How to clean sneakers: Refresh your tennis shoes

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Did you know that if you let your tennis shoes stay dirty, they could wear out faster? It’s true. Also, dirty sneakers look terrible. So, this article will explain how to clean sneakers without ruining them, plus offer tips on easy ways to refresh your tennis shoes so they last longer and can look brand new.

A pair of blue converse sneakers on a white background that need cleaning.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Dirty sneakers that need to be cleaned

Unless you’re a sneakerhead, which is someone obsessed with sneakers, you may not care what your tennis shoes look like. However, there are very real reasons to keep those shoes clean, especially if you have them in regular rotation.

For one thing, dirty sneakers or ones that haven’t had time to air out after exercise can be gross. You don’t want to put on the sneakers you wear to play pickleball, only to discover they smell so bad that you can’t stand to be in the same room with yourself. Imagine what your partner will think.

Offensive olfactory issues aside, there’s another reason you should learn how to clean your sneakers. If you don’t keep them clean, you could be contributing to your kicks having a shorter lifespan. According to experts at Nike, when dirt, dust and who knows what else gets stuck in the nooks and crannies of tennis shoes, it can cause sneaker material to degrade faster.

That being said, with many sneaker types, you cannot just toss them in the washing machine. Many brands with thick soles, such as Hoka sneakers, specifically warn against machine washing. It seems that the twisting and turning and spinning of a wash cycle ruins the inner workings of running shoes. The only part you can safely put in the washing machine? The shoelaces.

Three hoka one one running shoes on a tile floor, requiring cleaning techniques for sneakers.
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

How to clean sneakers

When it comes to how you clean your sneakers, it all depends on the materials. For example, canvas tennis shoes — think Converse or Vans — can go in the washing machine. However, running shoes with thick soles and the following three materials must be washed by hand:

  • Suede
  • Mesh
  • Leather

Cleaning suede sneakers

If you purchased a pair of vintage Puma suede sneakers at a thrift store, you don’t want to risk ruining your find by cleaning them the wrong way. That’s why it’s important to understand how to clean suede sneakers. Start by giving them a good brushing. However, not any brush will do. 

Since it is easy to scratch or damage suede, Good Housekeeping recommends using a suede brush to remove any surface debris. These brushes are usually made with a wooden handle or spine and have softer bristles than other shoe brushes. Suede brushes are designed to clean off the suede without ruining the nap — that’s the part that makes suede soft to the touch. Also, always brush with the grain.

How to clean mesh sneakers

Even though your children may grow out of their youth-size shoes before the mesh wears out, you still want to get as much life out of those sneakers, running or basketball shoes as possible. You probably paid a decent amount when you bought them.

Gena Lazcano of Ginger Casa has two teenage boys who love white shoes. “I’ve tried a lot of things to get them clean,” she said. She learned the hard way the importance of hand washing her sons’ sneakers. “I put one pair of white shoes that had black fabric on it into the washing machine,” she recalled, “and the black ran onto the white. It was awful!”

Cleaning leather tennis shoes

Like suede shoes, brush your leather sneakers first before washing them. You can use a soft bristle toothbrush to get rid of dust and dirt. Then, mix dish soap with warm water, dip the toothbrush in the mixture and scrub the sneakers.

A woman's hand expertly cleaning a pair of white sneakers.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

You can use rags or a soft towel to blot any remaining moisture afterwards. This is an important step, because if you leave leather wet, it will shrink. Finally, if your leather sneakers are white, you can use special shoe polish made for white leather, such as the kind from the Kiwi brand.

How to clean white sneakers

The first step in cleaning white sneakers is brushing as much dirt off the surface as possible. Like with leather shoes, you can use a soft toothbrush for this task.

Once they’re as dirt-free as possible, here’s what Runner’s World says you should use next — a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. They call it one of the best sneaker cleaners for getting white tennis shoes looking brand new again. Moisten the Magic Eraser and use it to get rid of any scuffs or stains.

Learn how to clean your white sneakers using just a sponge and towel.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Another way to whiten your sneakers? Leave them out in the sun. Zuzana Paar of Best Clean Eating likes to dry tennis shoes in the sun. “You get even more brightness,” she said. Gena Lazcano agreed: “Sunlight for drying and whitening works well, too.”

Attack stains as soon as they happen

If you’ve ever spilled something on a rug, then you know the importance of cleaning a carpet before the stain sets in. It’s the same with sneakers.

For example, if you’re out during a rainstorm and your sneakers get caked with mud, you’ll need to clean them off as soon as you get home. This is especially important with light-colored shoes, like white or tan sneakers. They’ll absorb the color of mud and, left as they are, will likely never be their original color again.

However, with leather or suede sneakers, you’ll need to take extra steps. Since you cannot wash these tennis shoes in a traditional way — such as soaking them in water — you should remove as much mud as possible first. Then, blot the moisture. After that, let the shoes dry fully before brushing away any remaining dried dirt.

Protect sneakers for the future

The next time you buy new sneakers, tennis shoes or any footwear, you can try a preventative step to keep them cleaner longer. How? Spray them with a water-repellant product like Scotchguard. Kiwi also makes a similar kind of product to protect suede and leather shoes specifically.

Even if you take that extra preventative step, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of regularly cleaning your sneakers and tennis shoes. That way, you can extend their lifespan. Also, you will always have spiffy-looking footwear to wear.

Leah Ingram is the author of 15 books, including “Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less” and “The Complete Guide to Paying for College.” She shares shopping advice for getting the most value for your time and money at Leah Ingram Real Sophisticated Consumer.

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