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Copper Socks: Complete Guide (Updated 2020)

Copper Socks: Complete Guide (Updated 2020)

In this post, we reveal everything you need to know about copper socks and copper compression socks. Let's get started!

Introduction

In August 2010, a mine collapsed in Chile, trapping 33 Chilean miners for a total of 69 days. Within two weeks of living underground, and with rescue operations not making any headway, they began to notice skin problems, particularly on their feet. The miners reported increasingly scaly skin on the soles of their feet, athlete’s foot, nail fungus, itchy blisters, and fungal infections. When donated antifungal creams failed to offer relief, they received an unexpected, yet effective remedy: copper socks. 

The miners participated in this preliminary (and totally situational) study exploring the benefits of using copper socks. Many of them reported their conditions getting better after a week of using the socks. These encouraging results are one of the earliest findings that propelled copper socks into fame.

Copper socks have been gaining a lot of attention in the health and wellness space, but it can be easy to get lost in the marketing material out there in the vast sea of the internet. So, in this definitive guide, we will answer the following questions in an objective and comprehensive manner:  

What are copper socks?

Is there any science behind copper socks?  

What are the benefits of using copper socks? 

What are the different types of copper socks? 

How does one use and maintain copper socks?

What are the factors in choosing copper socks? 

Who should use copper socks?

Are there any risks to using copper or copper compression socks? 

The Significance of Copper

Copper is known as one of the first metals used by man; humans have been using copper for almost 8,000 years. The Egyptians used copper in their jewelry, armour and some daily items; the ancient Greeks discovered its disinfectant properties; and scholars even believe that as early as 8000 BC the Neolithic man used copper as a substitute for stone. Thousands of years may have passed, but copper's significance in our daily lives has barely diminished.

Copper is currently ranked as the third most-consumed metal in the modern world. Apart from its obvious application in electronics, current research explores the use of copper for applications in medicine, agriculture, textile, and other notable industries. Organizations that specialize in harnessing the unique properties of copper, such as the company that helped the Chilean miners mentioned earlier, are growing at a fast pace. 

Copper is the third most consumed metal in the world. 

The antibacterial and antifungal properties of copper make it especially popular in the medical field. Hospitals attempt to slow the spread of bacteria and infections by coating frequently touched tools and surfaces such as bed rails, call buttons, and stethoscopes with copper. This innovation was transferred to clothing and fabric by Jeffrey Gabbay, a pioneer in the research on copper-infused textiles. His team published their findings in the Journal of Industrial Textiles in 2006.

The discovery of potent biocidal property in fabrics containing copper-infused fibres gave birth to copper socks, which we discuss below.

What are Copper Socks? 

It is the infusion of copper into fabric that sets copper socks apart from all other socks. While wearing normal socks for a whole day can lead to odor and sweat build-up, copper socks eliminate odor-causing bacteria through its biocidal property. This property of copper turns your socks into a natural and durable barrier protecting your feet from odor, skin hardening, infections and diseases. 

The average human will walk more than 110,000 miles in her/his lifetime, so feet are almost always exposed to humid and dirty environments. This is precisely where copper socks can be most helpful.

Types of Copper Socks

There are generally two types of copper sockscopper socks with a compression feature and those without. In this article, we will refer to them as copper compression socks and non-compression type copper socks.

Non-compression type copper socks are no different from regular socks except that the fibres in the fabric used to make them are infused with copper. Although the infusion method may vary slightly among types of fabric, it is relatively easy to infuse copper ions on a molecular level to fabric fibres with modern technology.

The process essentially consists of soaking the fibres in a solution containing copper ions, activating the fibres using chemicals, plating or coating the fibres with copper ions, then drying with a textile carding machine. The entire process does not require major deviations from the manufacture of regular socks, making it attractive for manufacturers who want to add more value to their product.

On the other hand, copper compression socks combine the biocidal properties of copper and the benefits of compression therapy. These are essentially compression stockings with copper-infused fibre. Copper compression socks use a different blend of synthetic fibres since they have to provide a snug yet comfortable fit to enable the compression feature. The usual synthetic fibres used in copper compression socks are nylon, spandex and elastane. 

The difference between the two types of copper socks boils down to the presence of the compression feature. Compression therapy brings out a multitude of additional benefits that cannot be obtained from using non-compression type copper socks, which we discuss below.

