Sneakers — How to keep your kicks clean and long lasting

I love white sneakers. And I’ll wear them with anything, so you’d think they’d be a good investment. Trouble is, they stay white for about seven minutes. So mostly I wear navy sneakers. Or black sneakers (my current pair have gold flowers on them, so they’re not as dreary as they sound). Still, with summer on the horizon, a pair of bright white Keds are calling my name! Guess I’d better learn how to protect and clean sneakers. 

Maybe you also have a pair of kicks you’d like to clean up or invest in. Here’s what we need to know:

Protection

When you buy a new pair of sneakers (or shoes or boots, for that matter), take the time to apply a protective spray. Follow the directions and reapply every couple of weeks or so if you wear them often. Protective sprays are made for canvas, leather, suede, and synthetic materials, and they’re great at repelling liquids and stains. Natural brands offer non-aerosol sprays (see below). 

A blue sneaker-clad foot beside two feet in salmon-colored sneakers on concrete steps

Cleaning

Ideally, you’ll wipe any dirt or grime off your sneakers whenever you come home, before you put your sneakers away. When you’re ready to give them a good cleaning, follow these steps:

Brush. 

Invest in a good shoe brush or two (soft- and medium-bristle). Before washing your sneakers, brush off as much dirt and grime as possible. Be gentle with knit sneakers so you don’t damage the fibers. Use a suede brush on those blue suede sneakers to remove dirt and restore the nap. If the suede is stained, use a suede eraser.

Wash. 

If you have serious stains on knit sneakers, you might want to pretreat them with a stain remover.

There are a number of things you can use to wash your sneakers, including commercial shoe-cleaning products. For most sneakers, I simply use some dish soap and warm water in a small bowl. Dip a cloth in the soapy water and wipe the sneakers clean. (Some people swear by microfiber for shoe cleaning. I like a white cotton cloth.) An old toothbrush works well for getting into crevices. 

A couple of don’ts: Don’t scrub too hard, especially if your sneakers are fabric; too much elbow grease can age them quickly! Don’t oversaturate your sneakers or they’ll take forever to dry. And if they’re fabric with multi-colors, the colors may bleed.

Other DIY options include a paste of baking soda and warm water, a mild shampoo, or toothpaste (for white synthetics or white leather). In general, avoid bleach because it’s hard on fibers and can cause yellowing. To whiten discolored canvas and other fabric sneakers, spray with white vinegar and leave in the sun to dry.

Whatever you use for washing, rinse with clean water, then air dry your sneakers.

To help the sneakers hold their shape, you can stuff them with newspapers or shoe trees while you work. 

A person's legs and feet stand wearing jeans and navy-blue trainers with bright, clean white laces  on concrete in front of a brick wall

Make sure you wash laces, too. Simply swish them in soapy water, rinse, and lay flat to dry. Brownie points if you iron your flat ones (really, they’ll take your sneakers to the next level!). If your laces are very worn, of course, you’ll want to replace them.

To clean the soles, try a wet Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

Can’t I just toss my sneakers in the washing machine? 

Most sneakers won’t fare well in the washing machine. But as a last resort you can give them a spin in the gentle cycle with cold water (you don’t want to shrink them) and just a little bit of detergent (too much detergent will leave a residue on the fabric). 

Remove the sneakers from the machine and pull the tongue out and over the front of the shoe. Stuff the sneakers with a washcloth to help absorb excess moisture and reshape them. After an hour or so, remove the cloth and air dry the sneakers. 

Two don’ts: don’t put them in the dryer, and don’t wear them until they’re completely dry.

Storing

Store shoes so they won’t be damaged — definitely don’t throw them in a heap on top of each other on the closet floor! 

Because dust can settle on sneakers when they’re left out, shoe boxes are ideal. I like mine up off the floor, but I don’t want to hassle with shoe boxes, so I store them in a hanging shoe organizer. Shoe racks, shelves, and back-of-the-door hangers are all good options. Just remember, no piles!

Shoe trees will help prevent creasing (across the toes, for example).

Store shoes out of sunlight to prevent fading. If you leave them outside to dry, for example, remember to bring them indoors afterwards. 

Hanging feet in black and gray sneakers with clean white soles

To combat odor

• If possible, remove and wash the insoles. If they’re not washable, sprinkle them with baking soda and let them sit for a few hours, then shake and brush or vacuum them out. (A small wand attachment works great.)

• Use sneaker balls or tuck dryer sheets in your sneakers when you put them away. I don’t like the chemical smell of most commercial dryer sheets, but there are natural options. You could also make your own dryer sheets. 

• Let shoes dry out completely between wearings. Alternate with other shoes, if necessary. 

• Wear socks (anything from no-shows to flashy knee-highs) to keep your sneaks fresh smelling.

• When washing shoes that smell a bit, add a little vinegar to the rinse water. 

Natural shoe care brands

Most shoe care products — protectants and cleaners — aren’t exactly natural. There are some companies you might like to check out, though. These offer more natural, water-based products, with non-aerosol options for protectants. Besides being better for us and the environment, water-based cleaners are less harsh on fibers than chemical ones, too.

Pure Polish

Armstrong’s All Natural

Collonil Organic

Chamberlain’s Leather Milk

When your sneaks are looking sad

Unless you like the look of grungy sneakers (no judgement from me), you can wear them for gardening, painting, or whatever grubby work you have going and save your good sneakers from these activities.

When you completely give up on wearing your sneakers (because they get uncomfortable, or they aren’t in pristine condition, or you tire of them), consider sending them to GotSneakers. They’re a group that sends old sneakers to impoverished countries where shoes are needed, such as Central America, South America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and Europe. They’ll send you $1 for each pair you donate, too. Maybe put that dollar toward your next pair and show your appreciation by taking good care of them!

What do you use to clean your sneakers? How do you store them?

You might also like: Tights — How to make them last and Boots — How to keep your boots looking their best and lasting their longest

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