When I was growing up, I used to be horrified by the fact that my cousins would wash their sneakers by hand almost every evening. In the years since, I’ve supplemented everything I picked up from watching them with additional tips I found online. At this point, I’m a bit of an expert at washing shoes at home by hand — no matter which materials they’re made of.
Obviously, most people don’t have time to clean their footwear after each use. However, it’s generally a good idea to give your dirty shoes a good scrub within a week after you muddy them. The reasoning behind this rule is simple. If you wash your shoes as soon as you spill something on them, the stain won’t have time to settle into the material.
Still, if you’re not particularly prone to stepping in puddles, you may be able to get away with washing them twice yearly. Whether you wash your shoes every day, every week, or once yearly, the goal is to make them last as long as possible. With that in mind, let’s talk about the supplies you’ll need to gather before you start your project.
Prepare Your Cleaning Tools
Depending on the type of material your shoes are made of, your cleaning supplies will include different products. However, some items are the same across the board. Namely, if you don’t intend to clean your shoes over the tub or basin, you’ll need to protect your workstation with a regular, old towel. Moreover, if you don’t want the damp towel to touch the table, you could even put a plastic tarp underneath it.
If you’re planning on washing your shoes on a table, you’ll also need to bring some water. I recommend filling two medium-sized bowls with warm water. You’ll put your cleaning solution into one of them and leave the other for rinsing.
Now, your cleaning tools are particularly dependant on the kind of shoes you’re cleaning. Generally, you might need:
- Large and small natural bristle brushes. You can also use synthetic nail brushes, which come in various sizes, or even toothbrushes. However, keep in mind that synthetic bristles are generally pretty harsh, so you’ll only be able to use them on certain kinds of shoes without risking damage.
- A magic sponge, which is a great tool for getting rid of scuff marks and similar kinds of residue. They may not work on all kinds of materials, but they’re great for washing rubber and leather.
- A cleaning solution. I’ll recommend several of those in the following section of the article.
- Rubber gloves in case you’re allergic to chemicals (or you just don’t want to get your hands dirty).
- New shoelaces if needed.
There are some other items you might want to pick up, which I’ll talk about later. For now, let’s talk about the different cleaner fluids you could use.
Commercial Shoe Cleaners
If you’re a sneakerhead, you might recognize the first brand I’ll talk about. Jason Markk is the owner of a Los Angeles shoe store that also runs a drop-off shoe cleaning service. The company uses a proprietary cleaning solution, which is available online. What’s more, the cleaner comes in a set with a natural bristle brush.
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On the other hand, some shoe cleaning kits include microfiber rags, which are highly absorbent and infinitely gentler than regular towels. In addition to a microfiber towel, the Crep Protect kit contains a cleaning fluid and even a natural bristle brush. Best of all, it all fits into the travel pouch that comes with the set.
You might notice that some shoe cleaning products have a brush on the cap of the product bottle. The Sof Sole Instant Cleaner is a good example of that. However, since these kinds of brushes are usually plastic, I wouldn’t recommend using them on delicate materials, such as mesh.
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Suede shoes require an even more mindful approach, which means that you can’t use harsh tools and materials on them. Still, plenty of brands sell shoe cleaning sets that come with everything you need to take care of more sensitive materials. The Gear Aid kit contains a suede cleaner fluid, a shoe brush, a magic eraser, and even a water repellant spray that’s safe to use on textiles and suede.
Most of the shoe cleaners I’ve just mentioned are big names in the shoe fanatic community. However, most true sneakerheads use their own homemade cleaner recipes. Some of them are based on the most common ingredients found in commercial cleaners, though most are variants on homemade cleaners you might use on your carpet or sofa. In fact, if you already have a commercial carpet cleaning solution at home, that might do a good job of cleaning your canvas shoes.
So let’s go over a few of the DIY recipes you might use. To begin with, there’s the classic water, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide combination. You’d mix equal parts of all three, then use it to scrub your shoes and leave them out in the sun. The solution will essentially bleach the fabric of your shoes, so it’s only good for white sneakers.