The Science Behind Copper Socks 

Image from Vincent, Duval, Hartemann, Engels-Deutsch (2017) Applied Microbiology

There are a multitude of articles and advertisements online that praise the supposed incredible benefits of using copper socks, and they are raising a lot of consumers' eyebrows⁠—is this the snake oil in 2020?

As it turns out, there are solid scientific theories and studies that can back these claims. This section will describe several studies and explain the logic behind the benefits of copper socks. Read on to discover how copper destroys disease and odor-causing microorganisms and how the mechanism of compression works. 

Research on the Biocidal Properties of Copper

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared copper surfaces as an antimicrobial agent in 2008. Since then, there has been a wave of studies exploring the biocidal properties of copper and copper surfaces. 

An example of such a study was conducted in Bangladesh and published in the Journal of Health, Population, and Nutrition. The researchers wanted to determine whether storing water in copper pots can kill harmful diarrhea-causing bacteria to a significant degree. Accordingly, they inoculated sterilized water taken from the tap with pathogenic bacteria and poured the culture into copper pots and glass bottles. After 16 hours at room temperature, they could not recover any bacteria from the culture that had been poured into the copper pots, although they could recover bacteria from the culture that had been poured into the glass bottles. To verify the results, they tried to revive the bacteria in the solution in the copper pots by enriching the culture. The recovery process also failed. This ultimately means that copper pots can effectively purify water and thus serve as a solution for economically treating microbially unsafe water in developing countries. 

Contact Killing

'Contact killing' is a term coined for the ability of copper surfaces to rapidly inactivate bacteria, yeast, fungi, and viruses. Studies show that even the most heat-resistant strains and spores are destroyed upon prolonged contact with copper surfaces. Although the exact mechanism for contact killing is still unclear to science, scientists are looking at three possible explanations for how copper surfaces kill microorganisms. 

The first mechanism proposed involves the disruption of the well-balanced fluid systems and processes inside the microbial cells by copper ions. The alterations within the cell result in cell membrane damage. Once the integrity of the cell membrane significantly diminishes, the cell finally raptures, resulting in cell death.

Another mechanism suggested is oxidative stress. Copper ions dissolved from copper surfaces induce harmful chemical reactions, particularly reactions that degrade proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates found inside the cell through the action of oxygen. 

The last mechanism is the degeneration of genetic material inside the cell. This mechanism is essentially the same as the second, except the targets are the nucleic acids of DNA instead of proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates. 

If you want to further explore the mechanism of contact killing, there are several studies published in the Journal for Applied Microbiology and the Journal for Applied Environmental Microbiology

In addition, in order to helpfully summarize recent research, we compiled a host of literature discussing the antimicrobial properties of copper in this article.

Treating Athlete’s Foot with Copper Socks

A team of researchers conducted a study supporting the anti-fungal properties of copper socks. It was published in The International Journal of Clinical Foot & Ankle Science & Surgery. 56 patients who were clinically diagnosed with athlete’s foot underwent treatment using copper socks. After nine days, the patients experienced relief from the symptoms and showed recovery from fissuring, dermal eruptions, scaling, burning and itching. Furthermore, none of the participants experienced adverse effects while wearing the copper socks.

Research on Compression Socks

Compression therapy is one of the standard treatment methods for chronic venous diseases and illnesses concerning the lymphatic system. Seeing that compression therapy is proven to reduce swelling caused by fluid build-up in the muscles and improve blood circulation, this should at least encourage critics of compression garments to rethink their position. 

Although there are cases of lawsuits due to misleading claims, such claims appear to be the result of exaggerated advertisements and not because there is no scientific basis to conclude that compression therapy has health benefits. To the contrary, the benefits of copper garments such as copper socks and stockings remain on solid scientific ground.

The majority of the studies on compression garments were published in journals on sports science, sports medicine, and strength and conditioning research. One study examining the effects of compression garments on the performance and recovery of rugby players found an improvement in the average sprint time and diminished fatigue in athletes undergoing a 3-km runs and repeated sprints. Moreover, the subjects also experienced lower delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) which is typically felt after rigorous physical activity. 

