How to Clean Leather Shoes: Easy Step-By-Step Guide [DIY]

how to clean leather shoes

Genuine leather shoes have a special place in the wardrobe. They’re durable enough to hold out for years even after years of heavy use. Besides, they’re stylish and comfortable. There are leather dress shoes, work boots, slip-on loafers, high heels, and athletic shoes.

Whether you want booties that cut off at your ankles or power boots that go up to your thighs, there are options in leather. Men can wear leather boots to work or leather oxfords to the office, all while slipping into leather cross trainers to the gym on their way home. Women have the same flexibility with leather pumps and loafers that look great in professional settings and leather captain’s boots and running shoes for more casual encounters.

This guide is not only about how to clean leather shoes, if you want to maximize your leather shoes’ life, you also need to know how to maintain them. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about cleaning, storing, protecting, and stretching leather shoes, so let’s dig in.

What are leather shoes?

Leather shoes are footwear made from processed animal rawhides or skins. Shoes can fit into this category if they have leather uppers, soles, or both. There are many types of leather that you may find in the shoe industry, including:

  • Cowhide
  • Calfskin
  • Pigskin
  • Nubuck

Some shoes are even made from leather sourced from kangaroos, ostriches, alligators, and other exotic animals.

Leather has been used to make shoes for decades because animals hide is readily available, and this material provides an exceptional protection for your feet. It’s durable and rugged enough to withstand heavy use and it’s known to last for years when cared for properly. It’s also breathable even when heavily processed to create a sturdy pair of shoes.

woman wearing leather boots
Photo by Anastasiya Pavlova

Depending on the type of leather and how it is colored and crafted, leather shoes are also incredibly stylish and versatile. From bulky work boots with thick soles and tall uppers to dainty flats with thin, lightweight leather uppers, you can wear leather shoes in professional, casual, and active settings.

How is Shoe Leather Made?

The process of turning an animal hide into a quality material suitable for shoemaking varies depending on the type of hide used. To give you an idea of how it happens, I’ll reveal how cowhide is processed. It’s widely used in the shoe market, and the process is close to that of most other leather types.

On to the step-by-step process:

  1. Animal hair is removed from the top surface of the hide.
  2. Fat and flesh deposits are removed from the lower surface of the hide.
  3. Large drums are filled with dye, water, and a variety of chemicals designed to strengthen cowhide. The hides are placed in the drums for up to 10 hours, tumbling around and soaking up the dye and chemicals. In the process, the protein structure of leather changes. This process is known as “tanning” the hide.
  4. A large metal blade is used to split the strong, smooth top layer from the lower half of the hide, which is composed of looser fibers that are softer, but not smooth. The lower half is known as “split leather,” and the top is known as the “grain.” The grains are more valuable, and thus more expensive when you purchase leather shoes.
  5. The processed hides are dried and further processed into the shape, color, and form of the shoes they’re destined to create.

What are patent leather shoes?

Patent leather shoes are treated with a glossy coating that gives them an intense shine. That coating removes any surface markings of the hide as well as the breathability that comes naturally to uncoated leather. Patent leather shoes have a consistent color and are typically resistant to water damage on the surface.

The quality of patent leather shoes has changed over the years. The glossy coating used today is far too often made from plastic or resins, which aren’t as durable and resistant to scratching as the original coatings used years ago. That’s why many patent leather shoes are easily scuffed, requiring you to step more carefully and potentially spend more time cleaning your shoes.

patent leather woman shoes and a portrait
Photo by Laura Chouette

The difference between patent leather shoes and most other leather shoes is their appearance. Patent shoes are known for their high shine, which some find polished and sophisticated. Others find the look cheap or tacky. So, it comes down to your personal sense of style.

Patent polishing is used mostly in dress shoe departments. You’ll find it in men’s loafers and dress shoes as well as in dress shoes and boot departments for women. You’ll recognize patent leather when you see it because its intense gloss on the surface almost has a mirror-like effect.

