Thursday, May 26, 2011


Ask a Clean Person: Smelly, Scuffy, Dirty Shoes

With summer allegedly on the way, I'm hoping you can help me save my favorite shoes. I have two pairs of these super-comfy floral flats. One is red on white (I don't know what kind of fabric), and the other is multi on off-white (canvas). Both are leather on the inside. Unfortunately, because I use shoes for, you know, walking around in, both pairs are getting a little dingy, and I'm not sure how to clean them. I can't just wash them, right? Because of the leather? Is there anything I can do to brighten them up, or are they destined to become yet another pair of weekend-only shoes?

OK, try this: Dampen a sponge and rub a small amount of dishwashing soap into it, then give your shoes a good once over with the soapy sponge. It's important for you to let the soap get into the sponge so you're not applying straight soap to your shoes. (You'll never get it out!) That should brighten things up considerably, though you might need to take a few passes at the shoes.  

If you have some really stubborn stains, make a little bit of paste with water and OxiClean and use the same method as with the dish soap. When you've gotten the shoes clean, rinse your sponge and go over the shoe a few times with a clean, damp sponge to get up any residual sudsies.

I was wondering if you have any recommendations for the best product to shine all of my scuffed winter boots before storing them away. Is there a shoe-shining process/protocol?

Hey ladies, do you polish your shoes? No? You should, for a couple reasons!

1. Think about how much money you’ve spent on those damn shoes. A lot of money, right? A tub of shoe polish costs, like, two dollars and will make those pricey shoes look as fantastic as they possibly can. It will also extend the life of those pricey shoes, which — fashion be damned — is generally a good thing in my book.

2. It’s super easy to polish your shoes, will take less than five minutes per pair, and is incredibly satisfying. Oooh, look at the shiny things! CLAP CLAP CLAP I MADE A SHINY!

In terms of brands/products, I use Kiwi because it’s what my dad uses. (Do you need a minute to remark about how that’s cute? Go on. It's pretty cute!) But plenty of other brands are fine! You can choose a standard polish, which you apply with a cloth (old t-shirts or socks work well) and then buff with a brush. You can also use an instant shine product, which is applied with a sponge applicator attached to the bottle of polish and doesn’t require buffing or brushing. (You’ll pay a price for this shortcut, though, in that liquid polishes can have a drying effect on leather over the long term.)

Instead of going into a full disquisition on the how-tos and why-fors of shining one’s shoes, I’m going to point you to this excellent and hilarious comment thread on Brother Site The Awl, where an actual military man with polishing chops schools the menfolk on shoe care.

OK now quick, everyone go polish a pair of shoes! Then come back and tell me how much fun you had!

I need your assistance with a hopefully-not-actually-embarrassing-but-maybe question. I don't feel that I have sweatier feet than the average person, but somehow any shoes that I wear without socks (mainly ballet or other types of flats) get really stinky after some time. I've tried to use those Odor Eater inserts, and I think they help sort of, but not entirely. Also, many of my shoes that I still really like are seemingly beyond help in the stink department. I have tried shaking baking soda in them and leaving them out in the sunshine, but to no avail.  So my question is, I suppose, twofold: a) is there any way to prevent shoe stink from happening in the first place, and b) is there any way to de-stink already stinky shoes?!

There are affirmative answers to both these questions! Isn’t that such great news?!

The obvious answer by way of prevention is to wear a little ped sock with your flats. If that’s entirely anathema to you (and I can understand why, I have small feet and those dumb things always peep out from my ballet flats most unattractively), there are several foot antiperspirant products out there. Their names are hilarious! The Ugly Little Bottle, Ghost Grip, Neat Feat — delightful! Just like deodorant for the armpits, you may need to experiment with different brands to find the one that works best with your body’s chemistry.

Many of these brands also make odor-neutralizing spray for shoes. So noodle around on their sites and see what strikes your fancy. There are also a number of products made specifically for getting the funk out of athletic shoes, and you know those must mean business. Dr. Scholl’s makes a sports spray (that’s oddly not listed on their website? Step it up, Dr. Scholl!), and in answering question number one I discovered that my beloved Kiwi brand also makes a shoe freshener spray.

Previously: Spilled Nail Polish and Mysterious Smells.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Is anything you own dirty?

94 Comments / Post A Comment


Oo oo! Also, for the last person, buy some Silver Linings!


I use them in my work shoes because I refuse to wear socks with my flats (weird? probably.), and they keep my shoes total odor-free!