In another study, a group of researchers attempted a meta-analysis of 31 studies exploring the benefits of using compression garments. In their summary, they stated that claimed benefits such as the recovery of strength after physical activity, removal of lactate in the blood, increases in body temperature, and reduction in swelling and perceived muscle pain was on the small to moderate scale. Thus, they concluded that compression garments can assist athletes in their performance and recovery, but the magnitude of the effects may be on the smaller side depending on the circumstances.

Exploring the Main Benefit of Copper Socks: the Biocidal Property

Benefits from the biocidal property of copper include antimicrobial action against microorganisms, reduction of sweat and odor build-up, and the improvement of skin regeneration. Let's go through these one by one. 

Copper Socks Inhibit the Growth of Microorganisms

Copper has been scientifically proven to be capable of deactivating a wide range of harmful pathogenic microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi. Even the most thermally-resistant bugs are destroyed after contact with copper. 

Through contact killing, copper ions target and fragment the DNA of microorganisms, leading to rapid cell death. Moreover, research shows that copper surfaces remain active even when soiled. In theory, copper socks are essentially self-sterilizing and can, therefore, be washed less often, but we wouldn't recommend letting dirty socks fester on your bedroom floor. 

Copper Socks Prevent Foul Odor and Sweat Build-Up

A strong foot odor after a long day of activity is a common (albeit embarrassing) occurrence. The natural bacteria found on our feet breaks down our sweat into several acidic components, causing an unpleasant smell. When coupled with the hot and humid environment inside our shoes, our feet are the perfect breeding ground for (smelly) bacteria. 

Many copper socks also utilize modern wicking fabrics which draw moisture away from the body. Thanks to this moisture management function, copper socks can keep your feet cool and dry all day. 

These functions are particularly helpful for people who have physically-demanding jobs, or simply people who like to work out, as copper socks can help improve occupational hygiene and keep sweat and foot odor at bay without much effort.

Copper Socks Have Protective and Regenerative Functions for the Skin

Copper is responsible for producing and stabilizing components that keep our skin supple and healthy, such as elastic fibres and collagen fibres. Studies on the use of copper to improve the well-being of skin have begun to pop up, one after another, over the last decade. Researchers continue to conduct clinical trials on curing athlete’s foot, improving skin elasticity, and reducing fine lines and skin wrinkles using copper-infused pillowcases, wound dressings, and socks.

Copper socks are proven to cure skin conditions associated with athlete’s foot such as scaling, fissuring, vesicular eruptions, itching, and burning. During the clinical trials for copper socks, researchers also found that it can improve skin elasticity in feet.

Compression Therapy

Copper compression socks, while having the biocidal property from copper that we discussed above, also have the added benefit of providing compression therapy. This can benefit those experiencing soreness, muscle swelling or the familiar feeling of pins and needles in your feet. 

Compression therapy is the use of external pressure on the human body to achieve therapeutic results. It is the standard treatment for patients with chronic venous diseases and deep vein thrombosis. However, the general public can also use compression therapy as a preventative measure against a wide range of mild health issues.

Copper Compression Socks Can Improve Muscle Soreness

Following moderate to intense exercise, a person can experience pain and soreness in the muscles used during strenuous physical activity. Research shows that these symptoms can be alleviated by wearing compression socks in between rounds of muscle activity. The mild pressure exerted by the compression socks in the lower extremities improves blood circulation and can therefore prevent delayed onset muscle soreness.

Copper Compression Socks Can Reduce Muscle Swelling

The intake of a copper-rich diet (shellfish, liver, grains and potatoes, for example) in people suffering from chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis causes a spike in the body’s anti-inflammatory response. Hence, researchers posit that copper may have an anti-inflammatory property upon contact with the skin.  

Since compression therapy is also used to treat patients with chronic lymphatic diseases, the slight pressure exerted by compression socks on the body’s vessels and capillaries can also have an anti-inflammatory effect as it improves the drainage of lymphatic fluids in the muscles. 

Copper Compression Socks Can Improve Blood Circulation

Old age, pregnancy, and standing for long periods of time during work can lead to hampered circulation in the lower extremities. Blood pools in the veins and capillaries surrounding the calves and feet, causing mild cramps, pain, and sometimes even swelling.  Copper compression socks can help alleviate these symptoms by improving the blood flow in the legs and feet. 

