How to Clean White Sneakers

My obsession with learning how to clean white sneakers properly began during the #menswear era of the early 2010s. In those days, maintaining my brown leather brogues and amber-hued double-monks was almost its own part-time job. Every Sunday, I’d set aside an hour to slowly and carefully spot-clean and polish those bad boys to keep them looking absolutely pristine—it was meticulous but meditative, and I would never be seen outside the house without a gleaming shoe.

But as the menswear tides turned and I exchanged my hard-worn dress shoes for a multitude of sneakers, the cleaning process didn’t seem to have the same ritual quality anymore, with relatively few sneaker cleaning products on the market and not many options to consider besides busting out the trusty toothbrush. Worried about a mint condition pair of Jordans getting scuffed up, I’d keep most of my white shoes on ice, rarely cleaning them because I’d rarely get them dirty to begin with.

Thankfully, times have changed, and the sneaker-cleaning market has never been more robust. With dozens of top-quality products on the market to maintain the look of athletic shoes, you can keep your crisp white sneakers looking like they just came out of the box, even after heavy mileage and usage in inclement weather. You no longer have to worry fret about the obvious: if you pick up a pair of white sneakers, you can feel comfortable actually wearing them.

Step 1: Prep Your Kicks

The first and most important step in cleaning your white sneakers is to lay them and prepare them. Remove the laces—yes, this can be a somewhat irritating and time-consuming process, but it’s crucial—and set them aside. Then, place the sneakers on an old towel or a clean, dry surface that you don’t mind getting wet, and take a careful look at the shoes for any caked-on dirt or excrescences.

You’ll want to start by scouring the surface of the leather with a stiff brush made for cleaning, looking to remove anything stuck to the shoe or buried within the creases of the sole. Portland’s Otter Wax makes a good horsehair brush that’s perfect for the job.

Step 2: Scrub Down

Next, apply a cleaning solution. You want to look for something soft and natural that won’t stain or damage the leather—the best on the market by far is this deep cleaner from Jason Markk, which is both inexpensive and long-lasting. Add a few squirts to the shoe, then attack the sneakers with the brush again, building up a heavy lather that should start to blacken as you get the dirt and grime off. Scrub hard, probably harder than you think. You can put your spare hand inside the sneaker to keep a firmer grip as you make your way around the outside of the shoe.

Fill a small bowl with lukewarm water and keep it beside you. As the brush gets too lathered, the dip it in the water to rinse it off, then get back to the sneaker with the now-wet brush. Don’t get the white sneaker too wet, but let the water dilute the cleaner until you’re scrubbing with clear liquid. Shake the sneaker dry, then shake the brush within the bowl of water to remove the excess cleaning liquid and whatever lather still remains.

Step 3: Wipe ‘Em Clean

Rub the sneaker down with a microfiber cloth. These are cheap and widely available on Amazon. You’ll find that when applied to a recently cleaned leather sneaker, they almost work like a Magic Eraser, wiping away not just the remaining cleaner foam but also removing small blemishes and scuffs. Again, don’t be afraid to scrub hard, as if you’re buffing the shoe to a good shine. A little bit of water on the cloth can help spot-clean any last little marks you still notice. Once you’re done, set the sneakers aside and let them air dry.

Step 4: Soak the Laces

For the laces, apply a little bit of the cleaning liquid to another bowl of lukewarm water and place the laces inside. Let them soak for ten minutes and then hang them to dry. If they’re still dirty, go at them with the brush and cloth, and if still dirty, you can try placing them in a washing machine inside a laundry bag. (We don’t recommend letting them loose in the machine because they could catch and cause a jam in the machinery.)

Step 5: Storage and Touch Ups

If you don’t want to go through the hassle of the entire process, or if you need a touch up before stepping out, try a quick wipe, like these from Jason Markk, for on-the-go cleaning. More generally, it might be a good idea to store your white sneakers with long-term maintenance in mind: a plastic box will keep them out of harm’s way (and beautifully displayed), while cedar shoe trees, though perhaps on the verge of overkill for sneakers, will help keep the shoes in top shape over many months and years (and freshen them inside, too). Needless to say, this level of care extends to travel, too. Thankfully, Nike makes a stylish shoe box bag for that purpose.

As with anything, the best way to keep your white sneakers clean is to keep on top of it—clean well and clean often, and ideally do it all before it becomes an emergency. It’s a little more effort than just throwing on your shoes and kicking them off when you get home. But when those crisp white sneakers are gleaming in the sun, you’ll be glad you put the work in.

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