How to Clean Sneakers

Very dirty running shoes.

I am one of those people who wear their sneakers until the soles are curling up and the seams are holding on by a thread—literally. That said, I do try to maintain a respectable appearance at the gym and therefore cleaning my sneakers is critical. There is also the other problem: smelly, smelly sneakers. While I would never have this problem as my tennis shoes smell like fresh-cut flowers on a spring day, some of you may need some help keeping your sneakers from stinking you out of house and home. You know who you are.

The easy route to washing your sneakers is to throw them in the washing machine. However, I have done this with a nice pair of tennis shoes only to realize later that while they came out clean, they had also been damaged by the agitation and never again looked the same. Throwing some towels in the load may help a bit but I still would only put my sneakers in the washer if I absolutely did not have the time to hand-wash them (or just didn’t care too much about the shoes). I prefer hand-washing my sneakers. But don’t sweat it too much. Cleaning sneakers is for the most part a pretty easy task. In the following sections I will outline some step-by-step directions on how to clean your tennis shoes.

Steps for Cleaning Your Sneakers

  1. sneakers-1Gathering your cleaning supplies. The tools you will need are fairly simple: a bucket, a sink, a rag or soft-bristle brush, and some drying cloths or towels. Instead of using potentially hazardous cleaners, you can gather up some simple and safe products to use. This includes an eighth cup of Castile soap, a quarter cup washing soda, a quarter cup borax, and some baking soda. For really grimy or smelly sneakers you may want to grab some white vinegar or a quarter cup salt (or even some oxygen bleach if you need some extra whitening power). Don’t forget to grab the sneakers.
  2. sneakers-2Prepare the sneakers for cleaning. I know. Who has time to prepare to clean? Let’s just get to the cleaning. Some simple tasks can make the job much easier. While they’re still dry, brush off any loose materials stuck to your shoes (such as dirt clumps). Check for gum or any objects on your soles and remove what you can. Take out the laces. The easiest way to clean the laces is to throw them in with a load of laundry. I prefer just to replace them. Finally, remove the insoles.
  3. sneakers-3Mix your cleaning solution. Mix the Castile soap, washing soda, and borax in two gallons of water in a bucket or just fill up a sink with water and mix the solution. Using a plant-based soap like Castile soap is eco-friendly because it’s biodegradable and does not contain unnecessary chemicals, fragrance or dyes. You can use regular dish soap if you don’t have Castile soap. The borax and washing soda are both useful in whitening, removing stains, cutting through grease, and neutralizing odors.
  4. sneakers-4Cleaning your sneakers/tennis shoes. First, give your sneakers a good rinsing. And no, not in the same sink you used to mix your cleaning solution. Submerge your sneakers in your cleaning solution. You may need to place an object on them to keep them submerged. Then go get some dinner or catch a movie. When you return, use your rag or soft-bristle brush to gently scrub all parts of the shoes remembering to give the insoles a good once-over. Then rinse again.
  5. sneakers-5Extra cleaning for really smelly, sweaty, or old sneakers. If you have to keep your shoes outside at your family’s insistence, you may need to disinfect your shoes. White vinegar is a great natural disinfectant and whitener. Add two cups of white vinegar to two gallons of water and soak the shoes in the solution for a couple of hours. Another option for people with extra sweaty feet is to soak the shoes in a solution of two gallons water and a quarter cup salt. It can help eliminate the harsh odor of sneakers regularly drenched in sweat.
  6. sneakers-6Dry your sneakers naturally. Take your towel and dry your sneakers. If you are a member of the smelly shoe club then stagnant moisture is part of your problem. I prefer drying my sneakers in the sun as it can help in whitening and sanitizing. You can stuff the shoes with rags during the drying process to help retain the sneakers’ shape. I would not sun-dry colored sneakers because it could fade the color. Whatever you do, don’t put your sneakers in a dryer. The heat and agitation could damage them severely.

To Clean or Not To Clean Your Sneakers

How easy was that? Now you should be ready to hit the gym with pride and not worry about the odor from your shoes repulsing the person on the treadmill next to you. If you still need a little extra deodorizing, you could sprinkle some baking soda in your sneakers to absorb any excess moisture after each workout. For really stubborn stains, try oxygen bleach. It is safer than chlorine bleach, which can irritate your eyes and skin. It’s the more eco-friendly alternative as it breaks down into elements that are less harmful to our environment. A good oxygen bleach is OxiClean. Mix some with water to create a paste and use it with an old toothbrush to scrub any stains. If these tips don’t work, it may be time to invest in a new pair of tennis shoes. But, of course, I am not one to talk. You would laugh at my old, ratty sneakers. But at least they’re clean.

Green Products for Cleaning Sneakers

sneakers-aOxiClean. There are many eco-friendly, non-chlorine bleach alternatives. Oxygen bleach, such as OxiClean, breaks down into soda ash, oxygen and water. It’s less harmful to our environment and safer for your own use. It is great at removing stains and scuffs from sneakers. You can order OxiClean from Amazon.

sneakers-bWhite vinegar.Vinegar can be used to disinfect your sneakers and help restore their whiteness. Mixing a couple of cups with water can form a solution in which to soak your sneakers. Submerge your sneakers in the solution for a few hours to neutralize the odor.

sneakers-cBaking soda.Sneakers that remain moist can be a petri dish for bacteria and other odor-causing elements. Sprinkling baking soda into your tennis shoes after cleaning or wearing can help absorb excess moisture from the interior and help maintain a fresh scent.

About the Author

Adam Gottfried