe to lance if the fluid inside the blister is clear, says Werner.
First prepare your skin by washing it with soap and water or swabbing it with rubbing alcohol. (If it's the end of the day, experts recommend soaking your feet in warm water and Epsom salts for 15 minutes beforehand.) Next, sterilize a needle by holding it in a flame until the tip turns red. Allow the needle to cool, then use it to gently make one small hole anywhere on the blister.
After draining the fluid, air the blister out overnight. Dress it with antibiotic ointment before wearing shoes in the morning. To relieve pressure, Werner recommends using a moleskin pad cut in the shape of a doughnut. (You can boost the pad's adhesive power with a solution called compound tincture of benzoin, sold in medical supply stores.) Beware of any signs of infection: redness and pain extending up the ankle and leg, or pus in the blister.
There's no need to drain a blister if you have some time off. "Blisters will heal on their own," says Werner. But, "If you must dance and perform the next day, lance it."
Rest and Pamper
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Don't forget the healing power of timely rest. "It's hard to find time in a demanding schedule," Werner admits, "but it can work miracles." She advises dancers to soak their feet in warm water and Epsom salts every night before bed—or at least on the weekend. Even when your feet are feeling fine, this can help reduce swelling. During very busy periods, it's also a good idea to minimize walking as much as possible after a long day of dancing.
Taking such precaution is worth it. As Turkel says, "You can't take a day off because your feet hurt. It's part of your job."