Cleaning leather shoes

Do you take your leather shoes for granted? Many people assume that leather is so durable and long-lasting that they don’t need to maintain it over time. Leather tends to soften and look better and better with age, especially if you’re talking about work boots or cowboy boots. There’s something attractive about a well-worn pair of boots that are properly broken in and formed to your feet.

So, why should you worry about cleaning your leather shoes?

For starters, well-maintained leather is likely to last longer than neglected leather. It looks and performs its best when cleaned adequately, at least occasionally. Leather is less likely to dry out or crack when nicely cared for overtime. Besides, you can preserve its color more time by giving your leather the occasional scrub down.

woman wearing brown leather boots
Photo by Verity Sanders

Before we get into the step-by-step instructions for cleaning leather shoes, it’s important to note that this guide is for smooth leather shoes and boots made from the hide’s durable outer layers, otherwise known as the grain. The cleaning instructions for nubuck and suede are different. Feel free to check our separate guides for cleaning those materials.

Are you ready to learn how to clean leather shoes safely? Let’s get into the details.

What you will need to clean your leather shoes

When selecting cleaning products for leather, remember that this material was once the hide or skin of an animal. You must cover your hands with gloves when using harsh cleaning chemicals because your skin wouldn’t respond well to the contact with those chemicals.

Stick with cleaning products and tools that were designed for leather materials. You don’t want to use standard household cleaners that are already in your home or products designed for other materials. That’s the best way to ensure you won’t damage your shoes in the cleaning process.

You may also want to ensure that your shoes are genuine or real leather before cleaning them. There are cheaper materials out there designed to look like leather, but they don’t hold up like leather over time and may need a different cleaning process.

leather shoe cleaning kit
Photo by Lina Verovaya

To clean genuine or real leather boots and shoes, you may need some or all of the following:

  • Cotton, terry cloth, or microfiber cloth, or rag
  • Horsehair or boar bristle shoe brush
  • Dish detergent
  • Magic eraser
  • Saddle soap

You won’t necessarily need all of these items to clean your leather shoes. It depends on whether your leather is finished or unfinished and whether you have specific stains that you want to remove. We’ll mention when to use each item on the list as we move through the leather shoe cleaning tutorials in this guide. Hang in there; I’ll tell you how to use everything properly!

I’ll start by covering the necessary process for cleaning leather shoes. I’ll keep these steps quick and simple, showing you how to do basic cleaning or refresh on finished and unfinished leather shoes. And then, I’ll talk about how to clean specific types of leather shoes.

It’s time to get into the cleaning process, one step at a time.

How to clean leather shoes?

Leather is one of the simplest materials to clean, which is why there’s no excuse for not giving your leather shoes a quick spruce up at least occasionally. The cleaning instructions I’m about to share are for routine cleanups. These are the steps for keeping your leather shoes clean and attractive while preventing leather from cracking or losing its shine.

If you want detailed instructions on how to remove different types of stains or how to clean leather shoes of a particular color, jump down to find more specific tutorials. The general cleaning instructions presented in this section will always be there whenever you need them for routine cleaning and maintenance.

Here are step-by-step instructions to giving your leather shoes a maintenance cleaning:

Total Time: 20 minutes

  1. Use a horsehair shoe brush or another soft brush

    Use a brush to remove dirt, dust, and other particles on the surface of your shoes. If you don’t have a brush, you can also use a soft cotton or microfiber cloth. The goal here is to remove the obvious dirt resting on the surface of your shoes. Focus on the uppers.

  2. Dampen a soft cloth with water and wipe your leather shoes down

    Remove any dirt or grime that you notice once the leather is moistened. You can use a microfiber, cotton, or terry cloth.

    If you have finished shoes, a wipe down with a damp cloth is potentially all you need. If you have unfinished shoes, you should work through all steps in this quick tutorial to make sure your shoes are cleaned thoroughly.

  3. Wipe the shoes again

    If you don’t think the wet rag was adequate to clean your shoes, add a small dab of mild soap or dish soap to your rag and quickly wipe the shoes down again. Follow immediately by wiping the show down with a second rag dampened with just water. You don’t want the soap to rest on the surface of your shoes for long.

