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How To Clean Used Shoes

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Sometimes a deal on a used pair of shoes is too hard to pass up. Whether they’re classics that you’ve had your eye on for a while, boots that may be out of your price range when new, or just some good looking kicks that you can trade for, previously owned shoes can be pretty attractive. Unfortunately, most of the time they have been worn by someone else, and it’s hard to trust someone else’s feet.

When buying a pair of used shoes, you should first judge them on their condition. Check the soles, the instep, and especially the inside for wear. If those all pass the test, then you should get to know how to clean used shoes once you get them home.

Why it is Important to Clean Used Shoes

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cleaning used shoes. The first is the way that the shoe looks on the outside, both to yourself and to other people. The second is maintaining health and safety. We will cover both cases in this instructional article.

Outward Appearance

It doesn’t matter why you purchased the shoes used, but we often want to make sure that anything we’ve paid money for looks as good as possible. There could be stains, dirt, or just general wear that makes our shoes look a little shabby, and it’s a good idea to take care of those.

Used Converse shoes in need of a cleaning

Little details like the condition of the laces, scuffs on the heel, or even dirt caught in the treads can make a huge difference in the appearance of shoes. When it comes to classic shoes and Instagram-worthy shots of them, every single detail can make a good impression. For daily wear, it’s always a good idea to keep your appearance as neat as possible.

Health Considerations

Shoes are excellent carriers of fungus, bacteria, and even viruses to some extent. They create a moist environment for infectious germs to grow, and as an added annoyance, they can get smelly pretty easily. Athlete’s foot is the most common infection that occurs on our feet.

Luckily, shoes are not worn (in most cases) around the clock, so the time they have to dry when not being worn can take care of most of these. Medical professionals have expressed that the health risks associated with wearing previously owned shoes are low. Regardless of that, it is always a good idea to disinfect shoes you are going to wear after someone else has worn them.

Parts of a Shoe

There are many different parts that make up a shoe, but there are four main sections that we should clean when buying shoes that have been previously worn. In addition, some of these parts only require cleaning, while others will need disinfection.

  • Outsole – The bottom sole of the shoe.
  • Insole – The layer on the inside of the shoe that your foot stands on.
  • Upper – The part of the shoe that covers the foot. We are focusing on the external surfaces.
  • Lining – The inside of the shoe, not including the insole.

Shoe Construction and Materials

There are so many different types of shoes available, it would be difficult to list them all. We will break them down into athletic shoes, boots, and dress shoes. Sandals and similar open-toed shoes could be considered as well, but depending on the materials they are made of, the cleaning method would normally follow that of dress shoes.

There are also many different materials that shoes are made of, but we will focus on these two: leather and fabric. Leather can include man-made leather substitutes, and fabric can include everything from nylon to cotton.

Cleaning Used Shoes

There is a lot to get into with the different types of shoes that you might be trying to clean. We will try to keep it as basic as possible.

Person wearing used shoes having it cleaned professionally

Clean the Insoles

Check if the insoles, the layer that sits directly below your foot, is removable. If so, no matter what type of shoes you own, you should remove and clean those before anything else.

  1. Remove the insoles.
  2. Brush with a toothbrush or other stiff-bristled brush to remove any dirt or debris.
  3. Soak in a mixture of water and a few drops of dish soap for a few minutes.
  4. Agitate, or even squeeze the insole, in the cleaning solution to clean thoroughly.
  5. Scrub with the brush again on both sides.
  6. Rinse thoroughly with clean water.
  7. Dry thoroughly on a rack or on top of a clean towel. Feel free to do this outside: the UV rays from sunlight will help to disinfect them.
  8. Spray with a shoe-safe disinfectant.
  9. Let dry completely again.

Cleaning Used Athletic Shoes and Boots Made of Fabric

The most basic, and easiest, way to clean athletic shoes or boots (that are fabric based) is to remove the shoelaces and insoles (if possible), and then clean them in a washing machine on a gentle cycle with medium temperature water and a small amount of laundry detergent. 

Adding a towel or two will help with the balance of the washer, and consider using a mesh bag to protect the shoes, insoles, and shoelaces while in the washing machine.

Let them air dry, upside down, at least overnight if not longer. Finish with a deodorizing spray over the inside and outside of the shoes, making sure you get the areas that may be hidden by the tongue.

For leather, classic, or well-used athletic shoes, this may not be the best way to go. In addition, this method may not get rid of stains or other scuffs.

Removing Scuffs from Used Athletic Shoes

Using a toothbrush or other stiff-bristled nylon brush, you can gently scrub off scuffs with one of the following cleaners. Be sure to wipe off any residue afterward with a damp cloth.

  • Toothpaste
  • Baking soda and water
  • Dish detergent and water
Person applying polish to a used shoe

Cleaning Used Boots or Dress Shoes Made of Leather

Used leather shoes are a little more difficult to clean than fabric ones, you will have to use a little more manual action but it is not too hard. The main thing to remember is that you should not use too much water. Leather will handle moisture fairly easily, but if it is soaked in it, the shape may be affected.

For cleaning leather, simply combining warm water with a few drops of dish soap works well, but there is a specific leather cleaner available online and at most grocery stores called saddle soap. This product not only cleans but also helps condition leather.

Note: suede leather reacts poorly to most cleaners. Only lightly clean with a barely damp cloth, and brush afterward to raise the naps.

  1. Rub a damp cloth over the entire surface of the shoes to remove any external dirt and grime.
  2. With a different damp cloth, dab it on the surface of the saddle soap to pick some up.
  3. Gently rub the cloth over the surface in circular motions, covering the entire leather surface.
  4. Use overlapping motions and re-apply more saddle soap if necessary. It will disappear as you rub it further, so be sure not to over-apply.
  5. Once the entire surface is covered, use a different cloth to remove any soapy residue.
  6. Let the shoes dry.
  7. Spray interior with a shoe-safe disinfectant.
  8. Apply polish if necessary.

Removing Scuffs from Used Leather Shoes

Depending on how deep the scuff is, you may not be able to remove it. Try the following methods in succession to see if they are effective, and follow up with an appropriate shoe polish.

  • Pencil erasers can be effective on very simple scuffs. Work across the affected areas and be sure to blow away any eraser debris.
  • Melamine foam or a Magic Eraser adds a little abrasion that can help. Be gentle with it, and try not to go too far away from the scuff.
  • Paste made from baking soda and water, or toothpaste, is another minorly abrasive option. Use a soft rag and rub gently.

Conclusion

Buying used shoes can get you a fantastic deal, and with a little effort, they will look great and not be harmful to your health. Be sure to follow the correct instructions above – methods that work for leather may not work for fabric, and visa-versa.

Allen Michael is the Founder and Editor of Home Viable, a website that he started to provide readers with tips on home efficiency and automation. He draws on his engineering background combined with his family-of-four experiences for his articles.