Jun 11, 2023

How to clean winter shoes, according to experts

Nothing ruins a new pair of shoes faster than getting stuck in a bout of bad weather. And unfortunately, the winter season with all of its unexpected flurries, downpours and puddles, brings plenty of moments that can wreak havoc on that fancy new pair of shoes you got this holiday season.

So to help prevent those salt stains, scuffs and other winter footwear issues, we turned to some experts to get all the details on how to best protect your shoes this season — and how to get them back in tip-top shape, if you do get stuck in a winter storm.

One of the most common mistakes that people tend to make is continuing to wear their favorite shoes that aren't fit for harsher conditions, like sneakers or flats, on rainy or snowy days, says Jesper Ingevaldsson, founder of the blog Shoegazing, which highlights shoe care tips, buying guides and more.

"If there are heavy rains, any snow — anything beyond drizzle — most shoes, believe it or not, you don't want to wear," says Vincent Rao Jr., owner of Vince's Village Cobbler in New York City. "That includes sneakers, high heels, any shoe with a thin sole is going to have water penetration and it's going to absorb a lot of water from the bottom."

That being said, if you're walking on a cleared path and it's no longer snowing, as long as you have a solid tread and a rubber sole on your shoe, you should be fine, says Justin FitzPatrick, founder of The Shoe Snob blog and J. FitzPatrick Footwear. "But if you're going to have to submerge yourself in the snow, then 100 percent avoid suede, and avoid any lighter color leathers or any leathers that look like they were hand-painted," he says.

All the experts agreed that when you're looking for a shoe to wear during rainy, snowy or icy days, you should opt for one with a thick rubber sole.

First and foremost, no matter what kind of shoe you're dealing with, the sooner you treat them, the better.

If you get caught in the rain in leather shoes, you may notice white salt stains popping up along the sides of the shoe (they don't even have to come from road salt, FitzPatrick says, they also can be caused by the acidity in the water). There are a few tricks that you can try to get rid of those stains.

To get rid of the stains, you'll want to clean them with white vinegar, FitzPatrick says. He suggests mixing it with a little bit of water and applying it with an old T-shirt. At the same time, you want to uniform the leather so that the blistering goes down. "You can use a blow dryer," he says. "You don't want to go from extreme moisture to extreme heat, because then you can crack the leather. But if you use a blow dryer from six to eight inches away on them on medium heat, you can kind of get that moisture out of the shoe."

Afterward, it's important that you polish and condition the leather. FitzPatrick says that conditioner serves as the "lotion" for the leather, while the polish is like the "sunblock." "[It] hardens, it fills the pores and it creates something that makes it harder for the moisture to seep deep into your leather."

Suede is a little harder to deal with. While Ingevaldsson says that you can do it at home with a designated suede cleaner (which can go deeper into the fibers than your average shoe product), Rao suggests taking the shoes to your cobbler, where they can shampoo the suede or put it through a recoloring process.

If you're hoping to keep your shoes protected, just in case you get stuck in an unexpected bout of bad weather, there are a few things you can do. For suede, nubuck and textile shoes (like woven or knit fabrics), Ingevaldsson says that you can use a good waterproofing spray to help keep them protected. However, he warns that you shouldn't use the spray on regular leather, as it will clog the pores of the material.

Instead, simply properly caring for your leather shoes will help protect them. "For smooth or grain leather shoes, you should use shoe cream and apply several thin layers," he says. "If you want more shine and some extra protection, you can continue with wax polish."

No matter the time of the year, being mindful about how you store your shoes can also have a big impact. With dress shoes, FitzPatrick says that using shoe trees can help prolong the life of the shoe, as they help maintain their shape and push up the creases (to help prevent cracks in the leather).

Ingevaldsson notes that you should also always "brush or wipe away dirt when you come home," and in the case of leather, condition them every so often.

If you are planning on going the DIY route to clean or protect your shoes, Rao says that he always recommends speaking to a cobbler first or watching a video, so that you can prevent any potential mistakes in the process.

With all that in mind, we're sharing some products that you can use to protect and clean your shoes, both this season and through the rest of the year.

Made to be used on nubuck or leather, this spray promises to provide water repellency while still preserving the texture and breathability of your shoes. Reviewers say they have used it on everything from Uggs to Blundstones to help protect their shoes from the elements.

Before you add the wax, the experts recommend using a cream or conditioner. This bestseller is a top choice among Amazon shoppers with more than 34,000 five-star ratings. From shoes to leather couches, the formula is said to protect new leather, while rejuvenating dry and old leather products. To apply, the brand recommends putting on a lint-free cloth and coating your shoes in a thin, even layer.

Another popular option, this leather preservative was made to provide a natural barrier to protect your shoes from grime and scuffing. The formula is designed to be applied by hand, as it melts when it comes in contact with your skin.

Founded in 1921, Huberd's Shoe Grease has been around for more than 100 years. Featuring beeswax, pine tar and tanning oils, the brand says that the treatment is known for its ability revive leather and extend its lifespan. And it's not just for your shoes! It's designed to be used on other leather goods as well, from purses to gloves.

Keep your shoes in tip-top shape between wears with these shoe trees. According to the brand, they'll help prolong the life and shape of your loafers, pumps, flats and other quality shoes. They're also designed to absorb moisture, sweat and odor to keep your shoes smelling fresh.

When it comes to cleaning suede, Ingevaldsson says that this cleaner is a good option. Not only is it made to remove oil or water stains from your precious suede shoes, but the brand says it will also condition and soften the material to give it a longer lifespan.

Ingevaldsson says that this pick is a "gentle and effective" option for leather shoes. "One doesn't have to soak the entire shoes under running water to make them clean," he says. "You use a moist brush to rub the shoes clean, then wipe away lather and dirt."

Don't worry! We didn't forget about your sneakers. Shoppers rave about how this cleaning kit transformed their old kicks, taking them from looking dirty to "brand new." It's designed to work on all washable leathers, as well as vinyl, nubuck, suede, canvas and cloth.

Emma Stessman is an Associate Editor for Shop TODAY.