@upfish holy lifesaver


@upfish I must have these!


omg, SHOE SHINING!!! I think this yet another bizarre love I inheirited from my grandparents--my grandmother used to set me up with a whole little station and have me shine all of my grandfather's shoes. Use the real polish, the sponges on the instant shine always wear away, and it's liquid, so, ultimately messier.

Hot mayonnaise

@BethH: Yes, the liquid polishes are no good. The only time I used it was in high school, because our soccer coach wouldn't let us play in the games unless are shoes were nicely polished, so I had one of those liquid sponge bottles in my bag.

Jolie Kerr

Liquid polish is good for beginners and lazy people and also those who travel, so. Judge not lest ye be etc.

Hot mayonnaise

@Jolie Kerr: Oh yes, better than no polish at all!

Jolie Kerr

@Hot mayonnaise Exaaaaaactly. By any means necessary!


@BethH My dad used to do this to my brother and I. Total Tom Sawyer-method of accomplishing manual labor, but we loved it so so much.


Aww. I have fond memories of my Dad putting out all of his shoes on a piece of newspaper and me helping him polish them...


I have horrible sweaty feet - like, I'm pretty sure I have hyperhydrosis - so I was in dire need of this advice. THANK YOU.

Also, my fellow people with foot issues, do not buy or wear Chaco sandals. They hold in the stink like you would not believe.

Hot mayonnaise

@alpelican: I have Chacos and a couple of times a summer I will put them on the top rack of the dishwasher for disinfecting. (they are so comfortable)


@Hot mayonnaise they are comfortable! I wore mine all around Asia for six months. Then I came home and my nose worked again and I almost died and threw them out.


@alpelican Chacos are too damn good to give up! I've had the same pair for years now and rejoice when Chaco season once again returns.

However, backpacking with a limited quantity of shoes is, for some of us, guaranteed to ruin any shoe. After living in a pair of leather boots backpacking Europe I dumped them in my last hostel, knowing they had served their purpose and were too far gone. Stinkiest shoes ever. Our DIY tactic on the road was wiping men's deodorant on our feet. It only kind of worked.


@Hot mayonnaise EW EW EW EW! Aren't you at all concerned about getting shoe germs in your dishwasher?!

Also, I have two pair of Chacos, one that's 14 years old and another that are about 4 years old. I still wear the 14 year old ones that have been resoled twice far more than my new ones...


For the stinky feet issue, here are some suggestions:
1. Sprinkle them with baking powder, then put them in the freezer. The cold kills the stinky bacteria.
2. Sprinkle Gold Bond powder in them before wearing.
I do both of these and it really keeps the smell away.


@shenannies We used to wipe our smelly sandles with dryer sheets back in college, but for the life of me I can't remember if it's because it was effective, or we were just incredibly lazy.


@boyofdestiny I always store dryer sheets in my sandals when I'm not wearing them. It works...for awhile. But after about two months of summer, more intense measures are required.


@shenannies Also, tea tree oil's great. Put a couple of drops on a cotton ball, swipe them over the soles of your feet before putting on your shoes. Not too shabby.

Hot mayonnaise

Also, I've washed leather containing shoes without too much problem. The main issue seems to be them shrinking when they dry. You don't put them in the dryer, obvs. To reduce shrinking during drying, stuff them with newspaper and change it often to quicken the drying. YMMV.

Katie Walsh


That's what I did the other night when I coated a muffin tin with baked on crap all over it with baking soda and lemon juice. Thank you, Clean Person Jolie! You have changed me! Cleaning is fun!


Mmmmkay. Polishing shoes is no problem, I'm a champ!

But please tell me how do I get latex paint off a pair of leather boots? Paint thinner? Acetone? Help?

Jolie Kerr

@ReginaSavage Our fine friends the Motsenbocker's can help! You want #5 - it says it's safe for upholstery so I'm guessing it will be okay on leather but you should ask them about that.

Susan Skoog@facebook

@ReginaSavage Mineral spirits are usually the go-to for latex paint on leather boots. You can try acetone (real, 100% acetone, not nail polish remover) first, but my money's on the mineral spirits. Apply carefully in small patches with a cut-up t-shirt rag. Wear gloves. Then saddle-soap them to get off the solvent residue. :)


Must speak out here. Girl with nasty shoes from wearing without socks? Mine aren't. Know why? Because I do not walk around barefoot and then put them on. I wear them on clean feet. And they stay nice for years. For real.

That is why it is rude to ask people to take off their shoes in your house, besides the whole, "We're happy to have you visit, but we really can't take on any additional sweeping" part. It wrecks their shoes.


@noReally Um. Wearing shoes inside the house is a huge sign of disrespect in a bunch of cultures.

