Good news! The best shoe cleaners aren’t reserved for finely crafted wingtips or re-released limited edition Jordan 1s, and no longer require an old toothbrush and an intricate knowledge of household chemicals. Which is important, because whether you’re dolling out $100 on new Stan Smiths or $400 on the best white sneakers around, you want them to stay crisp for as long as possible.
There’s now a cottage industry dedicated to keeping kicks in box-fresh form, with products far more sophisticated than that toxic white foam the guy at Foot Locker used to try to sell you on. The brands behind our favorite shoe and sneaker cleaner products, like Jason Markk, use innovative chemical combinations that removes the grime without destroying the leather.
They’re Apple-level easy to use. And best of all, they’ll extend the life of your favorite pair of shoes beyond the standard six months. From every step of the shoe care process, here are the very best shoe cleaners for all types of footwear.
Don’t miss GQ’s definitive guide to everything kicks—from the types of sneakers always worth copping to the best ways to score the next hot drop.
Step 1: Prepare Your Shoes for Cleaning
Before you go to town on the soap and scrubbing, you first have to lay the groundwork. That means using a high-quality cleaning brush to remove dirt, dust, and general debris on the surface of your shoes. Not only does this make the rest of the process easier, it helps remove large chunks of hard debris that could potentially scratch your shoes once you get to the scrubby dubby.
A horsehair bristle brush is a must-have in your shoe cleaning arsenal. The natural bristles are soft enough to glide over your shoes without leaving any scratches and will brush away any surface-level dirt before you move on to the next step.
Built specifically for suede and nubuck, the specialized bristles on this brush are stiffer than most other shoe brushes. Use it on your suede Chelseas or desert boots to get rid of dust and debris while restoring that natural, slightly-furry texture.
Step 2: Cleansing
Once you’ve given your shoes a quick brush, you’re ready to get to all the wet stuff. For this you’ll need some shoe soap, a few soft, non-abrasive towels, and some dauber brushes.
Jason Markk’s signature soap has been the gold standard for sneaker cleaning solutions since it first hit shelves a decade ago. It smells like grapes, which makes scrubbing trash off your sneakers less horrible. And it’s 98.3% natural, which is a random number, but better than most products in this category.
For your proper leather shoes (like loafers and boots), use saddle soap. It’ll take away any surface dirt and oil without drying out your shoes too much.
Don’t want to rub your favorite shoes with your oldest and most disheveled dish towel? These microfiber joints are perfect for applying all kinds of shoe care products and formulas, with no lint or scratches left behind.
While some people prefer using a towel to apply soap, daubers tend to be more effective and ergonomic. Simply apply some water and your soap of choice and scrub away.
For surface-level scuffs on your suede shoes, simply rub this suede eraser.
If you’d rather leave the shoe cleaning grunt work up to technology, you can toss your less-precious knit and canvas sneakers into the laundry. The mesh fabric of this bag will allow water and detergent to cycle through your sneakers while also protecting them from banging around too much in the machine.
Step 3: Conditioning and Protection
After you’ve wiped off your soapy shoes and let them air dry, it’s important to condition them. Soap and water will clean your shoes, of course, but they’ll also sap your leather shoes of their natural oils which they need to stay flexible and keep from cracking.
A go-to for leather hardbottom devotees, this mink oil-based conditioner is like a high-end moisturizer for your shoes—it’ll keep ’em looking youthful and free of cracks.
Otter Wax’s leather salve nourishes and waterproofs your leather shoes using an all-natural blend of shea butter and carnauba. It’s especially great for burlier footwear like work boots.
You can’t exactly walk on water after applying this stuff, but you can shuffle through it and keep your old dogs pretty dry. There are more durable sprays out there, but if you want your kicks to make it through a night at a dive bar—and smell great in the process—Jason Markk’s Repel works perfectly.
The Art of Crep’s spray is more water repellent than Jason Markk’s version, so if those rain clouds look especially sus, you might want to opt for this instead.
