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What is Ortholite?
Ortholite the trademark for an open cell foam material made by O2 Partners, LLC. Ortholite is most commonly found in shoe insoles (or footbeds) with many of the top shoe brands using Ortholite in their walking and running shoes. Ortholite shares some characteristics of memory foam whilst solving some of its drawbacks for footwear.
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What is an Ortholite Insole?
An insole or footbed is a layer of material that sits above the midsole of the shoe. An Ortholite insole is simply an insole utilizing Orthalite foam as the cushioning material. The Ortholite foam is usually lined with thin fabric or other material to reduce friction between your foot and the Ortholite foam which would rub and be uncomfortable.
We see a lot of confusion over the names used for materials, technologies, and even shoe parts. So if you are not totally sure of terminology for the sole part of a shoe then pop down to the bottom of the page using the orange button under here. There is a short overview of sole terminology to make sure we are all on the same page before we deep dive into comparisons. There is a button to bring you back here afterward for your convenience.
What Can Ortholite Do For You?
The main features of Ortholite are its softness underfoot which becomes progressively less soft as it compresses. This gives the sort of feeling like walking on springs but more stable and supportive. Then when the loading from the weight of your foot starts to reduce as you move from midstride to forefoot and push-off, the Ortholite helps by springing back like little hands giving your feet a lift. So you have softness, support, and responsiveness much like memory foam.
Ortholite is much more breathable though which allows air to flow through as your weight compresses and decompresses the material, much like a pair of bellows. If you remember your chemistry and physics, you'll recall that air holds moisture vapor and so water is passed out along with the air. This process also cools the foam which is less heat retentive than memory foam as well.
So you benefit from cooler feet, a healthier atmosphere which reduces bacterial growth (so less smelly) and get all the comfort and cushion that memory foam provides.
The efficiency of the breathability does also rely on the design of the shoe as well since the ‘breathing' of the material must be able to exit the shoe. This is achieved through design, mostly through the uppers but also possible through the sole much as a water shoes express water.
The other two major benefits are much-improved durability compared to memory foam and lightweight to very lightweight compounds depending on user requirements.
Ortholite is also machine washable and increasingly environmentally friendly through using waste rubber and bio-oils as well as recycled foam waste material too.
The increased comfort, support through pressure distribution and the reduction of hot spots and breathability all add up to a much healthier and more comfortable experience for your feet.
Ortholite vs Memory Foam
Now let's return to the topic on hand.
By now you probably understand that Ortholite and Memory Foam are two types of materials used for the insoles of shoes.
Read all about memory foam in my article on that material but if you are in a hurry let me explain the main points of memory foam.
Memory foam is an elastic (springs back) and plastic (will flow to some degree under load) foam that was developed for the comfort of astronauts by NASA and adopted commercially for beds and later footwear. Its main quality is the way it will spread to take up the shape on anything that imparts a load on it, your foot or your body on a mattress for example. But it will only flow so much, increasing resistance slowly (and so softly) as it compresses more and more.
This feels great because of the softness and eventually support it offers, all spread evenly because it shapes to your foot (or body).
The properties of the foam can be changed to make it softer (spreading more) or harder (more resistant) as well as more or less plastic (changing the speed of the spread). Processing can also change the properties to make it more elastic and spring back to give you a gentle push as you start to release your weight load.
This is all great but there were some issues. Memory foam likes absorbing heat, which means your feet get hot as it warms up which in turn means your feet sweat more. And more sweat means more bacterial action creating smell as well as softening the skin and increasing the risk of infection in your feet – cracked skin between toes for example. Warm, moist conditions are heaven for bacteria!
On top of that, memory foam does not handle water well and does not let air pass through it easily; thus making a very unhealthy atmosphere for your feet.
Various adaptations were tried by layering materials, adding gel to the mix and so on but none really solved these core issues.
The final issue for memory foam is one of durability.
Most elastic materials lose their elasticity with use and time (think of old rubber bands) and so does memory foam. So the wonderful softly sinking, cloud walking feel of the foam under your feet when you first try them on, slowly reduces as the elastic does not bring back the material to the same state. It flattens and loses its effectiveness with poor quality foams losing it quickly and better quality foams a little less quickly.
That is why users of memory foam have been waxing lyrical about the walking in the clouds feeling which dissipates into complaints about the material losing all its softness after a few months.
There is still a place for Memory Foam Shoes because the price point is low and there is a value for money and budget aspect to buying shoes since most people need to have regard to cost. As long as you are prepared to either swap out insoles every 6 months or so or to replace your shoes every season because of wear then memory foam shoes can provide a good option. If you are interested take a look at our Buyers Guide for Memory Foam Shoes here.
Then there was Ortholite!
Ortholite is the trademark for a foam that shares the elastic and plastic qualities that give memory foam that great ‘walking on clouds' feel.
However, the material is manufactured with an open cell structure that lets air pass through it. This not only starts the possibility of ventilation but also allows the moisture to be taken away with it.