You could even use different detergents and soaps to concoct your signature cleaner. Get a spray bottle and fill it two-thirds of the way with water, then add your regular dish soap. Alternately, you can use laundry detergents like Tide, Spray n’ Wash Resolve, or mix up a DIY detergent. Lastly, you might want to add some coconut oil or jojoba oil to soften the material.
Prepare Your Work Station
Before you bring in the cleaning supplies, you’ll need to set the stage. If you’re not washing the shoes over the tub — which I honestly don’t recommend, anyway — you should ready your work station. Put a towel on the table and put on a playlist that gets you in the mood for cleaning.
Once you set everything up, bring out your shoes. First, you’ll want to remove the laces. You can either wash those separately or prepare new ones. After that, you should take out the insoles to wash them separately as well.
On the other hand, if the insoles aren’t removable, just vacuum the inside of the shoes. Turn them upside down and knock the shoes against each other to dislodge the dirt caked on the outside of the shoe and the loose sand that got inside. While you’re at it, you can also dust the shoes with a dry brush.
Hand Wash Your Shoes (Different Materials)
Now that we’ve discussed the items you’ll need to get your hands on, we can finally talk about the process of washing your shoes by hand. The following guide explains how you can approach each type of shoe material, as well as how you should wrap up the process of washing your shoes.
When it comes to washing your shoes, textiles are probably the easiest materials to work with. Just wet your brush, put some cleaning solution on there, and scrub until you get all the stains out. If the shoes are white, you could even use whitening toothpaste to wash them.
Wash the sole with the same cleaning solution you used on the upper part of the shoe or scrub it with a damp magic sponge. If you don’t think your sneakers are sufficiently clean, pop them into your laundry machine for a spin. Alternately, you can just rinse the suds and set the shoes out to dry.
Keep in mind that the fabric could soften as it soaks up the liquid, so you might want to use a shoe tree. If you don’t have one, stuff the shoes with newspapers while they dry if you’re really worried about them losing their shape. Newspapers can also absorb any water that remains inside the shoe, so that’s another bonus.
Leather sneakers, dress shoes, or high heels all require a gentler touch than canvas shoes do. Still, the logistics are much the same. Wet your natural bristle brush, dip it into your cleaning solution, and work up a lather by moving it in tight circles across the surface of your shoe. Dunk the brush in clean water to get rid of the filthy suds as needed.
Periodically, you can use your towel to remove the suds from your shoe and check your progress. If there are any weird stains on the leather, you’ll find the appropriate way to address them in my article about homemade leather cleaners. Once you’re sure all of the gunk is off, wipe off the moisture and set the shoes outside to dry.
As I’ve mentioned, suede shoes require a particularly light touch. Remember, any mistakes you make will remain imprinted on the material!
Generally, you don’t want to use harsh bristles on suede shoes. Instead, stick to dusting the shoes off with a dry brush and using a magic eraser on the soles and stains. Both Jason Markk and Timberland sell suede cleaning kits that contain those items.
If you discover any serious stains, try lifting them with vinegar. Remember to mix it with water before you apply it to dampen its potency. Vinegar solutions are also helpful for removing unpleasant odors, no matter what kind of material your shoes are made of.
Add Some Finishing Touches
After you remove the suds from your shoes, you should let them dry overnight. Once they do, you can spray them with a weatherproofing solution like the Nanoman Shoes + Bags Protective Coating. Aside from helping your shoes fare better in the rain, the solution will make them more resistant to stains as well.
You might also want to read: How to Dry Shoes in the Dryer
Keep Your Shoes Clean Between Washes
Now that your shoes are clean, you should try to keep them that way. The waterproofing spray will go a long way. However, you may also want to start carrying wet wipes to manage spills and lift stains before they can set. Jason Markk has wipes that are specifically formulated for shoes, but any brand of wipes should work.
After a few years of using these methods to wash my shoes by hand, I’ve settled into a routine. Nowadays, all I need to keep my shoes clean are wipes and the occasional dab with a magic sponge. Aside from that, I only wash them properly when I put them away for the season. Hopefully, you’ll discover that the tricks I’ve told you about today will get you the same results!