I'm really trying to embrace sustainability when it comes to my wardrobe, but it feels like I'm constantly having to replace a pair of $30 shoes. Too much rain or an unexpected day outdoors always causes irreversible damage to the fabric and glue holding my favorite pair of sneakers or sandals together.
To cut down on my consumption of fast fashion, I'm finally letting myself invest in quality shoes. And instead of worrying about them becoming dirty or damaged (or having to replace them), I'm dedicated to making them last for years. This means learning exactly how to wash shoes, no matter what the material, and getting to know exactly what's going into each pair I pick.
Scroll on for my tried and tested step-by-step guides to machine and hand-washing a pair of shoes.
Good to know
Time for machine washing: 10–15 minutes of hands-on work, plus the time of your washer cycle and drying (I find my shoes are typically dry by the next morning, so plan at least a day ahead if you're trying to coordinate an OOTD).
Time for hand washing: Allow yourself at least an hour depending on how dirty your shoes are.
Helpful hints: Before you get started or buy any materials, make sure to consider what type of shoe you'll be cleaning. Although athletic and fabric shoes can generally go in the washing machine, a lot of other shoe types can't and will need to be hand-washed using the leather shoe method. When in doubt, check the label or see what the brand's website has to say, and it's always best to play it safe and clean your shoes by hand if you aren't sure.
Here's what you'll need
- Washing machine, sink, and/or mixing bowl, depending on the method
- Mild laundry detergent or dish soap, I personally swear by any detergent from Method (you can buy it on Amazon)
- Laundry disinfectant or sanitizer (optional)
- A mesh zip-up laundry bag like these ones from Amazon or a pillowcase
- A soft cleaning brush or toothbrush, ideally one made especially for shoes — This brush from Amazon is perfect
- 2-3 cleaning cloths (microfiber is ideal)
- An eraser sponge, like the highly-rated Mr. Clean one from Amazon
- Cleaning paste, like The Pink Stuff which you can get from Amazon (optional)
- An oxi stain remover like this one from Amazon (also optional, and make sure you have the right type for the color of your shoes!)
- Baking soda (we always use Arm & Hammer from Amazon)
- A pencil eraser
How to wash fabric shoes
Step 1: Get your shoes set up for some TLC
Start the shoe cleaning process by prepping your shoes for washing and treating. If your sneakers or athletic shoes have removable laces, start by taking those off. Also make sure you remove any orthotics or gel insoles at this point, as they can be hand-washed separately.
Step 2: Pre-clean the shoes
Before you let your shoes anywhere near the washing machine, you'll need to put in a little bit of hands-on cleaning work.
Give your shoes a preliminary rinse to get rid of major mud and dirt. If there are any standout stains, this is the time to treat them. You can do this by scrubbing with a small amount of laundry detergent, stain remover, or dish soap.
Treat any scuffs outside of the fabric with an eraser-style sponge (like the Mr. Clean one from Amazon) or microfiber cloth, some dish soap, or cleaning paste, like The Pink Stuff, which is my personal favorite.
Step 3: Select your washing machine settings
It's best to run your shoes on a delicate or gentle cycle, depending on what your machine offers. I personally run mine on delicate. Be sure to check and manually adjust the water temperature to a cooler setting if it's automatically set to run on hot, since hot water can cause some serious damage to the glue holding your favorite pair of sneakers together.
Step 4: Prep and place your shoes in the washing machine
Grab your mesh laundry bag (these ones from Amazon are great) or an old pillowcase, and place your shoes and removable laces inside. Make sure your pillowcase is closed by tying a knot with the top half.
If you're in an apartment or dorm and worried about the noise your shoes might make in the machine, grab a few towels or throw blankets that also need washing to pad things out. If you're doing this, you'll probably want to grab a cup of baking soda (like the Arm & Hammer one from Amazon), or laundry disinfectant/sanitizer to add in as well.
At this point, it's time add in your detergent and OxiClean stain remover, which you can grab from Amazon if you need it, or more baking soda if you're using it, and get that machine on!
Step 5: Set them out to air dry
Much like hot water, hot air from your tumble dryer will also impact the glue on your shoes. I like to air-dry my shoes on the window sill but keep in mind that any direct sunlight could also have a bleaching effect on the shoes (depending on the color, this could be a good thing or not-so-ideal).