  4. Use rubbing alcohol in special stains

    Do you see deeper stains on your leather shoes? You can dab them gently with rubbing alcohol on a soft cloth. Wipe the spot with a clean, dry cloth to remove the alcohol when you’re done.

Estimated Cost: 25 USD

Supply:

  • Cotton, terry cloth, or microfiber cloth, or rag
  • Dish detergent
  • Saddle soap

Tools:

  • Horsehair or boar bristle shoe brush
  • Magic eraser


If your leather shoes are carefully worn, you may never need further cleaning instructions. Giving each shoe a quick wipe down every couple of months or so should keep them in prime condition for years of dependable use.

We all know that life happens sometimes, so you may need to know how to get specific stains out of your leather shoes or how to clean leather shoes of a specific color. I have tons of tips and tricks to hopefully save your shoes when careful wear doesn’t go as planned. Keep reading to learn more.

Tips on how to clean leather shoes

You know how to give your leather shoes a general cleaning. thus, it’s time to talk about more specific tips and tricks for cleaning leather shoes of various colors or with specific types of stains and blemishes. Here you’ll learn how to rescue a pair of shoes that need more substantial cleaning or that need a fast fix-up after encountering salt and other substances.

Clean & Restore: Vintage Dr. Martens
by Jey Journals

Let’s start with some quick leather shoe cleaning tips:

  • A magic eraser is perfect for cleaning the soles of leather shoes. Dampen it with water, and then wipe the entire sole down.
  • You can take the insoles out of most leather shoes for a quick wipe-down with a damp cloth. If you wear your shoes without socks, you should do this often.
  • Do your leather shoes have ink pen marks? Spray the marks with hairspray and then blot them away with a soft cloth while the hairspray is wet.
  • If a wine glass drops or you get alcohol on your shoes, clean the spot with a mixture of white vinegar and water. The mix should include equal parts of water and vinegar.
  • For oil or grease stains, allow rubber cement to dry over the spot, and then rub it off.

Keep those tips in your back pocket because they may come in handy one day. Now, let’s move on to cleaning tips for some specific types of leather shoes.

How to clean white leather shoes?

You clean white leather shoes just as you would any other leather shoe, but there are some tricks to getting difficult stains off without ruining the white finish. Even your general cleaning routine may reflect some of these tricks because they’re designed to keep white leather as pure white as possible even with active use.

The first tip involves a pencil eraser. You want to use a clean eraser, so go for a new, unused pencil eraser to ensure you don’t transfer lead smudges to your leather shoes. When you see small spots or marks on your shoes, simply erase them away. You can do this with leather of other colors, but it works incredibly well on white leather.

white high heel leahter shoe
Photo by Jonathan Borba

What’s up next? Toothpaste!

Pick a whitening toothpaste that isn’t gel, and that doesn’t contain artificial colors. If it’s also white and not gel, it should work. Use it to work out scuffs or scrapes on your white leather shoes. Simply apply a bit of toothpaste and rub it into the scuff with your finger. It may remove some stains as well, especially if you scrub the stain out with a toothbrush. Make sure to wipe the toothpaste off entirely with a damp cloth when you’re done.

Do you have discoloration or seriously dirty spots on your shoes? Mix ¼ cup of white vinegar and ½ cup of olive oil and spray it on those spots or the entire shoe. Let it sit for about five minutes and then wipe it away with a dry, soft cloth.

How to clean brown leather shoes?

The general leather shoe cleaning instructions that I detailed earlier in this guide are exactly what you want to do for brown shoes. This is a neutral color that may hide many stains that would become more obvious on white leather. That’s especially true if your shoes are made from a darker shade of brown leather.

If you want to maintain your shoes’ color and integrity, include a brown or neutral leather shoe polish in your cleaning routine. While a brown tint that matches your shoes’ color is best, brown is a neutral color that works well with any neutral polish. Just try it on a small spot of the shoe before rubbing it over the entire shoe the first time.

men brown leather shoes
Photo by Shelbey Miller
How to clean black leather shoes?

