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Best Blister Prevention Lubricants, Sticks & Creams

Best Blister Prevention Lubricants, Sticks & Creams

There are literally hundreds of blister prevention lubricants on the market. It shows that skin lubrication remains a popular blister prevention strategy. Many runners and hikers remain blister-free using lube, cream, ointment, spray, wax and stick products.

Blister prevention lubricant brands

In this video, I have a bunch of topical blister products, mostly lubricants, and I’ll show you how they look, feel and smell, and how they work.

A quote from Doug Richie DPM

Lubricants reduce friction levels. They do this very well, at least initially. However, research shows lubricants can be counterproductive to blister prevention.

“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.” .

Doug Richie DPM, 2010

Five reasons why blister prevention lubricants might make things worse

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.

how blister prevention lubricants work
Results from Nacht et al 1981 (reported in Wolfram, 1983):
  • Graph a) Mildly greasy moisturisers and water
  • Graph B) Moderately greasy moisturisers
  • Graph c) Very greasy moisturiser

When you are dealing with friction levels, it’s important to realise that friction is not bad. In fact it’s 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. Your 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 thicker and possibly even lose the nail (it will grow back, but a little thicker each time). This lack of traction reduces your functional efficiency (acceleration / deceleration). And puts you at higher risk of 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 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 every 90 minutes or so 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: Weakened 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.

vaseline and greasy lubricants and transepidermal water loss
Blister lubricants prevent transepidermal water loss, weakening the skin to Blister-causing shear forces

Problem 4: Attracting 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: Retarding the adhesion of tapes and dressings

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. This can get very tricky when you use a lubricant, it doesn’t work and you get a blister, and then you want to apply an island dressing or plaster. It won’t stick!

How else can you manage friction?

This begs the question, if skin lubrication isn’t a great way to manage friction, how do we reduce friction levels to prevent friction blisters, without all these downsides?

There are many ways: certain socks, powders, shoe patches, antiperspirants and possibly even tapes. Some of these work better than others. I particularly like shoe patches called ENGO Blister Patches because they:

  • Provide an exceptionally low friction level
  • This friction relief lasts day in, day out for 300 miles (~500kms)
  • They allow your sock to protect your skin
  • Take up no room in your shoe
  • Can be used to maintain “good” friction
  • Save you heaps of time!

👉 Read more about how ENGO patches manage friction levels in all the right ways.

Conclusion

Using lubricants like Vaseline 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, and an alternative in ENGO patches.

Rebecca Rushton

Podiatrist, blister prone ex-hockey player, foot blister thought-leader, author and educator. Can’t cook. Loves test cricket.

No Comments
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  • E Ward
    7 June 2015 at 9:22 am

    What is your opinion on the use of "dry lubricants" such as Talc?

  • Rebecca Rushton
    7 June 2015 at 9:41 am

    Really good question! I can tell you talc performs poorly (in fact can increase blisters). And no skin friction or blister incidence research has been conducted on the more modern dry lubricants – so I really don’t know. Here’s a quote from The Advanced Guide To Blister Prevention (chapter 6) about powders:

    Talcum powder has the ability to absorb moisture and act as a dry lubricant.¹⁰ ¹⁷ But adding 13-17% hydration (ie: when your feet get a bit sweaty) causes the friction coefficient to increase. “It is self-evident that talcum does not remain dry in such areas as the foot for very long” and “the addition of talc to socks would be expected to increase frictional trauma.”¹⁰ Both Knapik³⁷ and Richie⁸⁸ cite three British military studies from the 1960s that tested the use of drying powders to find either no benefit or an increased blister incidence.

  • Tim
    20 February 2016 at 7:12 am

    It should be noted in the figure of graphs, that:

    Products A,B, and C under graph "a" are all non greasyD, E under graph "b" are moderately greasy, andF under graph "c" is very greasy.

  • Rebecca Rushton
    20 February 2016 at 8:18 am

    That’s right Tim. Here’s the exact caption from the paper:

    Figure 4: Changes in skin friction coefficient after treatment with different moisturizing formulations. A, B, C, D, E, and F are six commercial moisturizing products. Amount applied of each product: approx. 2 mg/cm 2. Each point is the mean of five subjects measured in triplicate.

  • Rebecca Rushton
    20 February 2016 at 8:22 am

    And the graph heading:

    Changes In Skin Friction Coefficient After Treatment With Different Moisturizing Formulations

  • Anon
    28 June 2018 at 3:27 am

    20,000 km of continuous hiking of over 1,500km at a journey in some of the hottest anf some of the wettest parts of the world, and always with decent merino socks (Bridgedale) and well made, comfortable boots (Meindl), says "Bollocks., Rebecca Rushton." Only two blisters worth mentioning, and both due to extreme, non-stop 60km days. For every proven aid for hikers, there’s a troll waiting to trash it. Any serious podiatrist knows full well that nails ‘grow back’. I suggest you retake your exams. Click bait.

  • Rebecca Rushton
    12 July 2018 at 8:36 am

    You’re right anon, nails do grow back no matter what damage they sustain in hiking (or running or any sport). Every time the cells in the nail matrix are injured, the resultant nail will be a little different – usually thicker, sometimes split or deformed in some other way. I’d consider this a reason to think twice about friction-reducing strategies used in a way that covers too broad an area to reduce traction in your shoe and allow your toes to hit the end of your shoe.

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