How to hand-wash shoes
Step 1: Create your cleaning solution
Grab your mixing bowl and stir a small amount of laundry detergent or dish soap into warm water. Keep in mind that dish soap tends to be way more concentrated than detergent, so if you're opting for this option make sure to use a very small amount of dish soap to prevent any discoloration of your shoes.
If you're short on cleaning paste, DIY some with equal parts warm water and Arm & Hammer baking soda from Amazon to use for treating lighter-toned shoes.
Step 2: Dry brush your sneakers
Dry brushing isn't just for your own shower routine. Before you wet your toothbrush or soft brush (the one we recommend from Amazon will make this a lot quicker) with a cleaning solution, use the dry tool to remove any loose dirt from the stitching and any suede spots on your shoes. If you're working with suede, make sure you're brushing in the same direction the fabric's grain goes in.
WARNING: Do not get any suede parts of your shoe wet!
Step 3: Remove and wash your laces and insoles
Just like you would with machine washing, you'll want to remove any laces, insoles, and inserts at this point. Submerge these in your bowl of cleaning solution and work out the dirt and grime by massaging each item, then set aside to air dry. If you need to refresh your cleaning solution after this, no judgement here. I personally had to make three bowls of cleaning solution throughout the process.
Step 4: Spot treat specific stains
This is your chance to tackle any specific scuffs or stains on your shoes. Gently buff a cleaning paste (either bought like The Pink Stuff from Amazon or homemade) into any scuffs on the rubber of your shoes using a cloth, and tackle spots on the leather itself with a magic eraser sponge.
If you have stains on the suede sections, don't give into the urge to use any of these tools on this material. Instead, dig into your office drawer and find a clean pencil eraser to gently treat these marks.
Tip: The pencil eraser is also great for extra-stubborn scuffs on the rubber parts of your shoes. Just work carefully and brush off any excess frequently.
Step 5: Scrub down the shoes and soles
Dip your brush into the cleaning solution and gently scrub the surface of your shoes, taking care to avoid getting any suede spots wet. Once you've done this, flip the shoes over and get into the grooves of the soles with your brush and cleaning solution combo. This is where the tough scrubbing comes in, and the results are so satisfying.
Step 6: Blot the shoes and repeat
Use a microfiber cloth to soak up any excess suds, being careful not to rub the cloth back and forth. If they're looking brand-new at this point, you're good to move onto the next step!
If your shoes need a little extra love, no stress. Soak the cloth in your cleaning solution to gently wipe down the shoes as many times as you need and hand brush specific spots until you're happy with the results.
Step 7: Air-dry and reassemble
Set your shoes alongside the insoles and laces to air dry. With a leather pair, you'll want to ensure they're kept out of direct sunlight to prevent any discoloration after you've worked so hard to get them clean. Once everything is fully dry, you can reassemble your shoes and thread the laces back through.
What is the best way to wash shoes?
As a general rule, the best way to clean your shoes is by hand. Lifestyle shoes from brands like Nike and Adidas tend to be made of multiple types of material, and while some may cope with your washing machine well, other materials (like suede) are a definite no-go and shouldn't be getting wet at all. Hand washing allows you to target each material in a specific way.
Is it okay to wash shoes in the washing machine?
Most shoes are going to be totally fine in the washing machine, but make sure that they're not made of suede or leather before you pop them in. Remember to check that the water temperature is cooler to keep the glue on your shoes from disintegrating, and the dryer is a major no-no.
It's also important to note that a majority of manufacturers discourage machine washing, so if your shoes came with a warranty, putting them in the washing machine will most likely end that immediately.
How do you clean stinky shoes?
Baking soda is going to be your bestie when it comes to removing odors. Either sprinkle a cup of it into the washing machine when you put your shoes in or add to your hand-wash cleaning solution before you tackle your insoles to get the best use out of its de-stinking power.
If you're working with an especially smelly pair of athletic shoes, you can also pre-treat by sprinkling some inside your shoes and leaving overnight before you start the cleaning process.
Is it better to hand wash or machine wash shoes?
There's no doubt machine washing feels like it's way faster than washing your shoes by hand, but the potential damage that could be caused to your favorite pair of sneakers by throwing them in the laundry probably isn't worth it. Machine washing your fabric and athletic shoes gets the thumbs up from us, but IMHO, it's better to play it safe and hand wash if you aren't a hundred percent sure what material you're working with.