The pressure exerted by copper compression socks usually ranges from moderate compression of 10 to 20 mmHg to firm compression of 20 to 30 mmHg. The compression is applied in a graduated manner, with the pressure being higher near the ankles and lower in the regions near the calf. This pressure gradient allows for an increased blood flow back to the heart while also preventing any cut-off blood circulation. 

Copper Compression Socks Can Help With Varicose Veins

Varicose veins are largely swollen veins in the calves and feet caused by faulty valves in the vascular system near the leg. Blood circulation is impeded, leading to the formation of clots and the accumulation of fluids. People with varicose veins may suffer from aching legs, cramps, swollen ankles, and large, bulging blue veins also called “spider veins”. 

The pressure from copper compression socks accelerates the blood flow in the lower leg area, helping move blood deeper into vessels and potentially helping prevent the formation of blood clots.  

Who Can Use Copper Compression Socks?

Anyone who desires to experience the benefits of copper compression socks can wear them. There are, however, certain groups of people who can benefit from them more than most. 

Athletes and Fitness Enthusiasts

As research suggests, athletes and fitness enthusiasts can benefit the most from using copper compression socks. In fact, they are the usual target market for these products. Since they are constantly engaging in strenuous physical activity, their feet and leg muscles are almost always sweaty and under strain. Although the effect may be of small to moderate scale, relief from delayed onset muscle soreness, improvement in blood circulation, and fast muscle recovery are still some of the scientifically-backed benefits of wearing copper compression socks. 

The added anti-odor function of the socks, as a result of the antimicrobial property of copper, is also a huge advantage, especially for athletes suffering from unpleasant foot odor after games and exercises. 

People with Diabetic Complications

Diabetic patients suffer from a multitude of complications, including foot problems. They can range from ordinary problems like calluses and changes in the skin of the feet to more serious ailments such as nerve damage and foot ulcers. 

Due to slower healing of wounds, diabetic patients are also prone to sores and foot infections. Thus, foot care is extremely essential to diabetic patients, as neglecting their feet can lead to nerve damage and even amputation if not careful.

Some of the foot complication symptoms that can be relieved by wearing copper compression socks include peeling and cracking of dry foot skin and poor circulation due to the narrowing and hardening of blood vessels. For patients who have undergone an operation for foot ulcers, the antimicrobial property of copper socks can help keep the infection away. The skin regeneration capabilities known to be present in copper socks can aid in the healing of scar tissues and wounds and thus reduce the possibility of the ulcer returning.

Pregnant Women

Women naturally gain weight during pregnancy. They suffer from backaches and muscle fatigue from carrying extra weight, but their feet and knees suffer the most. Pregnant women assume a different stance which adds more pressure to their feet and knees due to the change in their center of gravity. 

The most common foot problems experienced by pregnant women are flattening of the foot arch, swelling, and the appearance of varicose veins. All of these symptoms induce pain in the lower extremities. The flattening of the foot arch, also known as over-pronation, causes pain at the heel, arch, and the ball of the foot.  Both swelling and varicose veins often lead to leg cramping and pressure build-up in the foot muscles.

As discussed above, copper compression socks can address the problems caused by varicose veins and reduce swelling. Additionally, foot care can be difficult during pregnancy, so using copper socks to keep the feet clean and protected is a welcome convenience.

People Recovering From Foot Injuries

Foot care is most essential for people recovering from foot injuries. Conditions can take a turn for the worse through neglect and secondary complications can also arise. 

Implementing a preventative measure such as wearing copper compression socks that can keep your injured feet dry and germ-free is a small investment that can help avoid future foot-related issues. 

Travelers

Whether you are travelling for business or leisure, the strain on our feet from carting luggage, walking, standing in long lines, and sitting for long periods of time is inevitable. During your travels, copper compression socks can be your best friendproviding relief from muscle fatigue and improving blood circulation in the legs. 

Another risk associated with air travel is leg and foot swelling due to inactivity. Although typically harmless, certain individuals like those who have recently had surgery or those taking birth control pills are at an increased risk of more serious complications such as excessive swelling and a blood clot in the leg known as deep vein thrombosis. Wearing copper compression socks during plane flights can help reduce those risks by accelerating blood flow in the leg despite inactivity.

Lastly, the self-sterilizing nature of copper compression socks can help minimize unpleasant odors in your luggage.  

