Minimalist Shoes vs. Barefoot Shoes: Is There a Difference?

Minimalist Shoes vs. Barefoot Shoes: Is There a Difference?


We have an ongoing dilemma at our workshop because we're never quite sure how to describe our shoes.

For almost three decades we've simply said we make minimal shoes for children, but the barefoot running craze of recent years has introduced a whole new world of nomenclature with terms like "barefoot shoes," "minimalist shoes," 'transition shoes," "zero-drop" and "foot coffins." Every shoe manufacturer in the world now seems to be coming out with footwear they call "minimalist" or "barefoot," and these products range from thin strips of leather that strap around your foot to huge, thick supportive footwear that doesn't look very different from any conventional sneaker.

The problem is that there really is no industry standard for what makes a shoe "minimalist" or "barefoot." There are plenty of runners and bloggers who have set their own definitions for these terms, but they tend to vary depending on whom you ask.

Many people use "minimalist shoe" synonymously with "transition shoe" to describe footwear that still has some of the cushioned and motion-control features of a traditional shoe, but less so. This means the heel-to-toe drop is still present, but perhaps less than 8mm difference. The shoe probably still has some mild arch supports, the toe box may still be slightly tapered and push upwards and the sole could still be rather thick and padded, though less than what was considered a standard running shoe ten years ago. As you can imagine, there may be a lot of room here for shoe manufacturers to fudge the standards and call almost anything a "minimalist shoe."

For people who accept that definition, a "barefoot shoe" must then have some basic features, although it may be more accurate to say that it must lack certain features. Barefoot shoes, defined this way, must have flat soles with no heel-to-toe drop, no arch support, no rigid toe spring and a spacious, untapered toe box. Soles must be thin with no cushioning and your feet should be allowed to bend and splay out naturally. In short, a barefoot shoe allows your foot to move as though you were wearing no shoe at all, or as close to it as possible.


While these definitions seem to be the most popular, there are still many people who use the terms differently. A few shoe manufacturers, eager to cash-in on the barefoot bandwagon, have tossed the word "barefoot" around to describe bulky running clogs with over an inch of padded heels. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many true barefoot runners—those who run with nothing on their feet at all—who cringe when they hear any footwear called "barefoot," even if it's nothing more than the most basic huarache sandal. To them, a shoe can never be anything more than "minimalist" (to be fair, as a barefoot runner myself I can understand their point: putting anything between your feet and the ground creates a very different experience than running in bare feet). Then there are those who use "barefoot" and "minimalist" interchangeably. After all, don't all barefoot shoes embrace an idea of minimalism?

To complicate matters further, opening the door to women's fashion throws all these concepts of minimalism out the window. For most fashionistas, the term "minimal shoe" refers to a simplistic design style, and it can very well—and often does—include foot-binding shoes with 3-inch stiletto heels.

Minimalist Shoes vs. Barefoot Shoes: Is There a Difference?

In the world of high fashion, this is considered a "minimal shoe"

So what do we call our shoes?

Every shoe made at Soft Star must live up to our strict standards of thin, flat soles with no heel-to-toe drop, no arch supports, no toe spring, wide toe boxes and a flexible, lightweight design. By most definitions, what we make should be called barefoot shoes. There are, however, many people looking for a product like ours that are searching for footwear they call "minimal" or "minimalist," and we want to reach out to them as well (many of our new customers hear the words "barefoot shoe" and immediately think it must have toe finger cutouts). For this reason, we still use all these words when we describe our product, although they have different meanings to different people. Hence, our ongoing dilemma.

One thing is certain: these are still new terms that are still awaiting clear, uniform definitions. We're very excited to be part of this growing footwear revolution, and we still hear every day from customers who have alleviated their foot pain and become more active by switching to our barefoot/minimalist/zero-drop/non-foot-coffin moccasins. As the idea of encouraging natural foot function becomes more popular, we expect more standards will eventually become commonly accepted.