Also, I don't want your just-stepped-in-who-knows-what shoes all over my nice carpeting. And my shoes most definitely get nasty because my feet sweat, not because the soles of my feet are dirty.

Lily Rowan

@noReally That's just you, though. I'm basically never barefoot, and my feet still sweat and smell up shoes.


@noReally No, it's rude to track your filthy shoes all over someone's house where you are a guest. If you don't like it, leave.


@noReally I am at least half with you on this one. While I understand following rules in other peoples homes, and taking off shoes when you visit, etc etc I get SO UPSET when I go to a house party and shoes must be taken off. Someone takes the wrong chucks home, someone loses a shoe, and socks/feet are dirtied. If you are having all sorts of people, food, and bev in your house I don't think shoes are a big problem.


@noReally Naahh I'm with noReally, adults making other adults take their shoes off upon entering a house is weird.

Noelle O'Donnell

@noReally I'm guessing you've never been in a traditional Asian household? You wear shoes in the house, you die. Or at least that's my mother's motto...
And like cherrispryte said, your feet sweat is definitely staining and making your shoes stink regardless of your "shoes on" theory. Bacteria's everywhere, accept it.



Are you seriously implying that other people walk through a hog wallow and then step barefoot and muddy into their flats?
I don't want to think about what your floors look like if you're picking up that much dirt walking around barefoot.


Wait, what? So your shoes get ruined if you take them off? Do you sleep in your shoes? We never wear shoes at home but mostly because it cuts down on the amount of washing and cleaning we have to do, but then people who come over always see our pile of shoes and think it's our "rule" and are like ohh do we have to take off our shoes? I hate wearing shoes anyway.

Cat named Virtute

@DrFeelGood Also, in Canada it is totally the norm to take your shoes off in people's houses, and a little weird if you don't (unless it is a Fancy Shoe Party, which I attended last week, in which case, what kind of crap are you walking your Fancy Shoes through?!). But yeah, Canada: We're covered in ice and snow for six months, so take off your wet-ass boots!


@Marika Pea@twitter Seconded. I'm from Idaho, and it was definitely the norm when I lived there for people to take off their shoes when they came in someone's house. I had one friend who consistently didn't take off her shoes when she came in my apartment, and it drove me crazy because she would get mud and wet, dirty snow all over the carpets. It's really rude not to take your shoes off if you know the people who live in the home would rather you did.


What should I do for shiny, patent leather shoes that are covered in scuff marks? I always end up with scuff marks from the soles of my shoes on the toes of them and I can't just try to scratch them off. Also, they are the shiniest red booties ever and I have yet to find any sort of helpful polish to clean them.
And for that note, how does one take care of patent leather shoes? I have another pair of black shiny ones that have dulled out over the years...

tiny dancer

@gluecake I have the same question. When I was little my mom made me put vaseline on my patent leather shoes and buff the scuffs out. I don't know if that is suggested? Is there anything we should know about different leathers before going on a polishing bender?

Jolie Kerr

@gluecake I once removed a green scuff I got on a pair of patent Manolos with a Magic Eraser. I definitely white knuckled it, but it worked! I know, right?!

Windex and a soft cloth will work for shining patent leather.


@gluecake Milk! Whole milk works. Can't be skim - something about fats and proteins?

But actually, you are supposed to use saddle soap. But I don't have saddle soap, so I use milk.


Anyone here read Holes by Louis Sachar? With the "Sploosh - peaches for your feet" thing??

elysian fields

@timesnewroman uh that is probably my favorite kid's book of all time. Surprisingly enough, the movie version with Shia LaBoeuf is also excellent.


@elysian fields The movie version is excellent because it's got Dulé Hill in it!!!!


@cherrispryte Holes is probably the most surprising movie in my "if it's on cable on Saturday afternoon, I'm watching it" pantheon.


@cherrispryte Dulé Hill!! Have you & I ever discussed how surprisingly entertaining Psych is??


@DorothyMantooth @cherrispryte I believe you're referring to Charlie? Charlie Young?


@alpelican: The President doesn't like green beans!


@DorothyMantooth That's why that guy in Psych looks so familiar!! Thankyou. I've been watching the show thinking - why does that guy look so familiar? Now I know!

Carter DeShazo@facebook

FREEZE YOUR SHOES! basically it kills the bacteria by making their cell walls burst. Totally effective at helping to get rid of smell!!!

no way

Many people have recommended this, but my partner pointed out that if it were true you couldn't contract food born illnesses from ice cubes. This isn't to say the stinky shoe in the freezer method isn't effective, just that I wanted to get to the bottom of this conundrum. Lo, Ask a Scientist. (Short answer, it kills some of them)


@Carter DeShazo@facebook Microbiologist here. To "store" bacteria for longer periods of time, we pop it in a -70 freezer. It just keeps them from multiplying. Once you thraw them out, they're back in business.


