How to keep those killer kicks clean and looking new

If you’re paying a premium price for the coolest sneakers you can get, and want to keep them looking awesome, you have two choices:

  1. Never wear them. (What fun is that?)
  2. Learn how to clean them.

Let’s try door number 2.

Cleaning your sneakers goes beyond wiping mud off them. It means protecting them before you wear them the first time and on a regular basis from then on. Great, well-made shoes should last a long time. Sure the sneakers you just run around in might last a year or so, but your awesome pairs, if you treat them well, should stay looking great for years.

So let’s learn how to care for your kicks from the experts.

Protect them first

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Before you wear your sneakers the first time, use a sneaker protector and let it fully dry before even thinking about wearing them outside. Depending on the protector, you might need two treatments to really protect your investment. Sneaker protectors waterproof your sneakers and put a barrier between the outside world and the shoe. With a good protector you should be able to wipe off a lot of dirt and make spot cleaning easier.

According to Gear Hungry and Who What Wear the best sprays to look for are:

  • Kiwi (there are different types for different types of sneakers)
  • Scotchguard
  • Crep
  • Bickmore
  • Nikwax
  • Rust-o-leum (seriously, they make a shoe spray, not just spray paint).

Use the spray as soon as you get them home (spray outside or in a well-ventilated area) and follow the directions on the can or bottle. You’ll need to let the treatment dry before wearing your shoes. If you really want to buy your sneakers and wear them that same day or night, well, they might not be as protected as you’d hope.

Foot Locker has a great kit from Jason Markk with cleaner, brush, protecting spray, and a cloth. If you need something to get started (or give as a gift to your favorite sneaker head), this kit looks like a good bet.

Treat them right

We all have a pair or two of run-around sneakers that we don’t really care about. For special kicks, keep them in a cool, dry place and those soft shoe bags can’t hurt either. Light, heat, and moisture are all enemies of sneakers (and shoes). Try to keep your sneakers cool, dark, and dry.

I love all the suggestions for keeping your sneakers clean from Complex, but here is something for treating your shoes right:

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If your sneakers get wet, stuff newspaper in them and let them dry slowly. Rapid drying is terrible for most things shoes are made of (sneakers or otherwise). I’d also remove the laces and give them a wash.

Spot clean right away

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Get that gum off fast!

So your sneakers got wet, muddy, and gross. While all the gunk is still wet is the time to start the cleaning process. Just like your clothes, the faster you can get to a stain, the better the chance you’ll get your sneakers clean. Letting a stain dry is asking for it to set and be there forever.

Use soft cloths, mild soap, brushes, and some baking soda for a quick clean. Using stain remover spray on your sneakers might help, but I’d stick to cleaners for shoes to get stubborn stains out.

There is a fine line between letting your sneakers dry before trying to really clean them and getting ahead of stains fast. Get the worst of it off, treat the stains, and then see how things are going. You can always try to deep clean them later.

Have a cleaning schedule

Zappos suggests cleaning sneakers you wear a lot (white sneakers especially) every couple weeks to keep them looking great. For sneakers you’re collecting and are sitting looking cool, a nice microfiber dust and wipe should suffice. If cleaning every two weeks is too much for you, maybe you can get away with once a month for sneakers you wear often—assuming you’re spot cleaning all the time. If you aren’t spot cleaning, by the time a month rolls around you might have a big job ahead of you. The old adage “stitch in time saves nine” applies here—a little cleaning now and then goes a long way to not having a huge cleaning chore on your hands.

Have the right stuff

Several sites list different things to clean with, but all of them have these in common:

  • Brushes. Soft, medium, and stiff for dirt. Old toothbrushes are great for cleaning nooks and crannies
  • Soft cloths. Microfiber is great, but old t-shirts are good too.
  • Cleaners. Liquid cleaners should be water-based without harsh chemicals. Mild dish soap works too.
  • Baking soda. Not just for taking the stink out, but baking soda is an awesome, gentle cleaner.

Dmarge and Complex have details on these and other tools for cleaning your sneakers (and some hacks for tricky stuff like gum). Before trying out a new product on your best sneakers, try it on a pair you don’t care as much about first. Better to mess up on your lawn mowing sneaks than your most special, limited edition kicks that are your pride and joy.

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Time and patience will get most dirt off your sneakers

Be methodical about cleaning

Cleaning your shoes is just like cleaning anything else, you need to have a plan how you’re going to do it. Figure out what needs to be done first before you start attacking the grime. Have your work area ready with everything you need at hand and plenty of stuff to catch the mess (newspaper, rags, towels). You don’t want to be in the midst of getting a stain out and have your baking soda out of reach.

I like the steps from Kicks Guide to start with:

  • Brush off dry dirt
  • Remove the laces (and wash separately)
  • Remove the insole
  • Start at the top and work down
  • Dry them slowly

Dmarge, Complex, Kicks guide, aiobot, and Chatelaine all have guides for cleaning, but hats off to Highsnobiety for this video on how to really clean up:

For the inside scoop on how the pros do it, check out this post from Robb Report is amazing. The people at Jason Markk take sneaker cleaning to a whole new level. Attention to detail doesn’t come close to describing what they do.

Give them time to air dry

Don’t rush the drying. I’ve seen all kinds of rigs with hairdryers and pipes to dry boots and shoes. Those might be fine for your winter boots, rain boots, and regular sneakers, but not your sneakers. I stand by stuffing newspaper into shoes to help them dry faster (the paper helps wick moisture out), but don’t forget to change the newspaper a few times. Soggy newspaper in your sneakers is asking for mold and mildew to take up residence. Once you get to that point, no amount of spraying and cleaning is going to get that musty smell out.

The washing machine is a last resort

Every post I read talked about throwing sneakers in the washing machine (alone, not with clothes, of course) as a last resort. Maybe a pair of canvas Chucks or Keds will turn out okay, but sneakers with leather, suede, and nylon might not do so well. Some washers come with a special sneaker shelf so the shoes don’t bounce around and just get gently soaped and rinsed. Assuming you don’t have one of those fancy shelves in your washer, a lingerie bag is good to limit the bouncing and banging around. I’ve thrown old sneakers and slippers in the washer and they turn out okay…but even after drying they aren’t the same. I don’t think sneakers really like to be soaked and soaped through.

Your cotton laces, on the other hand, you can wash those with your clothes. Dmarge even mentions ironing them to keep them flat. If you want super flat, smooth laces—go for it. Don’t dry your laces in the drier, they will probably shrink.

Looking for something new, here’s what’s coming to Foot Locker in November

Looking for a new pair of kicks? Something cool and special to treat yourself? Foot Locker has their sneaker release calendar that covers about two weeks at a shot.

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