Not only that, but Ortholite does not heat up as much as memory foam and the ventilation allows any heat build-up to be taken away.
The net result is that Ortholite insoles provide all the benefits and comforts of memory foam with the added benefit that it keeps your feet cooler and drier.
That is a huge improvement from the point of view of your comfort as well as providing a much healthier environment inside the shoe with no downsides compared to memory foam with the exception of cost.
Ortholite is hands down a much better insole material than memory foam but it costs a bit more. And so you find memory foam insoles in the cheaper price point shoes and Ortholite insoles in more expensive ones.
In fact, you find Ortholite insoles in most of the top brands – even those known for their material innovation like Adidas (Boost), Nike (Lunarlon) and Skechers (plain ol' memory foam alternative) and many many more.
Is Orthalite Good or Bad for Your Feet?
The fact of the matter is that Ortholite will give you better durability, is more breathable and wicks away water better than memory foam does.
Orthalite is not a single material though, much as there are variations in memory foam depending on the proportions of the chemicals used in its manufacture and the way the resultant foam is further processed.
So there are several variations of Ortholite available for manufacturers to use. The manufacturers use recycled waste rubber as one constituent part in every variation which is a great ecological commitment. They also produce Eco versions with even higher percentages of waste material as well as various versions of differing hardness and elasticity.
According to the manufacturer, Ortholite provides:
- Durability – less than 5% compression set (flattening) over time
- Breathability – Open cell foam which allows air to pass through
- Moisture management – Water passes through along with the air from improved breathability above
- Lightweight – A very lightweight material
- Washable – Machine washable but we prefer to hand wash as the linings seem to last better that way
- Eco-Friendly – Recycling waste rubber a minimum of 5% of the constituent materials.
Our experience of the product matches all of these claims and in use, it is clearly better than memory foam from the ‘durability and feel' perspective if you compare the two after several months of wear. the fact that Skechers has adopted the material in their higher end shoes in preference to their long-standing memory foam certainly tells a story.
From our experience, we believe that Ortholite offers significant benefits over memory foam for durability as well as foot health.
What Are the Different Types of Ortholite Available?
Available in various colors, there are three densities which control the hardness and comfort level of the foam itself. These varying hardness foams are also available in a range of thicknesses from 2mm to 20mm. Obviously, hardness and thickness both have a significant bearing on how soft the material feels underfoot and so there is a huge range of different ‘feel' from just these variables.
X-25, X-35 & X-40 – High rebound Formulations
The material proportions are varied to provide different levels of rebound in these offerings. 25% for the X-25, 35% for the X-35 and, you guessed it, 40% for the X-40 materials. These foams are used in athletic shoes where it is desirable to return energy to the athlete.
A foam with significantly lower density used for very lightweight lifestyle and some sport shoes. This material is also used to provide padding and cushioning in other parts of some shoes such as the heel pads, shoe collar (padding around the ankle and back of the heel) and shoe tongue (under the laces).
A very soft foam which returns to shape incredibly quickly (2-3 seconds) and usually used as a layer on top of a somewhat firmer Ortholite base layer which provides the necessary support beneath whilst benefiting from the super softness on top.
Another soft foam that has a longer recovery time (10-20 seconds) but otherwise does the same job as the Lazy version and is again used as a top layer to a firmer, supportive Ortholite base.
A higher density material that is still lightweight which is used where a low profile is desired as the Ortholite provides cushioning from even a thin layer – sometimes used for the strobel as well as full insoles.
A lightweight Ortholite which has a specially designed top-cloth specifically for uses where the direction of forces changes repeatedly such as when doing workouts and aerobics rather than the front to back movement that walking provides.
A specialty foam which is great for walking shoes having a higher density yet softer feel – often coupled with leather linings and giving the feel of a two-layer foam in a single layer.
Eco and EcoLight
Formulations with similar characteristics to the Original but containing much higher proportions of bio-oil as a replacement for petroleum with the resultant ecological benefits from the much-lowered carbon footprint.
Another ecological version which blends 5% waste rubber with 15% production waste foam. The process can be used to replace any of the above formulations and is adapted to suit, thus retaining all the benefits with a much reduced ecological impact.
A foam made from recycled used Ortholite which can be used for the strobel or as the base layer in a two-layer foam solution for the maximum ecological benefit and waste reduction.
I am impressed and I hope you are too.
If there is anything I haven't covered that leave you with questions then please leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer you.
You can read more on all of these products on the Ortholite technology page.
How Does Ortholite Compare with Adidas Boost?
Ortholite is an insole material that provides cushioning under your feet, whereas Adidas Boost is an altogether different material that is used in the midsole. Ortholite and Boost, therefore, serve different purposes and as yet we are not aware of the Boost material being used in insoles nor Ortholite being used in the midsoles – the maximum thickness offered by O2 Partners is 20mm. They are simply not comparable.
