How to Clean Leather Shoes

How to Care for Leather Shoes

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There’s a reason we love leather shoes: they hold up brilliantly to whatever life — and Mother Nature — throw at them. That said, even the sturdiest pair will show wear over time without a little TLC. A few simple steps are all it takes to extend the life of your leather shoes or boots, and keep them looking their best while you’re at it. 

While all leather benefits from proper care, not all leather is created equal. Heavy work boots call for different maintenance than lighter casual or dress shoes, and textured suede or nubuck has its own needs. If this is starting to sound complicated, don’t worry! We’ve broken it all down for you right here.

Step-by-Step Leather Shoe Care Guide

  1. Protect. The first step in shoe care happens before you’ve even worn them out of the house. Shield your new pair with a light coating of water-protectant, stain-resistant spray as soon as you buy them. Most such sprays are multi-purpose and safe to use on a wide variety of materials including leather, suede, and fabric, but double-check the label to make sure.
  2. Surface Clean. Stuck-on dust, dirt, and grime break down leather over time. Keep casual or dress shoes in suede, nubuck, or leather tidy by wiping with a damp cloth after every few wearings, then allowing them to dry completely before storing. For heavy work boots, it’s normal for dirt and mud to pile up — don’t worry about it day-to-day. When you’re ready to give those workhorse boots a full maintenance treatment, scrub off dirt with a sturdy brush soaked in a very mild solution of gentle laundry soap and water, then let dry.
  3. Condition and Deep Clean. Once your shoes are wiped clean and dry, rub in a conditioning treatment, making sure to choose the right product for your pair. In addition to moisturizing the leather, this step will pick up any residual dirt or grime.
  • Casual or dress leather shoes benefit from a lightweight conditioner like Sof Sole Leather Lotion, which you can simply rub in with a cloth, buffing to a soft shine. 
  • Heavy work boots call for an ultra-rich moisture treatment like traditional mink oil. Rub it generously into the leather, allow to dry completely, then use vigorous strokes with a firm-bristle brush to make sure the oil is worked deeply into every crevice. If you live in a very dry climate or it’s been a while since you’ve treated your boots, you might even repeat this step to get the leather back in shape. Just make sure to let the oil soak in and dry thoroughly between coats.
  • For suede or nubuck, use a special cleaning conditioner like Sof Sole Suede Nubuck Cleaner. These products provide a foaming action that deep-cleans without damaging the “nap” or texture of the material. Apply, allow to work for a few minutes, then brush off using light strokes with a soft brush designed for suede. Make sure your shoes are completely dry before storing or wearing.
  1. Polish. This step really applies only to smooth leather casual or dress shoes, and it’s a snap to complete if you opt for a quick-shine sponge, rather than traditional polish. Just run the sponge over your clean shoes, allow to dry, and you’re done! (These sponges are especially great for quick touch-ups in between conditioning treatments.)  If your shoes have visible scuffs or scratches, a colored shine sponge that matches the leather should conceal damage nicely. If your shoes are in relatively good shape, you can keep it simple and just use a neutral, colorless sponge. 

Quick-shine sponges can be hard to find in colors outside of traditional black and brown, so for scuffed shoes in other colors you may need traditional paste polish. Apply generously with a soft cloth, allow to dry, then buff vigorously with a clean cloth to shine.

More Leather Shoe Care Tips

Don’t ignore the laces. If you’re in a hurry and opt to clean, condition, and polish with your shoe or boot laces in place, we won’t judge. But you really do get a better treatment by taking the time to remove the laces so you can dig into those high-wear areas around the eyelets. Give the laces a quick rinse in water while you’re at it to clean ‘em up. Or, if they’re worn, replace them with a new set. 

Soaked shoes need extra love. Even if your leather shoes or boots get completely soaked, they’ll recover just fine with the right care. Resist the temptation to place soaked shoes near a fire or heating vent to dry — this is very dehydrating to the leather, and also encourages shoes to shrink up and stiffen (though they’ll soften back up with wear). Let them dry naturally and completely at room temperature, then clean and deep-condition.

Watch for heel wear. High-quality, well cared for leather footwear can last years, but the heels of your shoes or boots will naturally wear down over time. To extend the life of your shoes, it’s best to replace heels before they’re completely worn through, while the other components of the sole are still in good shape. Shoe repair can be pricey, though, so it’s worth comparing the costs of repairing and replacing to determine the best approach. 

It’s hard to beat the feeling of brand-new shoes on your feet — but a freshly cleaned and polished pair comes close. With a little care and attention, your leather shoes and boots will deliver comfort and good looks for miles. Shop the season’s best styles now! 

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