Things to Consider When Buying Copper Compression Socks

If you are planning to make the switch over to copper socks, here are some of the things that you need to consider before purchasing.

Fabric Used

The types of fabric used in manufacturing copper compression socks has an important role to play in its fit and moisture management feature. Moisture-wicking fabrics are better for keeping your feet dry as they can draw moisture away from the body. If you are a person planning to buy copper compression socks to aid the healing of your foot injury, looking into the type and proportions of fabrics used will be a good idea.

Size

In general, sizes for copper compression socks are usually categorized into two⁠—those for men and those for women. Some shops may use only two sizes (for men and women) while some may use a more comprehensive sizing system. Men’s small/medium size ranges from 6 - 9 and 1/2 while large/extra-large sizes range from 10 - 13 and 1/2. On the other hand, women’s small/medium size range form 5 - 9 and 1/2, while large/extra-large sizes for women range from 10 - 12 and 1/2

There are some brands that use special top bands incorporated within the copper compression socks so they won’t sag over their lifespan, but this makes the sizing a little trickier. It will require measurements along the lower extremities to achieve a snug fit. 

Medically-prescribed compression socks also require tricky measurements of the legs and feet, and generally must be fitted in specialty shops.

Compression Feature

As discussed previously, copper socks may or may not have a compression feature. The non-compression type of copper socks only has the benefits stemming from the biocidal property of copper. This means that it lacks the advantages that come from compression therapy including the improvement of blood flow, reduction of fatigue, and swelling as well as relief from symptoms of varicose veins. However, copper compression socks will generally cost more.  Prospective buyers must decide whether the benefits to them that come from the compression feature is worth the added cost.

Pressure Ratings

Should you choose copper compression socks, the next thing you'll have to consider is the amount of pressure you would like your socks to have. Pressure is typically measured in millimetres of mercury or mmHg. Compression pressure can range from mild (8-15 mmHg), to moderate (10-20 mmHg), to firm (20-30 mmHg). 

The pressure exerted by copper compression socks is usually graduated, but non-graduated types are also available. Moreover, people who need copper compression socks with a rating of over 30 mmHg, usually for medical reasons, can go to specialty shops and have them custom-made. 

How to Use and Care for Copper Compression Socks

People who purchase copper compression socks to relieve swelling in their feet and legs may find them hard to put on.  Wearing dishwashing gloves while putting them on is a great way to clear this minor yet annoying hurdle. This can help you get a better grip and fit the socks more snugly. As an alternative, you can also roll the socks beforehand so that you can roll them up to your legs when putting them on.

Putting on copper compression socks is most advisable when you are physically active because the socks work best when in opposition to gravity.  They help to bring blood flow back to the heart and prevent blood pooling in the legs and feet, but their action is inefficient when worn while lying down. 

So, can you wear compression socks while sleeping? The answer depends on the type of compression socks you have. Although there should be no issues if the copper compression socks’ pressure is graduated and its pressure rating is low or mild, socks with high pressure ratings have the potential to cut off blood flow when lying down. This applies to everyone, including pregnant women. However, doctors may instruct patients such as those recovering from surgery to wear compression socks overnight. 

Copper compression socks require hand washing at about 40 degrees Celsius, or washing in cold water using a washing machine. Afterwards, they must be dried away from direct heat. Take note that for average compression socks the effectiveness of the compression diminishes after being worn for more than 30 times and thus they should be replaced every after 3 to 6 months

Possible Risks Associated with Copper Socks

In the results of the clinical trials conducted for copper socks, none of the participants experienced worsening conditions or adverse effects after using copper socks. However, people interested in buying copper socks must be aware of a condition called 'copper hypersensitivity'

Although copper is a weak sensitizer, it can cause serious allergic reactions in few and select cases. In a meta-study compiling all patch tests for copper conducted in reported studies, the researchers found that among 2660 patch test results, 3.53% were positive for copper hypersensitivity. Therefore, having yourself tested for copper hypersensitivity may be a good measure to take before buying copper compression socks.

The Final Verdict on Copper Socks 

Scientific evidence supports copper compression socks’ claim to fame. The science with respect to copper indicates that fabrics infused with copper can have self-sterilizing properties. In addition, there are studies which back the benefits of wearing compression garments. While the scale of the benefits of copper compression socks on the body may be mild to moderate at best, they are worth consideration.

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