That said, Adidas Boost foam is a remarkable material on which Adidas hold the sole licensing rights. It has very high rebound properties comprising small balls of foam that are melded together using a steaming process into the form molds required. It offers super high rebound qualities storing the energy from the compression as you put your weight on the material and returning a high proportion as ‘spring' as you lift your weight off. It is a game changer!
There is a great article on Adidas Boost that you might enjoy on GQ magazine here.
How Does Ortholite Compare with Lunarlon?
Lunarlon is another compressible foam which was developed by Nike and is still available today.
It has been surpassed technically by Adidas Boost in its various forms but is still used in several of Nike's shoes. Much like Boost, it is a midsole material that distributes pressure across your foot, provides spring from the midsole as it recovers shape and absorbs shock.
These midsole qualities require Lunarlon to be a much firmer foam than Ortholite is designed to be and fulfills a different function for you.
So any comparison between Ortholite and Lunarlon is rather a waste of brain power!
How Do You Clean Ortholite Insoles?
Ortholite insoles are made to be machine washable which is great since it enables you to wash away sweat built up which causes odor in the shoe and is disgusting even to think about!
Ortholite insoles usually have some sort of fabric liner on top which is stuck to the foam material to provide a lower friction surface for comfort.
As a result, we recommend hand washing Ortholite insoles with mild laundry detergent and with thicker insoles aim to wash the top surface without getting too down and dirty with squashing water through the material.
Obviously, you will want to ensure the insoles are laid out to dry thoroughly before putting them back in your shoes.
Understanding the Parts of the Bottom Section of a Walking Shoe
The word ‘sole' was purposely avoided in the heading above because the word means different things to different people.
Starting at the bottom of the shoe we have the Outsole. This is the layer of rubber or other material that makes contact with the surface you walk on. It is usually made from more durable material with better grip qualities than the midsole. Its purpose is to grip the walking surface so you can propel yourself and resist the wear from constant rubbing against concrete, dirt or whatever else you are walking on.
The Midsole is the thicker part of the shoe above the outsole which is the heart of most walking shoes. The midsole is often made of some type of EVA or other proprietary expanded foam material with different shoe brands developing these foams to provide additional benefits to attract their customers. The midsole handles many important requirements such as spreading the impact forces evenly across the foot, absorbing shock from the constant loading and offloading of your weight, protecting against objects that might poke into the sole of your foot, resisting gait issues, cushioning your foot and giving a spring to your step by its ‘springiness'.
The midsole may be made of several foams with different properties which are called composites. You may have softer material in the heel and toe area and harder material in the midfoot section for example, where the soft material cushions and the harder material adds resistance against torsional twist. There are a hundred different permutations that are employed in attempts to provide the best feel underfoot or to provide specific features depending on use.
Some shoe brands have tried midsoles without the outsoles but once you understand the different functions you will quickly realize what a terrible idea that is as it is either too hard to cushion properly or too soft to have any reasonable durability. I digress.
Anyway, you will see that sprint runners will need different qualities to trail walkers who will need different qualities to people doing gym workouts or basketball and changing direction all the time.
Above the midsole, there is sometimes a thin protective lining called the strobel which allows the insole to move against the midsole without rubbing too much which would erode the foam but otherwise is not of much interest to the user.
Then comes the insole which is also called the footbed, insert or sometimes an orthotic if the insole is designed to a specific purpose that falls outside what most people want. For example, specific orthotics are made to support high foot arches or give extra support to flat feet or solve a specific foot problem such as plantar fasciitis pain and that kind of thing.
The term footbed is sometimes used to mean the midsole and insole together, especially where there is no separate insole but rather a composite sort of sandwich of materials layered and fused together as a single entity. That arrangement is not so common.
The Outsole, Midsole, and Insole are rarely very simple, as shoe manufacturers load them with different technologies to give their brand of footwear qualities that they can claim differentiates them from the rest. You can find gel inserts, stiffening bars, composite foams, air pads and materials cut in different ways to provide all manner of targeted benefits.
It is this that sets the brands apart. Sometimes the trademarks are really just alternative names for much the same materials, but sometimes there are technological improvements that really make a difference. Air pods by Nike for example, the gel pods that followed, memory foam insoles to replace plain boring foam ones (that were pretty useless), specialty foams such as Lunarlon and Boost by Adidas – these are all stand out technologies.
Here are some other posts that might be of interest:
- Are memory Shoes Good or Bad for You
- Walking Shoes for men – Buying Guide
- Walking Shoes for women – Buying Guide
- Best Water Shoes
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I love hiking with my family and taking in the cool air in the hills around where I live up in Ithaca.
Most of the time we take rather shorter walks out for a bit of exercise since there are so many things in life that we also want to do – and especially the kids.
Life is a balance but one where you should never take the beauty of nature for granted. I also enjoy writing about my experiences and helping others with the things I learn about shoes from using them, from friends and the family.