When it comes to footwear, few things are as refreshing as the moment you slide on a new pair of shoes straight from the crinkling tissue inside the box. But there is also something to be said about throwing on some kicks that have already comfortably molded to your feet, especially when it comes to the fit of leather shoes. And let’s face it, many of us are living on a budget and/or with limited closet space that doesn’t exactly match our ideal shopping lifestyle.
Taking good care of what you have is a crucial step to improving the life and appearance of your footwear collection, so you may be wondering how to clean your leather shoes. And with the right products and a few key steps, the process is easy, leaving your shoe rack looking just like new in no time. Ahead, learn how to clean leather shoes so they can shine better than ever.
Meet the Expert
Kirby Allison is a dedicated video creator and founder of The Hanger Project. With an appreciation for quality and tradition, he helps people to dress their best by offering advice on shopping and caring for key pieces. His YouTube channel has over 100 video tutorials on how to maintain your footwear as well as the rest of your wardrobe, making tradition and quality more accessible for everyone.
Step One: Prep
Before you begin cleaning your favorite pair of leather shoes, remove any laces. These could get in your way when it comes to polishing the exterior of the shoe, so setting them aside will ensure your work can be efficient and accurate.
Additionally, think about the space you're working in. Leather cleaner can be quite pungent, and you'll definitely notice it, especially if you're in a small or poorly ventilated environment. To avoid a headache, consider cleaning your shoes outside, or at least keep a window open.
If you’re thinking about running your leather shoes under the faucet to rinse away any visible dirt, step away from the sink. Water is not a good friend to leather, as it strips the material of its natural oils, leaving shoes looking more beat-up than they started. Instead, use a brush with soft bristles to gently wipe away dirt, and find yourself with clean leather shoes that are ready for the full maintenance process.
Step Two: Conditioning
A good pair of leather shoes will last for years. Leather is a durable and luxurious material, and you can maximize its lifespan by conditioning with care. “Nothing will ruin a pair of shoes faster than allowing the leather to dry out,” Kirby Allison explains. Conditioning your leather shoes should become a part of your regular wardrobe maintenance, as it restores moisture and strengthens the fibers of the material, which helps to counteract all the wear and tear leather experiences as we walk into the boardroom or run to the bus. If the fibers are well-lubricated, they’ll be less likely to show cracks and breakage, meaning your shoes will look fresh for longer than you ever thought they could.
“Good conditioners, like the Saphir Renovateur, are considered to be “liquid gold” by those obsessed with their shoes," Allison says. "This all-purpose conditioner provides deep conditioning and a soft shine. Apply with a cotton chamois, allow to dry, and buff off using a horsehair shoe shine brush."
If your leather shoes have zippers, be sure to condition the strip of leather that sits behind the zipper, as this area is often prone to drying out. Leather experts advise conditioning your leather shoes every six months to a year. It’s really up to you, but how often your shoes need it might vary depending on the environment you live in and how frequently you wear that particular pair—your everyday boots or oxfords might require more TLC than the dress shoes you only pull out for special occasions.
Note that suede requires a special type of cleaner. When cleaning suede shoes, choose a conditioner specifically made for the material (it will likely say it on the bottle) for the best and safest results. If you're trying to clean leather shoes, you have several conditioning formulas to choose from, and all of them boast different benefits. Leather creams are most recommended for aniline leathers, and leather oils are a good choice if you want to soften up the material. A wax condition will give you the most water-proofing effect.
Step Three: Stain removal and polishing
To remove any stains, use a damp cloth (make sure it's just damp, not soaked) with a dab of leather cleaner to gently rub off the stain. To remove scuffs, rub the scuffed-up area with a petroleum-based product to buff out any unwanted marks. Skip this step on suede, as it will only stain the shoe further.
If this is your first time using a leather cleaner or a petroleum-based product on the shoe and you’re nervous about the results, consider doing a test piece on a less noticeable area such as the inside tongue.
“After you have conditioned the leather, using a pigmented cream polish will help renew the finish and conceal any scratches,” Allison advises. The shoe expert's cream polish of choice is Saphir Pommadier, available in 16 colors, because of its high concentration of pigments. Apply shoe polish to the shoe with a soft brush or rag, and give the product adequate time to dry.
Step Four: Shining
Shining is optional. But if you already have your sleeves rolled up and are committed to making sure your clean leather shoes look their best, then go for it. Shoe shining is a popular step for good reason: just think, if Rudolph's red nose wasn't "shiny," it would all be a little less memorable, no? “Specialized shoe glacage artists in England and France have devoted their entire careers to the pursuit of the perfect mirror shine,” Allison explains.
The polishing process "can only be achieved with a proper hard wax polish, such as a paste (vs. cream) wax polish,” Allison says. Apply a small amount of wax to a soft cloth or an old cotton T-shirt you don’t mind throwing away. Then, go to town polishing the surface of the shoes by rubbing the cloth in small circular motions.
Final Tip: Deodorizing
So there you have it: now you know how to clean leather shoes so they're shiny, conditioned, and ready to take you places for hopefully years to come. Just one final tip: a clean leather shoe should smell like a clean leather shoe. If you are still getting an unpleasant whiff from your shoes, then you can take the budget-friendly approach and sprinkle a little baking soda inside, or purchase a footwear-specific deodorizer and banish that bad smell for good. Once that's dealt with, your shoes should be good as new in every way.