Shoe Maintenance 101

By Une Femme, Already Pretty Contributor
Shoe polish before and after

Before and after: right side has been polished.

While shoes can add visual impact to any outfit, there’s really nothing that can drag down your look more than shoes that are scuffed, cracked, stained, or worn down. (We’ll leave aside “distressed” finishes for the moment, assuming the distressing is intentional.)  I’ve had well-maintained shoes last for years, even with frequent wear. It usually isn’t complicated, expensive, or time consuming to  keep shoes looking nice. Below are care tips for different types of materials.

Smooth Dyed Leather

shoe shine essentials

This is all you need to keep shoes polished.

One of my very favorite chores is polishing shoes. Seriously. My Dad showed me how to do it when I was a child, and I love the before-and-after transformation that occurs at my hands. Polishing not only makes the leather shine, but actually helps make the surface more water-resistant. I usually use the old standby Kiwi polish, which you can usually find in grocery stores. I use black for black leather, and neutral for just about everything else. Black shoe polish especially stains like crazy so you’ll want to pick a work space that isn’t precious or lay down some newspaper. Also if it gets under your nails it’s a bear to get out. Here’s my trick: use an old cotton sock to apply the polish. Just slip your hand inside to apply the polish and no stained fingers! (You can use inexpensive medical gloves too.)

Using a sock or soft rag, gather some polish from the tin and apply to smooth leather portion of shoes in a circular motion. Pay special attention to toes, heels, any scuffs. You don’t need a heavy coat, but once applied the polish should look dull and matte. I sometimes will add a second application of polish to areas that get a lot of wear and tear.

(Backing up a bit, if the shoe leather is really dried and cracked, I’ll apply a leather conditioner first and allow to dry overnight before polishing.)

Some say this isn’t necessary, but I’ll let the polish dry for 15 minutes or so, then buff with a soft polishing brush (also inexpensive and easily found in grocery, drug and box stores) in a back and forth motion until you get a shine. Magic!

Patent Leather

No longer just for dress-up, patent leather is everywhere. It’s generally an easy care choice, though it can become scuffed, dulled, and water-spotted (especially in areas with high mineral content in the water). First just try wiping/buffing with a soft cloth. If that doesn’t remove spots, a little mineral oil, petroleum jelly, or even vegetable oil should remove spots and scuffs. If you’re not sure if your patent “leather” is really leather or a man-made material, first test a small area of the shoe that’s not as visible. I’ve heard people recommend ammonia based window cleaner, but I’m hesitant to try that for fear of ruining the finish.

Suede and Nubuck

You remembered to apply a waterproofing spray before wearing, yes? Good. Even so you probably want to avoid wearing good suede shoes out in wet, snowy, mushy, or muddy conditions. Though drops of water may be visible when wet, they’ll usually disappear once dry. For stains, scuffs, or spots, try removing with a pencil eraser, then brush with a suede brush. This should get rid of most day-to-day spots or dirt. For really stubborn marks or stains, there are suede cleaners, which I’ve seen recommended but have not tried. You can also have suede shoes professionally cleaned, or ask your BFF cobbler what he or she recommends.

Other materials

Canvas shoes can often be washed in a machine or by hand and tumble dried on low heat or rack dried.

A Mr. Clean Magic Eraser will whiten up the rubber toe caps and sides of sneakers.

For other materials like imitation leather, or distressed leather, again it’s probably wise to consult your cobbler.

Do you have any favorite shoe care tips to share?

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Already Pretty contributor Une Femme is fifty-six, married to the same wonderful monsieur since 1995, the mother of a special-needs teenager and two hooligan dogs, a full-time administrative professional, a coffee-holic, Paris-obsessed, native Californian, and a petite and curvy femme d’un certain age. She believes that personal style is an essential form of self-expression, and started her blog, Une femme d’un certain âge, in 2007 hoping to start a conversation about style for women over 50.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for unefemme.net. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

  • Michelle

    Thanks for a great article. I am also a pedant for shoe maintenance and have gone so far as to keep a small shoe buff in my office drawer so I can magic away scuffs as soon as I notice them. With regards to protecting suede shoes with waterproofing spray, is there any way to know if you have sprayed too much/not enough product? I am always hesitant to spray more than one light spray for fear of changing the color or texture but wonder whether this is actually enough to repel water or to make stain removal easier? I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.

  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Thanks for this, Une Femme. My cobbler is my friend, and I often get my favorite boots resoled, re-heeled and polished there. And Mr Clean Magic Eraser does live up to its name!

  • Louisa

    My dad also taught me to polish shoes when I was a little girl. He was in the army during WWII and learned to do it properly (or else!) I use the same Kiwi polish and brush too. Good stuff.

  • http://unefemme.net une femme

    HI Michelle,

    While I don’t think you can ever completely waterproof suede, two coats of spray, allowed to dry in between and reapplied every few months should do the trick for moderate exposure to moisture and dirt. If you’re still concerned, you might want to take shoes to a cobbler for a professional waterproofing treatment.

  • Tracie

    I’ve had good luck removing stains from suede using a small amount of vinegar and water mixed together. There’s a pumice-type stone that I found that helps remove scuffs from suede, works on clothing too.

  • Angela

    I always think of my dad when I do mine too. He was a salesman with only a couple suits and shoes but he took good care of them, laying everything out on Sunday nights. (shoes and polish) and crisply ironed his shirts once a week for the upcoming work.

