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Ultimate guide: how to clean used shoes and disinfect them properly

Ultimate guide: how to clean used shoes and disinfect them properly

Buying used shoes is one of the topics that polarize people pretty fast. I mean you either do it or you’re vehemently against it.  But, this might just sway any naysayers and convince them that you can easily clean and disinfect used shoes. 

Vintage shoes, thrift store boots, and practically any used shoe can be cleaned and given new life if you follow these steps. 

This will be your ultimate resource on how to clean used shoes and disinfect them properly.  And once you master this not only will you save money, but you can find shoes that are one of a kind. 

Before Buying The Shoes

before you buy used shoes, image of used tennis shoe with hole in sole.

If you haven’t clicked purchase or made your trek out to the vintage store yet, here are some things to keep in mind before you buy your used shoes.

The whole point to buying used shoes is to score a great pair of shoes for a good price (relatively, speaking).  

Make sure you do a thorough 360 look at the shoe before you purchase.  Check what type of soles the shoes have and see how much wear there is.  Leather soles, while typically found on designer shoes, wear very easily.  So if you find the soles are uneven, have holes, or just look really worn in, they might be a pair of shoes you should pass on. 

 If you are on the fence about the sole, check where the shoe sole means the shoe base.  Does the stitching look like it’s in good shape?  Are there any holes or wear marks on the fabric? These are all more complicated fixes and would require a cobbler.  So, proceed with caution and low expectations if you choose to purchase. 

If you are buying used shoes online, check how they are being labeled.  Labels “like brand new” or “moderate wear” are usually safe bets.  I would avoid anything vague or “well-loved”. 

If the shoes have a heel, make sure the heels are even and not sloped from wear. 

Next make sure you check the inside of the shoes and how the insoles look.  If the insole is frayed, worn down, or has a very clear imprint,  I would not purchase them. While you can clean the insoles, or put new ones on top, a heavily worn (foot-shaped imprint) insole is a bad foundation to work from. 

Is it safe to buy shoes from the thrift store?

used vintage celine boots that are safe to wear after cleaning

When buying shoes from a thrift store it is best to clean and sanitize the shoes before wear.  First, you should examine the shoes’ wear and insoles.  Avoid buying any heavily worn or damaged shoes, as they will be harder to revive. You can put the shoes in the freezer to eliminate any bacteria and sanitize them with rubbing alcohol or disinfectant spray.  Opt for a machine wash or hand wash (depending on the material) before you wear them outside. And, make sure to wear socks with your used shoes for the first few weeks at least.  

How to Clean Used Shoes : Your Ultimate guide

The first thing you will want to look at is the insoles of your used or vintage shoes.  This is the first thing to clean, and sanitize. 

Cleaning used shoe insoles 

Materials:

  1. Bowl
  2. Hot water 
  3. liquid detergent or dish soap
  4. hard bristled brush or toothbrush

Instructions for cleaning removable insoles

  1. Remove insoles
  2. Soak in water/soap mixture for 5 minutes
  3. Rinse under room-temperature water 
  4. Squeeze out any remaining liquid
  5. Use the brush to tackle any stains that persist or particularly grubby areas.  
  6. Hang dry in a well-ventilated area with no direct heat source
  7. Make sure they are completely dry before placing them back in your shoes! 

Pay attention to any spot where there is a slight imprint, like where the toes are, as they tend to be the dirtiest areas.  If the insoles have heavy wear marks you may find it more comfortable to replace them so they mold to your feet.

 We may earn a commission from you clicking a link in this post. And as an amazon associate, we earn on qualifying purchases. Full affiliate policy, here.

You can also replace the insole depending on the shoe style. Here are some options for that:

Hand Washing Used Shoes (delicate shoes/material) 

It’s important to distinguish the material of your used shoes to see which method is best.  For leather, suede, or shoes with embellishments, it is best to use the hand wash method. 

Hand Washing Used Shoes Materials

man taking tooth brush to a pair of used loafers, how to hand wash used shoes
  1. Bowl or container
  2. Laundry detergent or shoe soap 
  3. Soft bristled brush or sponge
  4. Clean cloth
  5. optional-  soft-bristle toothbrush

Instructions:

  1. Fill your bowl with warm (not hot) water and a few drops of laundry detergent ( liquid soaps work much better!). 
  2. Mix the solution together
  3. Dip your sponge or brush in the liquid and gently scrub your used shoes. Pay attention to the top, bottom, and seams. 
  4. If the stitching is faded or discolored, try using an old toothbrush to really get in between the seams and give the seams and stitching some direct contact. But, don’t press too hard!
  5. Use a clean washcloth or rag to wipe off excess soap and water.
  6. Allow your shoes to dry in a well-ventilated area not in direct sunlight or near heat. They can take up to 48 hours to dry fully.
Hand-washing used shoes tips 
  • If you are cleaning leather shoes use minimal amounts of water, don’t saturate the shoes!  And for suede use as little water as possible! 
  • For leather shoes, a sponge usually works better than a brush, as it will prevent any scratching on the surface. 
  • If you are cleaning suede shoes, try a suede cleaning block and brush to eliminate any spots.
  • If your used shoes have some salt stains, gently scrub them out with a little white vinegar on a damp cloth or sponge. 
  • When you start cleaning any used shoes start gently. You can always re-scrub, but if you scratch or over-moisturize the shoes it will cause more problems down the line. 

