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How to take care of your favourite sneakers so these last longer and don’t stink

It’s time to give your long-suffering Chuck Taylors and Vans some TLC. Here are some basic tips on machine-washing these, and removing foot odour. (Because it happens to everyone.)

How to take care of your favourite sneakers so these last longer and don’t stink

(Photo: Pixabay/Pexels)

Sneakers are big business. They serve many purposes, aside from the whole being shoes part: Some sneakers we wear for comfort, some we wear for health, some we wear as high fashion. And while many of our sneakers can look a little better a bit banged up (Chuck Taylors, hello!), there are times when – for the sake of appearances or smells – your sneakers need a cleaning. 


Cleaning athletic shoes in the washing machine will be, by and large, the way to go for most pairs. This will be the best choice for sneakers made from synthetics or canvas — like Vans and Keds — though don’t machine-wash sneakers made from hides, like leather and suede. It’s a fairly straightforward endeavour, but there are some nuances to the process that will ensure your kicks come out as clean and, more important, undamaged as possible.

Keep these five tips in mind before tossing your shoes in the washing machine:

- Remove the laces before washing. Dirt collects around the eyelets, so removing the laces will give water and detergent access to what can be a surprisingly grimy part of the shoe.

- Wash those laces while you’re at it. Put the laces in a small mesh washing bag and launder them along with the sneakers.

- Pretreat badly soiled sneakers. Dirt and mud are protein stains, so they’re best treated using an enzymatic stain remover.

- Use cold water, and don’t overdo it with the detergent. It can be tempting to use extra detergent – the shoes are extra dirty, after all – but resist that urge, as detergent residue will create a dingy appearance.

- Air-dry your sneakers. Flip the tongue over the toe box so air can better circulate through the interior of the shoe as it dries, then stuff the toe box with a balled-up towel (a washcloth or dishrag will be the right size) to help absorb moisture.


There will be times, however, when machine-washing isn’t the best choice, and that’s where spot treating and detailing come into play.

All kinds of specialty cleaners exist for detailing sneakers, but, truth be told, you don’t need them at all: Good old dish soap and an all-purpose cleaner will do the job. (Just make sure to use an all-purpose cleaner that doesn’t contain bleach to avoid color loss.)

The best tool for cleaning leather uppers, midsoles and outsoles is an old, soft-bristled toothbrush. Pour some diluted dish soap or diluted all-purpose cleaner in a small bowl, leaving enough headroom to accommodate a toothbrush or small rag (here, again, a washcloth is a great choice). Remove the laces from the shoe, stick your non-dominant fist in the toe box and chh-chh-chh away to remove stains and soiling.

A Magic Eraser, too, can work, ahem, magic on dirty, scuffed sneakers. To use it, wet a small section and rub it on the midsole to take out stubborn marks that the toothbrush or rag left behind.

Toothbrushes and Magic Erasers, however, should not be used to clean suede or knit uppers, which brings us to those more, shall we say, temperamental materials. Suede, as you likely know, does not love liquid, and while there are liquid suede cleaners, it’s generally best to approach suede cleaning as a dry proposition. A suede brush can be used to wick away dirt and grime that can create a dingy appearance, and to restore the suede’s nap, which will become matted with wear. The suede eraser – which, unlike the Magic kind, is used dry – is designed to gently eliminate stains from suede without damaging what tends to be a fussy material.

Knit sneakers, too, require some special handling because the strands can easily get pulled. Always use a gentle touch when cleaning knit sneakers, and never use a toothbrush on them, as the bristles can cause snags.


Let’s level with one another: Foot odour happens. There are ways to prevent it, or at least abate it, and ways to handle it when it becomes overpowering. Let’s start with what to do when foot odor becomes overpowering.

The first thing to try, provided the sneakers in question can handle it, is to machine-wash the shoes, possibly adding an odour eliminator like white vinegar. You can also try a sports detergent (these are formulated to be especially good on very smelly things, because sports). Removing the insoles and washing those can also help to freshen up a pair of sneakers that have turned rank.

When odours are developing, using an odor-eliminating spray like Kiwi Fresh Force or Dr Scholl’s Odor X is a simple way to fix the problem in seconds. (Powders like baby powder or baking soda also work, but they can be messy to apply, so skip them in favour of better options.)

To prevent odours before they happen, practice good foot hygiene, rotate your sneakers by leaving at least a day in between wearings, and consider using a set of sneaker balls to help eliminate smells while the shoes aren’t on your feet.


Since we’re on the subject of prevention, a word on using protective sprays to keep dirt, road salt and food grease from staining a favorite pair of sneakers: You should use one.

Specifically, you should use one on suede sneakers, like Kiwi Suede & Nubuck Protector. Canvas sneakers, too – if you prefer that brand-new look to a broken-in one – will benefit from a protective coating, like Scotchgard Fabric & Upholstery Protector. The trick to using these sprays is to truly follow the manufacturer’s directive to hold the can six to eight inches from the shoe during application; it’s also a good idea to reapply the protective coating every six to 12 months.


One of the best things you can do for the health and good looks of your sneakers is to store them properly when you’re not wearing them. Tossing them in a heap, where they’re likely to become soiled and misshapen under the filth and weight of other shoes, is a good way to drastically shorten the life span of your sneakers. Storing sneakers in the box they came in, or in clear boxes that allow you to see the shoes inside, is a good option; using a shoe rack or bench is another way to prevent damage to sneakers while they aren’t being worn.

Another common sneaker affliction is creasing. Using shoe trees will help to reverse the natural creasing that occurs while wearing your favorite kicks and keep them looking, as true sneakerheads would say, fresh.

By Jolie Kerr © 2019 The New York Times