Step 4: Odor Control
Did you know that the average person’s feet produces about half a pint of sweat EVERY. SINGLE. DAY? Unless you’re washing your shoes as often as you wash your underwear, keeping them stench-free requires some work. Rotating your shoes so that you don’t wear the same pair every day gives them time to breathe and dry out all the moisture they’ve absorbed over the course of the day, helping not only to slow bacterial growth, but also to prevent them from literally rotting away. Beyond that, you can also use a variety of shoe deodorizers to manage the funk in-between deep cleans.
No matter how hygienic you are, you will sweat in your sneakers—and soon, the stench will follow. Luckily, The Laundress—makers of the fancy detergent that obsessive launderer John Mayer swears by—sells this spray. It’ll de-stench your kicks and replace the funk with a “fresh, crisp blend of leafy greens, orange, rose, eucalyptus, and jasmine, with undertones of musk.” In other words, taking your shoes off at someone’s house will no longer be considered use of a biological weapon.
Hex Performance effectively neutralizes odors at the source without any alcohol or added scents for a totally stank-free shoe. So if you’d rather keep lavender and citrus away from your shoe collection and have your shoes be truly scentless, get this.
Step 5: Preventative Care
Once your shoes are looking glossy, the job’s not really done. Keeping your shoes in tip-top condition means treating them with care in-between wear. Shoes will distort and get misshapen over time, but with the proper tools, you can help them maintain their shape and keep them aging gracefully.
Cedar shoe trees are the unsung heroes of sneaker longevity. Slipping a pair into your kicks after a day of wear does two important things: ensures the shape stays perfect, and sucks up moisture, a sneaker’s worst enemy. For sneakers, it’s best to buy shoe trees that have a slightly round toe and a metal spring design, which allows them to fit inside all the different silhouettes—from high-tops to low-tops—in your line-up.
Stop jamming your feet into your shoes! Use a shoe horn to help you slip into your kicks and prevent dreaded heel collapse.
All-In-One Shoe Cleaning Kits
If you can’t be bothered to buy a dozen separate products, just get a fully packaged shoe cleaning kit. They often only come with travel-sized portions of soap and conditioner, but most shoe cleaning kits are great for first-timers who just need to get started.
There’s no worse feeling than coffee dripping all over your new suede sneakers or stepping in a puddle the first day you wear your new kicks (or worse, both). Jason Markk makes a suede eraser for getting rid of stains gently and a brush for revitalizing the suede once the stain is history. (Pro hack: You could use a regular old eraser and a toothbrush if you’re in a pinch—just make sure they’re brand new.) The brand’s microfiber towel is designed for wiping any sneaker (suede or leather) after a rigorous cleaning session. It’s softer than your average hand towel, so it won’t cause damage. You could buy each of these items separately, but Jason Markk offers them all—plus that spray from above—in one kit that saves you a few bucks.
Reshoevn8r is trusted by sneakerheads the world over thanks to formulas that avoid harsh chemicals and somehow manage to actually work. When your shoe care game is starting from nothing and you just want an all-in-one package, this shoe cleaner kit has all the tools to get your shoes looking close to brand new, including wipes, a brush, cleaning solution, shoe trees, and a microfiber towel.
For a true sneakerhead, deciding which sneakers to take on the road and which to leave behind is a trying, Sophie’s Choice moment. Worrying about how exactly to pack them so they won’t get damaged is an even greater ordeal. And after having gone through a gauntlet to get your kicks looking spotless only to have them roughed up on the way to Point B, why would you want all your work to go to waste? That’s why you need a good piece of shoe-specific luggage.
Private Label created this carry-on sized bag with sneaker lovers in mind. Plush, removable dividers organize the duffle into separate compartments, while the individual soft, water-resistant containers inside (vented to air out odors) coddle your most beloved kicks.
If you’d rather keep your hands free while transporting your most precious cargo, you can strap into this sneaker backpack from KXKS.
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