How To Clean Your Sneakers

How to clean your sneakers Nikes

People have been collecting sneakers for decades: Air Jordans, Nike Air Command Forces, Yeezys, and everything in between. And along with those sneaker collections have come cleaning habits ingenious and insane in equal measure. We’ve heard of people using everything from Windex and lighter fluid to peanut butter and power washers to keep their kicks clean.

We talked to Jason Markk, the creator of the first shoe cleaner specifically designed for sneakers, about how to clean your sneakers.

“Keeping your sneakers fresh has always been just as important as the sneakers themselves,” Markk says. “I think a lot of people don’t trust what’s in generic shoe cleaners, so they take matters into their own hands by concocting home remedies using household cleaning products.”

While the creativity sneakerheads put into their cleaning methods is certainly admirable (because let’s be honest, you really have to love your shoes to use lighter fluid as a cleaning agent) it is definitely not advisable. So put down the peanut butter and listen up.

We’ll use three different scenarios to highlight what each level of urgency requires when it comes to how to clean your sneakers.

Determining The Damage, or, Don’t Panic

Okay, so maybe you weren’t looking where you were walking, and you ended up sinking ankle-deep into some mud. Or you were laughing so hard at what the barista said that you spilled coffee. Perhaps you even tripped and scuffed your midsoles. No worries. While your all-white Superskates may look hopeless right now, step away from the Windex. Household cleaners, while possibly effective at removing stains, have abrasive properties that will damage the materials and wear down your shoes in the long run. 

We’re going to look at what to do if you spill coffee, step in a mud puddle, or even scuff the midsoles of a standard pair of leather sneakers to give you a good idea of how to clean your shoes in any situation. There’s a cleaning method for every kind of shoe and shoe material, including that delicate creature suede. Some incidents require just warm water and some gentle wiping, while others require a total overhaulbrush, cleaner and everything. Even with the worst stains and scuffs, there is hope.

Markk says to make sure you have the right tools to do the job properly. That means either warm soapy water or premium sneaker cleaner (depending on the level of care required), a proper brush, and a soft towel to wipe everything down when all is said and done.

Related: Every Man Should Know How To Polish His Shoes. Here’s The Best Way To Do It.

Now Onto The Cleaning

For a bit of coffee

Markk says with coffee, you should treat the stain as soon as possible.

“If you’re not at home to treat it thoroughly, then head to the nearest restroom and wipe clean with a damp paper towel,” he says. You want to be as gentle as possible and make sure you’re not rubbing the coffee into the fabric.

If the coffee has soaked into any areas of the shoe, rinse it with cold water and dab with a paper towel—don’t wipe.

If you really spilled coffee, like a lot, then when you get home give your shoes a full cleaning with cleaner, brush, and towel. See below for how to really give your babies a thorough scrub-down.

For a mud puddle mess

Markk says you should spot treat as necessary if you’re not home—like above—to stop as much of the mud as possible from soaking into the fabric. Then, as soon as possible, it’s time to go to town. While you could use warm soapy water and a toothbrush, regular dish soap can be abrasive and actually damage the fabric, so we recommend the Premium Shoe Cleaner developed by Markk.

Make sure you have the following: a bowl of warm water, Premium Shoe Cleaner, a brush (a toothbrush for the nooks and crannies and the standard brush for the big scrubbing), and a soft towel.

Got it? Okay. First things first. Don’t add the cleaner to the water. Instead, dip your brush in the water, then add a few drops of cleaner to the brush. Start scrubbing the shoe. The cleaner gently foams when you use it, so it really gets into all the nooks and crannies of the leather.

You can go in either a back-and-forth or circular motion—it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re scrubbing with the same amount of pressure you’d use to brush your teeth. (Unless you’re one of those people who goes through a toothbrush a month. If that’s the case, scrub gently.) Use a toothbrush for the finer details and tighter spaces.

When most of the dirt and grime has lifted, you don’t need to rinse the cleaner off, and in fact, you want to avoid getting the leather soaking wet. Instead, wipe the shoe with a soft towel. The premium cleaner is gentle enough to use frequently on your shoes, so if there’s still too much dirt for your liking, you can repeat the process.

For a scuff

For scuffs, we have good news and bad news. The bad news, Markk says, is that scuffing means there is actual damage to the shoe material—scuffs aren’t just stubborn stains.

The good news? According to Markk, “Cleaning the dirt inside the scuff will minimize it visually, sometimes making it completely unnoticeable.”

In this instance, you’ll want to use a toothbrushThe Manual has found that a soft bristle brush works best. Dip in warm water, and apply a few drops of cleaner. Scrub the scuff in question in a circular motion. You’re trying to get out as much dirt as possible without doing any more damage to the shoe. As stated above, when you’re done cleaning, wipe dry with a soft towel. Repeat the process as you see fit.

Keeping Them Fresh In The Long-Term

“As the collection grows, so do the memories,” Markk says. “Every pair has a story.”

The whole point of collecting sneakers is to wear them, right? Nevertheless, it’s still a bummer when your new shoes get dirty or start creasing. Markk says not to worry about that. You should aim to clean your regular rotation once a week so you can keep your shoes box fresh for as long as possible. He says, “If you can get into the habit of cleaning each pair before storing them away, you’ll be glad you did the next time you pick that pair to wear.” 

As for creasing?

“You can help to [prevent] creasing by always keeping your shoes stuffed when not being worn or, better yet, inserting a quality shoe tree.”

Stuffing your shoes will help keep the shape. If you’re going to go the shoe tree route, Markk recommends shoe trees made of cedar. They’ll draw out any moisture and prevent odors. They’ll also make your shoes smell slightly piney and fresh.

If you notice creasing in an all-leather shoe, Markk says, “Stuff the shoe and take a semi-damp white towel and place it over the toe box. Next, take an iron (on low to medium heat setting) and iron over the towel.”

That’ll get some of the offending creases out of there. Another word of advice? Avoid washing machines. Markk says using the washing machine is the worst piece of advice for sneaker care.

Both Markk and The Manual cannot stress enough that creasing and the occasional scuff is part of enjoying your kicks. There will be general wear and tear over time, but don’t be afraid to wear your shoes. 

With these tips, you should be able to keep your shoes looking fresh for much longer than if you stuck with your lighter fluid method. So get out there and enjoy your Air Force 1s.

Header image courtesy of sling@flickr via Creative Commons.
This piece was originally posted February 23, 2016 and updated on September 22, 2016 by Chase McPeak.