    Our daughter had a job interview (17) and hubs pulled out the shoe polish kit to show her how her shoes made such a difference, both kids were in awe ‘you do this how often?’ lol

  • Corinne

    Thanks for this article. I just bought my first pair of tall boots a month ago and I want to make sure they last for a long time (because wow, it was hard to find the perfect pair!!!). I’ve been wondering how best to care for them, so this is perfectly timed for me! Thanks a lot!

  • LIz

    Also, if your shoes get wet in the rain–and this often happens to me because I live in the Northeast where weather can be unpredictable–stuff them with newspaper and put them away from heat sources to dry. It helps if you change the paper after a couple of hours or so.
    The newspaper will absorb the moisture and help keep leather from getting stiff and awful.

  • sophie

    Thank you for a great article. It seems easy and like it would save quite a bit of money in the long run.l

    Although I want to take care of my shoes, I am put off by the chemicals required to keep them looking good. I’d like to use nontoxic natural materials if at all possible. I can’t even open a can of black shoe polish without wanting to gag, because the smell is so awful. Chemical erasers and Waterproofing sprays seriously scare me also. I worry about the chemical trail for myself, my children, the rest of the population and the environment. I wish we had more natural standards for maintaining clothing and shoes.

    • Andrea

      Sophie, I’ve had great luck with Otter Wax products. They’re made with plant oils, beeswax and lanolin and they work really well (and smell good, too!). Their stuff isn’t cheap but it does last and I think it’s worth it for all the reasons you name. I’ve never seen it in stores, but you can buy from their website or Amazon.

      • sophie

        Thanks Andrea! I’ll try them out.

  • Rose

    My mother gifted my sons shoe polish boxes as a graduation present. It’s something everyone should own.

    With lighter leather or colors it’s always a good idea to test an area before slathering polish on. Oftentimes they’ve been dyed and a colored polish will change the appearance. I once had a pair of cordovan boots that I brought home and like a good boot owner I polished them before I’d ever worn them out, with cordovan polish. The dye had not been as dark as the polish and they weren’t ever the same color again. I’d have been ahead to use a clear polish on them to keep the original color.

  • Sarah

    Good start, but incomplete. Some leathers take shoe cream rather than polish. Applying wax polish to these soft, dyed leathers can be horrendous. Ask your cobbler.

  • TexasAggieMom

    Thanks for this very informative post, which is full of useful and practical information. Even more important, thank you for this lovely reminder of the Sunday evenings spent with my father polishing our entire family’s shoes for the coming week. This is still a part of my weekend routine, and definitely helps my shoes last much longer.

  • http://catspajamas-dogstuxedos.blogspot.com coffeeaddict

    Shoe polishing is my second favourite chore, right after cleaning the bathroom. I’m weird that way ;-)

    I’m also partial to good old classic shoe polish and a brush or a soft cloth. Other inexpensive and great options for leather is Vaseline, I use it for shoes that have been subjected to harsh weather conditions like snow and rain in low temperatures as the Vaseline rehydrates the leather.
    Ages ago I read a tip that suggested using spray starch to protect nylon and canvas shoes from dirt. I’ve tried it and I have to say it works wonders.

  • Nina

    Thanks for the great post! I’m a little confused about the section on patent leather. If the shoe is man-made patent “leather”, do these cleaning tips still work, or do you need to do something else for scuffs? Thanks!

  • http://unefemme.net une femme

    Hi Nina,

    For non-leather patent finishes, start with a damp cloth and mild soap, which should remove most marks. For stubborn scuffs or stains, check with your cobbler, and vegan or non-leather materials can vary widely.

  • Dianne

    I recently used hand sanitizer to remove scuffs on patent leather. I was in awe of how well it worked!

  • Kiki

    I love how this post reminded so many of us of our dads. :)

    It also reminded me of German friends we met 10-15 years ago, who remarked on how horrible most Americans’ shoes looked compared to Europeans’. The husband often interviewed work applicants, and marveled at how many wore nicely pressed and good-quality suits and clothes, with scuffed and dirty shoes. I didn’t keep my footwear in the best repair up until then, but I’ve been obsessed with it ever since I learned that some people really notice these things!

  • Heidi L.

    The timing of this is amusing to me since just this past Sunday night my husband and I were giving a number of pairs of shoes a polish. This came about since we are going to London shortly and want to waterproof the pairs we’ll be wearing there.And once you start then you think,”Well,those other pairs need it too” and it sort of spirals into cleaning lots of shoes. But it is admittedly so rewarding to see the change in their appearance after you’re done.

    Heidi,another childhood shoe polisher

  • http://bagandaberet.blogspot.com/ Melanie

    In the movie The Edge about two men lost in the wilderness, Anthony Hopkins’ character tells Alec Baldwin’s character that you can shine a shoe with a banana peel. Handy tip should you ever be stranded with scuffed shoes and bananas. I should think your shoes might be covered with fruit flies after a few blocks. Thanks for your PRACTICAL advice, Une Femme.

  • Jennifer Smith

    One tip my Dad taught me was to recycle old pantyhose to use to REALLY buff in a mirror-y finish on boots/shoes -it really works ! He is a retired US Army Sgt .and they HAD to have their footwear SHINEY!
    Mom has used some pantyhose sections as tomato vine ties -the fabric is soft and flexible and doesn’t cut /snap the vines .Oddly black hose will sun bleach to a murky green color which blends in pretty well .