Hand washing used suede shoes 

As previously mentioned, suede shoes cannot go in a washing machine, and they do best when cleaned with minimal water. 

For small marks try a suede cleaning block and wipe the mark away. 

For deep set stains: 

  1. Take some soap and add it to warm water
  2. Use a toothbrush (with a little bit of the solution on it) and use circular motions directly on the stain 
  3. Dump your soap water mixture and replace with plain water. 
  4. Go over the stain again with just water 
  5. Let dry overnight away from any heat.  

Conditioning used suede shoes:

If necessary you can condition suede when it is exceptionally dry or old, which you may run across with used-suede shoes. 

While I don’t regularly condition my suede shoes (because that would be overkill), I prefer this conditioner when I do. 

Simply apply a small amount of the conditioner inside and outside the shoe. Work it into the shoe with a soft-bristled brush if necessary.

Hand-washing used leather boots (or shoes)

how to hand wash used leather boots with sponge
  1. Remove the laces and wash them separately if applicable
  2. Examine your used leather shoes and remove the insole (which we will clean later) 
  3. For most used- leather shoes I recommend going with soap, like this one.  However, you can just use water and a squirt of liquid soap if you are in a rush. 
  4. Take your sponge or a clean cloth and gently apply the saddle soap or soap mixture. If you use the saddle soap it should create a small lather on the surface
  5. Wipe off the excess lather with a clean dry cloth.  
  6. Remove any moisture with a clean towel and allow the boots to dry slowly.  Avoid placing the leather shoes anywhere near heat, as it can cause cracks to form. Drying leather shoes slowly and naturally can take up to 48 hours. 
  7. Once they are completely dry you can condition them with a boot oil, sealant, or conditioner.  Buff if necessary.

How to Machine Wash Used Shoes

how to machine wash used shoes, image of check van tennis shoes clean

Machine-washing is not appropriate for leather shoes, suede shoes, shoes with leather soles, and high heels.  Or any shoes with a strong structure to them. 

Machine washing used shoes works best for fabric shoes, mesh shoes, and sneakers. 

If you have white sneakers or shoes and want them bright white again, check out this post.

Instructions:

  1. Remove laces 
  2. Use a warm water cycle 
  3. Opt for a strong laundry detergent – an anti-bacterial one is even better
  4. Wash on a gentle or delicate cycle 
  5. Do not put shoes in the dryer! 
  6. Allow to air dry.  For shoes that you want to hold the shape off, consider putting shoe blocks or balled-up newspaper in them so they don’t crease. 

How to sanitize used shoes (disinfection!)

how to disinfect used shoes, woman spray disinfectant into tennis shoes

Sanitizing used shoes is an important step and will make the used-shoe experience so much better! 

Sanitize used shoes with rubbing alcohol

For delicate shoes, I prefer using a small amount of rubbing alcohol on a damp cloth. Simply wipe the inside, outside, and seams of the shoe with your cloth. It should dry very quickly. 

You can also just spray the insides of your used shoes with a spray disinfectant (which is different than a shoe deodorizer).  Something like this would work well. You can also use Lysol if you’re in a time crunch.

Sanitize used shoes with bleach

Bleach is a great option for any white sneakers or white fabric shoes. Although be careful of yellow discoloration if you use too much. A small amount of bleach mixed with water in a spray bottle can be used on the insides of shoes (only white shoes) to disinfect them.

Other ways to sanitized used shoes:

Always wear socks with used shoes: Fungus and bacteria can live inside a shoe from anywhere between 12 and 20 months (but will be killed instantly when disinfected, so don’t skip this step). Also, wearing socks for the first few weeks is a good practice to implement.

Try spraying a small amount of apple cider vinegar inside your shoes (not too much to make them wet) and let them dry in a well-ventilated area 

Sprinkle some baking soda in the shoe to get rid of any odors. This should be done in addition to a dis-infecting method. 

Make sure your shoes are completely dry before wearing them. And let any used shoes dry in a well-ventilated area. 

Thrift store shoes are some of the most unique pair of shoes I own, and they are definitely worth taking a chance on as long as you learn how to clean and sanitize them.

This process consists of items you already have in your house and can take you less than a day to do, on average.  

So stop hesitating, and take the plunge on those vintage boots you’ve been lusting over. I’ve got you covered in the cleaning process.