There’s nothing quite like a fresh pair of sneakers, right? The problem is that all it takes is one wear to dull their new-shoe shine, especially if your kicks are white. After a few runs or treks to the gym, or, heaven forbid, some unexpected rain, it’s pretty much all over.
But as far as I’m concerned, sneakers are an investment worth taking care of. That goes not just for running sneakers or the pair you only wear to fitness classes. I’m talking any sneakers you have in your rotation, whether you wear them with jeans or a pair of leggings. That’s why I’m excited to share some effective ways to keep your new sneakers looking new without damaging the material or functionality.
To get the rundown on how to clean sneakers, we reached out to Victor Ornelas, director of brand management at Fleet Feet. Since his job involves tons of hands-on experience with the shoes he sells, he seemed like the perfect expert to tell us how to keep our kicks looking good.
While the techniques for cleaning sneakers don’t differ that much from fabric to fabric, there are some specific methods that work better depending on the material, Ornelas says. Here, we break down exactly how to clean sneakers depending on what they’re made from.
First, an important note: You should avoid putting your sneakers in the washing machine.
Putting sneakers in the washing machine will likely affect the structure and the integrity of the foam, which can negatively impact the shoe’s ability in provide consistent cushioning or a responsive feel, says Ornelas. That’s especially an issue when it comes to running shoes.
Some foams are more sensitive than others to water and high temperatures, he says. (Most shoe brands list the materials the midsoles are made from in the product description on their website.) Generally, any shoe made with EVA, a rubbery plastic that’s used to create soft and flexible foam, should always be hand washed. The material is prone to absorbing water, which can mess with how the sneaker’s cushioning works. Foams constructed from TPU, which is also a rubbery plastic but is known to be more durable, may hold up better in the machine and shouldn’t absorb water, but spot cleaning is always the least risky way to clean sneakers. Doing so will extend the life of your sneakers, Ornelas says.
If you must wash your shoes—say, an unfortunate run-in with muddy terrain makes it your only option to salvage them—avoid agitators, he adds. “Agitators can be a little rough and if they thrash your shoes around too much, it can affect the shape of the shoe as a whole,” he says. Washing machines without agitators are gentler and allow more room for shoes to move freely.
Ornelas recommends wiping off as much mud as you can before putting sneaks in a washing machine. Also, wash the laces separately from the shoes. You can put them in a pillowcase or mesh laundry bag to prevent tangling, he adds. Use a small amount of mild detergent, throw a few towels in the machine with your shoes, and set the washer to the delicate cycle (which should always mean cold water and a gentle spin cycle). Once the cycle is complete, let the shoes air dry, he says. Never ever put them in the dryer; the high temperatures will break down most materials.
Here’s how to properly spot clean the different materials most sneakers are made of. (And by the way, lots of sneakers are made from more than one kind of material, so it’s possible that you’ll have to use different methods for cleaning the same sneaker.)
“Nylon mesh is great for runners because it’s a breathable fabric, but the netting catches all the dirt and dust you kick up when exercising,” says Ornelas. He suggests using a dry brush to remove any excess dirt and then mixing together one part baking soda and one part vinegar and letting it sit on the dirty spot for about 15 minutes. Gently scrub for a minute or two, and then wipe clean with a soft wet rag. Let the shoe air dry.
A brush is the easiest and most effective way to clean running shoes in general, says Ornelas. “The bristles are gentle enough to uphold the integrity of the fabric, but sturdy enough to scrape off stuck-on dirt,” he says. You can find brushes specifically made for cleaning sneakers, made of a variety of materials like boar hair, horsehair, and synthetic blends, says Ornelas. Or, simply use an old toothbrush or buy a small vegetable brush on Amazon. Generally, if your shoe is on the softer side, opt for soft bristles (like what you’d find in a vegetable brush), and if your shoe is stiffer, use a brush that can apply more pressure (like a synthetic blend or boar hair).
2. Synthetic leather
Soak a rag in warm water and mild laundry detergent and wipe down the dirty areas, Ornelas says. Then, gently scrub the area with a brush for a minute or two. Wipe clean with a soft wet rag to remove any remaining detergent, and let air dry. “You will notice the smudges lift easily, as stains don’t soak into synthetic leather like they do with nylon mesh,” says Ornelas.
If your shoes are white, you can even try using a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser—a cleaning pad made out of melamine foam—on any hard parts of the shoe, he adds. “The product is gentle, yet effective for removing stains. All you need to do is wet the pad and start wiping the dirty areas of the shoe,” he says. To be safe, only use this product on white shoes to avoid rubbing off any color.
Be as gentle as possible with knit shoes, says Ornelas. “Knits are soft and pliable, which makes them more fragile than the other fabrics,” he explains. Avoid brushing, which can be a little too rough for knit. “For knit running shoes, we recommend using a soft cloth. This will take a little more muscle to get out stains, but is just as effective,” he says.
Be wary with laundry detergent, Ornelas says, as the chemicals can sometimes be too harsh on the fabric. “Instead, use a bar of mild bath soap. Soak a cloth in cold water and gently rub on the soap,” he says. Once the stains have lifted, wipe off any remaining soap with a wet towel and let air dry.
Canvas sneakers are durable, but they get dirty easily, says Ornelas. To clean these shoes, he suggests a toothbrush and a cleaning paste made out of equal parts baking soda and warm water. Dip the toothbrush into the mixture and scrub the canvas until it’s clean. Let the shoes dry with the mixture still on, and then wipe away any hardened baking soda pieces with a damp cloth, he says.
“While it’s always better to wash sneakers by hand to preserve the integrity of the shoe, canvas is more sturdy than a lot of other fabrics and can withstand a gentle run through the washing machine,” he adds. Again, make sure you run the machine on the delicate cycle, and only use cold water and a small amount of mild laundry detergent. Once the cycle is complete, let the shoes air dry.
And don’t forget, the insides need to be cleaned sometimes, too.
Ornelas recommends warm water and mild laundry detergent to clean the insides of sneakers. Soak a brush in the solution and scrub until clean. Then, wipe down gently with a wet rag and let the shoe air dry.
If the insides of your sneakers get damp after an intense workout or a run in the rain, take out the insoles and stuff your shoes with paper towels to soak up excess moisture before starting the cleaning process. “If the interior of the shoe is too wet, it will take longer to dry and can leave a mildew smell or grow bacteria,” he explains. Not exactly what you want if you’re planning to wear them for a long time.
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