Nothing makes you want to cry more than buying a new pair of shoes and scuffing them the first time you wear them. Few things ruin a great look worse than a scuffed or dirty pair of shoes. How on Earth are you supposed to enjoy your favorite sneakers while also keeping them as clean as the day you bought them? Aside from treating them like collectibles and keeping them in a pressure-controlled vault, there’s only one way to go about it - regular maintenance.
Yes, we hear your groans sneakerheads, but facts are facts. It’s important to consistently clean your shoes, but thankfully, it doesn’t have to be a huge chore. We’ve gathered surefire tips for sprucing up common sneaker materials (knit, leather, suede, and canvas) and tricks for assessing issues specific to different shoe parts, like the outsole, midsole, and tongue. So, let’s break out those brushes and magic erasers and learn how to clean sneakers.
3 general tips for cleaning sneakers
We know you don't always have the patience to spend extra time cleaning your shoes. So, before anyone starts deep cleaning specific sneaker materials, here are basic, easy tricks to spruce up your kicks in a jiffy.
Step 1: First is to remove any visible dirt. Do this with a clean towel, toothbrush, or your hand if pressed for time. Wiping away dirt every time you take your shoes off will help prevent buildup, as well as curb more serious problems in the future.
Step 2: Next, you’ll want to rinse off the soles with a wet towel or hose. Even if you were walking on a relatively clean surface, you’d be surprised by what gets stuck on the bottoms of your shoes. This doesn’t have to be too involved but don't skip it.
Step 3: Finally, spot clean any big stains. If the stain is large enough, remove it by quickly blotting it with a soap and water mixture. Spot cleaning up front will save you a lot of time later on.
Cleaning knit sneakers
With their breathable, mesh-like exteriors, knit sneakers are cool, trendy, and susceptible to getting dirty. Unlike other types of fabrics, knit materials are porous by nature, so mud, dirt, sweat, and grime are prone to seep into their micro-grooves for a mess that seems impossible to remedy. Though knit shoes require more TLC than other sneakers, that doesn’t mean they can’t be coaxed back to perfection with a little patience and elbow grease.
Step 1: Fill a medium-sized bowl with warm water.
Step 2: Add a splash of mild detergent or shoe-specific cleaner to the bowl and mix gently.
Step 3: Once the solution is diluted, dip a clean towel into the bowl and apply liberally to the shoe’s surface stain. And don’t be afraid to really go for it here, as you’ll want to make sure you rub out as much of the stain as you can.
Step 4: If it seems like the mess has lifted, grab another damp cloth (this time wet with only water) and apply to the surface of the shoe, making sure to wipe away all the excess shoe cleaner.
Step 5: This should do the trick, but if there still appears to be grime stuck in the knit material, take a soft toothbrush to the shoe.
Step 6: Afterward, let the shoes air-dry.
Cleaning leather shoes
While leather (or faux leather) is a fantastic sneaker material for those after an edgy look, it's sometimes a headache to clean. Leather stains easily and is also incredibly sensitive to abrasions of any kind, which warps the material’s natural patina.
We've spoken to Whitney Tinsley (Brand Ambassador for American Leather) about how to care for leather goods, and she says the most important thing to do is spot clean stains as soon as you see them. Let's go over how to do that.
Step 1: First, create a solution that’s three parts Ivory dish soap to one part distilled water.
Step 2: Apply the mixture to the stain with a white cloth and rub until the stain has been fully removed.
Step 3: If the mark is particularly stubborn, apply a leather conditioner with a clean cloth to the entire surface area of the shoe to even out the tone.
Cleaning suede sneakers
Another notoriously stubborn fabric is suede. Suede just may be the trickiest material to keep looking pristine. Lacking the protective outer layer of leather makes for a surface that’s velvety smooth, but one that's also vulnerable to problems.
Step 1: First things first: Invest in a suede brush. While you don’t want to rub it too aggressively on the surface of your suede sneaker, it’ll do wonders to alleviate any muck from the fibers.
Step 2: If the brush doesn’t cut it, tackle the stain with a suede eraser. Press the eraser against the stain with some force and manipulate it until the stain is gone. Take a clean cloth to the stain after you're finished to wipe off any residue.
Step 3: Is the shoe still not clean? Time to whip out the white vinegar! Place a dab on a clean cloth and slowly incorporate it into the stain. You shouldn’t need a lot, so apply gingerly. Once the stain is gone, rinse with a water-dampened towel and allow to dry.
Cleaning canvas shoes
Now that we’ve got the hard ones out of the way, let’s take a second to talk about sprucing up canvas shoes, which are a relatively simple fabric to clean. While you could technically throw canvas sneakers in the wash (preferably in a pillowcase on a delicate setting with bleach in the case of all-white shoes), the best way to clean them is by hand.
Step 1: Simply apply the same water and detergent mixture you made for the knit sneakers to the entire surface of the shoe.
Step 2: Scrub until the stains are lifted and then go over the entire surface area with an old toothbrush.
Step 3: Let the shoes dry for a few hours and they should be as good as new!
Cleaning different sneaker parts
Step 1: Clean the outsole. The outsole, or bottom, of your sneaker is going to get dirtier than almost any other part of the shoe. Why? Because it interacts most directly with the outside world. On a weekly basis, take a brush to your sneaker’s sole. Once the dirt has been wiped clean, liberally apply the warm water and detergent mixture we discussed, and wipe things off with a clean cloth.
Step 2: Clean the midsole. This section of the sneaker is clearly visible and is usually intended to be bright white, so it’s important to clean it regularly. Even if the rest of your shoe is spotless, the yellowing of a midsole is enough to ruin the whole look of the shoe.
An easy solution is to take a good old-fashioned Magic Eraser to it to enhance the color of a rubber sole and reduce grime along the edges.
Step 3: Clean the tongue. Cleaning the tongue really amps up your shoe’s overall appearance, so never skip it during maintenance. For the tongue, simply apply the fabric-specific techniques we discussed depending on its material make-up: A suede tongue gets the brush while a canvas one gets the soap.
Step 4: Clean the interior. Just as important as cleaning up the exterior is to knock out noxious odors from the interior.
Remove the insole (if possible) and wash it with either a water and detergent mixture or one made with water and white vinegar. We find that detergent or shoe cleaner is better for general cleaning, while vinegar helps with odors.
Once you’ve given the interior a thorough pass with your sponge or towel, make sure to let it air dry for a few hours before throwing your sneakers back on.
Step 5: And finally, don’t neglect the laces! To clean these bad boys, simply take them off your shoes and throw them in the wash with your regular laundry. Afterwards, they’ll be as good as new.
How to keep your sneakers clean
Now that you know how to clean your sneakers, let’s wrap up this guide with a few tricks on how to keep them clean.
Step 1: Spot-check your shoes every time you get home. I know it may seem like a nuisance, but if you take stock of how your shoes are doing before you put them away, you’ll be able to keep the clean vibes going.
Step 2: Clean stains in the moment. Dirt, gunk, and debris are easiest to remove right after they come in contact with your sneakers. Try to attack stains immediately, even if it’s just with a little soap and water.
Step 3: And finally, apply protective coatings when appropriate. Not all sneaker materials need these kinds of sprays and rubs, but certain ones like leather and suede will certainly benefit from them.
And that does it! Not too hard, right? It seems like a lot, but we covered every style of shoe, every aspect that would need to be cleaned, every kind of fabric, and how to keep those shoes clean after all of your upkeep is done. You are ready to keep any kind of shoe looking as crisp as the day you brought them home.
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