@ama Well, yeah, in 10% glycerol/DMSO. Ice crystal formation will lyse the buggers, just not all of them.


I JUST used the Kiwi Fresh Force in the link on a pair of Ugg ballet flats last night (I swear they don't look anything like Ugg boots). I can report that it did help quite a bit, not 100%, but I can't smell them from across the room anymore.


I have some Birkenstocks that get stinky. (Shut up! They are the cute Gizeh ones, not the hideous two-strap ones!) Ahem. I had to use multiple applications of baking soda--like letting them sit overnight in the bathtub with a layer of baking soda inside, two nights in a row, changing the baking soda each night--and they finally got un-stinky.

I'm totally freezing them next time though. Great tip!


@Cavendish I own and occasionally wear Birkenstock clogs. Don't tell Jane.


@Cavendish You can pry my birks from my cold dead hands. They are super comfy and I have terrible feet anyway, so it's not like the alternative is stilettos. I even bought the 2 strap Jesus ones because they were on sale and I wear them with skirts... no arrests from the fashion police... yet.


@DrFeelGood Why are you wearing your shoes on your hands??


Ha, I also use Kiwi because my dad did. This is a good reminder that I've been forgetting to polish my shoes lately. Gotta get on that.


Also, a guy with freshly shined shoes just seems hotter. Scientific fact.


@nancydrew Note to self: Shine shoes, slump shoulders.


I love going to shoeshine places and getting my shoes/boots shined. It's like the dude eqiv of a pedi. I love sitting there in the row of dudes, sticking out like a sorethumb in my crazy dress while getting my boots shined. Oh, and I get to look at boobies in Playboy. Did you know shoeshine places have porn mags?!




@fleurdelivre SO DOES MINE!!


Wait, no mention of baking soda?! What kind of Ask a Clean Person is this?!

(I have no idea if baking soda would work on any of these).


@Megoon I used baking soda in some Birkenstocks to get the funk out - but they had definitely gotten wet many times, so I scrubbed them with a baking soda paste.


I just wanted to chime in on the smelly shoe front and say: insoles, especially for your flats, even the cheapie really thin ones. These not only make your shoes a little comfier, but you can also wash the insoles in the washing machine (air dry) and this goes a long way to keeping the stink out of your shoes! (in my experience)


Any ideas on whitening the rubber on my sneakers? I have a charming pair of pale green Jack Purcells (the bottoms and insides are lavender!) that I can't bear to get rid of but aren't looking their badmintony best.

Jolie Kerr

@spiralbetty Fantastic and a sponge.


@spiralbetty Try wiping them down with nail polish remover.


@spiralbetty If you have a lot of time on your hands, you could also use one of those white artist's erasers on the sides and soles - the Staedtler erasers get all manner of discoloration off of plastic and rubber. A few years ago I used one on the case of my white iBook and, while it took forever, that laptop looked like I'd just bought it.

She was a retail whore

@spiralbetty Back when they were endlessly concerned with the freshness of their kicks, my brother and his suburban thug friends used a mixture of dish detergent and water to clean their sneakers. The relaxed ones cleaned their shoes with rags, the obsessive ones used toothbrushes. Unless you've been walking around in mud flats, both methods will get out a lot of the dirt.


The best piece of advice I ever got on preventing smelly shoes is to let your shoes rest between wearings -- for AT LEAST 24 HOURS if not more. It lets them completely dry out before you put them on again and that helps enormously.


Lysol! Lysol the shoes when you take them off at the end of the day!


@MoonBat If it's good enough for the bowling alley, it's good enough for me.


Okay shining shoes is great and all but also MINK OIL on leather boots. This is a dad tip that I foolishly ignored until this year and it is AMAZING, my shitty boots look way better, are totally waterproofed and stay nice all winter.


I MADE A SHINY! Oh Jolie you delight me.

Feminist Killjoy

febreze makes an unscented, anti-microbial spray that works semi well in my shoes, sort of...



I love making a SHINY! Shoe shining is the fastest way to give oneself a sense of accomplishment.

Jaime Green

Gah, this comment is going to get BURIED, but there are insoles you can get that help sockless shoes not get nasty! I have kinda sweaty feet, and can't wear ballet slippers without them. They are great! Summersoles.com. They sell them at drugstore.com, too.

Jolie Kerr

@Jaime Green Good tip, thanks little mama!

tea tray in the sky.

For cleaning leather shoes: saddle soap! Found at an equestrian outfitter near you. Or the internet.