Do you have any thoughts about how these terms should be used? If so, we'd love to hear them!



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  1. Anna
    I think that they're minimalist. There's no such thing as barefoot shoes! That's an oxymoron. I'm interpreting minimalist as "minimal interference with healthy biomechanics".
  2. Niki
    I love the idea of your shoes, and have bought them for my kids in the past. But I find that the toe box still is too tapered. The big toe gets pulled well out of the natural alignment, and you can really see it through the soft leather upper just how bent in the shoe pulls the toe. On an adult it probably isn't a big deal since most adult feet are deformed :-( But my kids still have quite natural looking feet. Can't you change the shape to accommodate a straight big toe?
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Niki. It may be that your children need our shoes in wide widths. If you're interested, you can send tracings of their feet to our customer service elves and they can tell you which styles would be best. We can also do custom designs for many of our kids shoes with some restrictions. Feel free to contact our customer service directly if you'd like to learn more ( or 866-763-2525).
  3. andrew hutchinson
    andrew hutchinson
    I agree with niki completely. While i love the construction of my soft stars, they aremot foot shaped and therefore do pull the big toe out of alignment. I have average width feet so ordered the regukar width as recommended by the soft star website and the fit is greag throughour rhe heel, mid foot and "ball" of the foot, however, the toe box is tapered and does push the big toe in. I know many people feel the same way and can only assume that softstar continue with this shape as to make them foot shaped would involve a stitched "ridge" in front of the big toe, a la otz shoes (which require adjustment to make them zero drop). If only softstar would make thsi adjustment their shoes would be perfect and i for one would buy another 3 pairs, as it is i will continue to buy lems for the shape, despite preferring softstar materials. Come on softstar!
  4. andrew hutchinson
    andrew hutchinson
    just noticed my typos - obviously that should be "are not foot shaped", "regular", "great throughout the heel" and "ball" of the foot (it was late, that's my only excuse;). it is a shame that soft star have deemed it fit not to comment on this or look at the shape of their shoes - such a shame as they are otherwise perfect.
  5. Jane Hart
    Agree with you Andrew. It's a shame that Soft Star shoes are not that foot shaped. The kids shoes are more foot shaped but the adults shoes are tapered at the toe. This may suit many people who have bunions but not if you have natural big toe shape. The regular width fit me really well in the mid foot but they are too tight in the toe box. The wide width are a bit too wide in the mid foot and because of the rounded shape of the toe box, they fit at the end of the big toe but then there is this space at the side further back. It would be great if they were shaped more like Vivobarefoot. I am saying this because I think the shoes are lovely in other ways and I want them to work for me! I am probably becoming the most annoying customer because I have had a lot of trouble with sizing because of the shape of the shoes.
  6. Aaron
    I also agree with Niki and Andrew. Is there a way to get custom shaped soles from Soft Star? Much like the offer they made for the children's shoes? Like Andrew, Lems toe box fits me almost perfectly but there is too much shoe. With that said, there are people whose second toes are longer than their first and the current Soft Star shape would theoretically accommodate that shape. But everyone's foot shape is different. I realize it might be a lot to ask of a small company, but I will ask anyway: Will Soft Star please start doing custom foot-shaped shoes following a drawing we send in or a picture of our feet? I would easily buy every future shoe from you if that happened.
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Aaron. We agree that it would be very nice and very healthy to have a custom-made sole shape for every person, but it is unfortunately not practical for us to do. Even small changes to our sole shape require significant alterations to the upper parts of the shoes and changes the way they fit. We made alterations our adult sole a few years ago and it required months of design work, prototype testing and an expensive process of replacing our existing patterns before we were ready to make the changes public. You might, however, be interested in the new Primal line of shoes, which will feature a larger toe box that will allow toes to spread freely... even more so than our current adult shoes. The first shoe of this line will be released in the fall of 2017, but you can read updates on this page:
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