How to Clean Sneakers and Keep Your Feet Lookin’ Fresh

how to clean sneakers vs dirty hero image
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What’s worse than buying a new pair of kicks only to have them get dirty after less than a week of wear? Um … nothing, as far as we’re concerned.

But how on earth are you supposed to enjoy your sneakers and keep them looking fresh at the same time? Aside from boxing them up like collectibles and keeping them in a pressure-controlled vault, there’s really only one solution: Regular and intensive maintenance.

Yes, I hear your groans, sneakerheads, but facts are facts — you need to consistently clean your sneaks if you want to look on-point at all times. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t have to be a chore. Below are all our hard-won tips for sprucing up common sneaker materials (knit, leather, suede, and canvas) as well as tricks for assessing issues specific to different parts of the shoe (outsole, midsole, tongue, oh my!).

So let’s break out those suede brushes and magic erasers and get to work learning how to clean sneakers. 

How to Clean Different Sneaker Materials

Knit

With their breathable, mesh-like exteriors, knit sneakers are super cool, super trendy, and super susceptible to getting dirty. Unlike other types of fabrics, knit materials are porous by nature, so mud, dirt, sweat, and grime is prone to seep into its micro-grooves for a mess that can seem impossible to fix.

But worry not! Though knit kicks 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.

Directions:

  1. Fill a medium-sized bowl with warm water.
  2. Add a teensy splash of mild detergent or shoe-specific cleaner (like this amazing elixir from Jason Markk) to the bowl and mix gently.
  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.
  4. Dip in and out of the solution as many times as you need to make sure the stain is fully gone.
  5. If it seems like the mess has lifted, grab another damp cloth (this time damped with only water) and apply to the surface of the shoe, making sure to wipe away all the excess shoe cleaner. This should do the trick, but if there still appears to be grime stuck in the knit material, you can take a soft toothbrush to the shoe. Afterward, let the shoes air-dry.

Leather

While leather (or faux-leather) can be a fantastic sneaker material for fellas after an edgy look, it can sometimes be a headache to clean. Leather stains very easily and is also incredibly sensitive to abrasions of any kind, which can warp the material’s natural patina.

We have previously spoken to Whitney Tinsley (director of leather education at Moore & Giles) 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.

Directions:

  1. Create a solution that’s three parts Ivory dish soap to one part distilled water.
  2. Apply the concoction to the stain with a white cloth and rub until the stain has been fully removed.
  3. If the mark is particularly stubborn, you can apply leather conditioner (like this cream from Frye) to the entire surface area of the shoe to even out the tone. Apply with a clean cloth and wipe off the access after a few minutes.

Suede

Another notoriously stubborn fabric, suede may just be the trickiest sneaker material to keep looking pristine. Lacking the protective outer layer of leather makes for a surface that’s velvety smooth, yes, but also renders it vulnerable to all sorts of gross calamities. And grosser still is how impervious suede is to cleaning.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. First things first: invest in a suede brush, like this one from Shacke. 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.

If the brush doesn’t cut it, you can also tackle the stain with a suede eraser. Press the eraser against the stain with some force and manipulate it until the stain is gone. I suggest taking a clean cloth to the stain after your finished to wipe off any residue.

Shoe still not clean? Time to whip out the white vinegar! Place a dab on a clean cloth and slowly incorporate 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.

Canvas

Now that we’ve got the hard ones out of the way, let’s take a second to talk about sprucing up canvas, a relatively simple fabric to clean. While you can technically throw canvas sneakers in the wash (preferably in a pillowcase on a delicate setting with bleach if the shoes are all white), the best way to clean them is always by hand.

Simply apply the same water and detergent mixture you made for the knit sneakers to the entire surface of the shoe. Scrub until the stains are lifted and then go over the entire surface area with an old toothbrush. Let the shoes dry for a few hours and they should be good as new!

How to Clean Different Sneaker Parts

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, whether it be mud, cement, grass, dirt, sand, or some combination of elements. While this area will never be wholly clean (unless you want to walk around in plastic bags all the time, Mr. Hughes), there’s some general maintenance you can do to reduce the messiness.

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 above, and things off with a pass from a clean cloth.

Midsole

Though you can get away with lax outsole maintenance, you absolutely cannot take such a chill approach to your 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.

An easy solution is to take a good ol-fashioned Magic Eraser to it. Perhaps not the most elegant trick, but it can do a lot to enhance the color of a rubber sole and reduce grime along the edges.

Tongue

Cleaning the tongue can really amp up your shoe’s overall appearance, so never skip it during maintenance. For the tongue, simply apply the fabric-specific techniques we discussed above depending on its material make-up: A suede tongue gets the brush while a canvas one gets the soap.

Interior

Just as important as cleaning up the exterior is to knock out noxious odors from the interior. You can do this in a number of different ways, but we basically like to treat the inside of the shoe much like we treat the outside. Remove the insole (if possible) and wash it with either a water and detergent mixture or one made with water and white vinegar. I 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. You can either leave them sitting out normally or turn them upside down to encourage faster drying.

Laces

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 load. Afterward, they’ll be as good as new. Or, if you’re lazy like us, you’ll just buy new because they’re cheap and old ones have endless uses.

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