For non-stinky-shoes, I recommend this tip I found outline: Get some newspaper, sprinkle lemon juice on it, and crumple it into the toe of the offending shoe. Then stick the leftover lemon wedge into the folds of newspaper in the shoe. Worked for my ballet flats!
Also, scrub between your toes in the shower! That helps prevent stinky feet!


I have always adored watching my Dad polish his boots. There's nothing like an ex-military manly-man spit-shining his shitkickers (even if I have to look away when he does the actual spitting). :)


Oh! This is so timely! I have a pair of really wonderful both practical and cute yellow leather wedges that are starting to look a little skuzzy...and I'm going on my first Very Important Business Trip next week, so I took them to my local old school-style shoe repair shop to get them cleaned and polished. But! They said they cannot clean them, because they do not have that color polish. I doubt very much this color polish exists anywhere...so what do I do to make them pretty again? Any help would be much appreciated.


@rabbittime You need leather cleaner! You can get it at most stores that sell highish-end leather products (cole haan, kate spade, coach). I have a lime green purse and my kate spade leather cleaner gets the blue from my jeans out of it. But don't scrub too hard, or you'll remove the dye.

Also, check around at Target/DSW-type stores for clear shoe polish.

Susan Skoog@facebook

@rabbittime Look up Meltonian. They make cream shoe polish in most every color imaginable, including yellow. You'll have to order it online, but it is so worth it. I found bright orange polish for my Fluevogs (these: http://tinyurl.com/3w874am), and it worked like a charm. To spruce up your shoes generally, and before you polish them, you'll need to lather them with a little saddle soap and water. Very cheap and easily available from the grocery/drug store.

Judith Slutler

Real talk, why do Americans shine their shoes with weird stinky chemical shit like Kiwi polish? I live abroad and then I came home for Christmas and I was just trying to find some regular ol' shoe cream with beeswax (that is what we use in Euroland) and literally, it did not exist in the States. Why???

Basically shoe cream is great, it smells like honey and it waterproofs your leather shoes, and why would you ever want to expose your hands, nose and shoes to toxic-smelling stuff that you then have to stick out in the garage all night because it stinks so much?

Shilo Byrd@twitter

I went to a foot doctor for some gait issues and asked him about sweat/stink prevention measures since I basically live in ballet flats.

For stink his reccomendation was surprising but also a little duh-worthy. He recommended I use men's aerosol deoderant/anti-perspirant on my feet before putting my shoes on. That's it. No fancy foot products/liners/powders or other bits of overpriced magic, just a regular 'ole can of Arrid from the drugstore.

Works like a charm.

Also - I figured out the trick to wearing socklets without looking like an idiot. Since it's difficult to explain, but easy to illustrate, check out a blog post that I wrote about it here: http://www.yikesmachine.com/2010/10/how-to-wear-dress-shoe-socklets/


Ok clean person, but now mainly I want to know where I can find those AMAZING BLUE SHOES!! Those are the summer shoes I have been looking for all my life - has anyone seen anything that's even a little similar? Anything? Please? All the stores are full of gladiator bleh.


I too suffer from stanky-foot. 2 solutions:
1) Buy really cheap, thin shoe insole layers like these: http://www.drugstore.com/odor-eaters-odor-destroying-ultra-comfort-insoles-one-size-fits-all-trim-to-size/qxp14205?fromsrch=insole . Just go to your drugstore and find the cheapest version. Trim to fit. Occasionally dust with Gold Bond. Dispose and replace when worn out/crusty. $4 every few weeks goes a long way to save a pair of flats/cute sneakers.
2) Just buy these: http://www.kmart.com/shc/s/p_10151_10104_035B096588110001P?prdNo=3&blockNo=3&blockType=G3

Megan Harper@facebook

So, I'm super late to this conversation, but I hated little socks for the longest time. I got Nike ones that I had to wear backward in order for them to stay on at all. BUT, I found a pair at Macy's that were PERFECT! They have a little dot of silicone on the heel to keep them in place and they're good with even my toe-cleavage-iest pair of shoes. I forget the brand, but it's a short name and I think it starts with an H. They're the best ever.


Is it bad that I just throw some baby powder in my flats and go? Baby powder is seriously the greatest.

Sandra Gardener@facebook

Insoles are much better than sprays or other chemical things! I prefer using special cedarsoles inside my shoes! They are 100% natural and have a very good/fresh scent because they are made from special antibacterial cedar wood. These wood inserts are very flexible and keep your feet dry and "non-stinky". My first choise are cedarsoles from zederna.com. You will maybe find other alternatives on amazon.


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