There’s nothing unique or special about black leather shoes when it comes to cleaning. This dark color hides a lot of stains that would become obvious on light brown or white leather. So, you may not even know when your shoes need deep cleaning.

That’s why it’s important to perform routine general cleanings to maintain your shoes’ health and appearance. The available cleaning instructions detailed earlier in this guide will work perfectly.

You can use black shoe polishes designed for leather if you notice discoloration or lightening in the black on your leather shoes. Black is a neutral color and one of the most commonly purchased colors of leather shoes. It’s not difficult to find polishes and conditioners for shoes of this color.

two women wearing black leather shoes
Photo by Syd Wachs
How to clean patent leather shoes?

Do you look at those shiny patent leather heels in your closet and get nervous? That’s exactly how many women feel when it comes to cleaning patent leather shoes. Men may experience the same as they notice their patent leather getting a bit dingy.

It’s intimidating because you don’t want to ruin that intense shine that gives patent leather its character. Don’t panic! I have some tips that will help you clean yours safely. You can wipe patent leather down with a slightly damp cloth for starters, just as I recommended in the general leather shoe cleaning tutorial before. If you wear your shoes carefully, you may never need any deeper cleaning.

woman with red patent leather shoes in the forest
Photo by Aleks Marinkovic

Still, if you do want to give those shiny shoes an additional layer of cleaning, do it with extra virgin olive oil. Simply apply a light coating of oil over your shoe’s exterior with a soft cloth and let it rest for 15 or 20 minutes. You can then wipe the olive oil off and enjoy your fresh patent leather shine.

If you get scuffs or scratches on your patent leather, mineral oil or Vaseline is the solution. Pick one and rub it over the scratch or scuff to remove them. You can simply wipe the oil or Vaseline off when you’re finished.

Leather shoe care

There’s more to caring for leather shoes than giving them a good wash occasionally. You also want to condition the leather to prevent it from drying out and cracking. You do that with a polishing cream. There are colored creams designed to match your shoe’s color and neutral creams that are suitable for practically any color of leather.

man and woman wearing leather shoes
Photo by Max Liao

How do you know which one to use? Here are some guidelines to help you select the right leather shoe polishing cream:

If you want to cover up scratches, scuffs, or other blemishes, go for a colored polishing cream. Try to match the color to your shoe’s natural color or go slightly lighter.

How to Polish Your Leather Shoes | KIWI Shoe Care
by KIWI® Shoe Care UK

You may have to choose a neutral polish if you can’t find a colored polish that matches your shoes. Neutral colors are easy to match, but other colored leathers are more complicated.

  • If you have leather shoes in various colors, go with a neutral polish that will work on every pair. That saves you from wasting money on multiple colored polishes.
  • To apply polishing cream, rub it over the upper’s surface using a small soft shoe brush or soft cloth. You only need a small amount. Rub it over the shoe for about 30 seconds. Allow it to dry, and then use your horsehair shoe brush to remove any dried clumps of cream that may remain on the surface.
  • If your shoes aren’t already treated with a protective finish, you can add one by applying a protective cream or wax with a small soft brush or cloth. Apply a small amount to the surface of the upper, using a circular hand motion. You don’t need to do this every time you clean your leather shoes.

Are you ready for more tips on caring for your leather shoes? Keep reading to learn how to care for scuffs and how to care for patent leather shoes.

How to fix scuffed leather shoes

Scuff marks don’t impact the functionality of your leather shoes, but they can ruin the aesthetics. That’s especially true for substantial scuffs on your favorite leather pumps or those leather oxfords that are central to your professional wardrobe. It may seem like tossing them out, investing in something new is the only way around wearing scuffed shoes, but don’t rush to the trash can.

black dress men leather shoes

There are a few ways to tackle scuffed leather, and many strategies utilize items that you may already have in your home right now.

  • Shoe brush – It may seem too simple to actually work, but wiping your shoes down with a shoe brush can work for transfer scuffs. A transfer scuff occurs when someone steps on your shoe, leaving a black mark transferred from the sole of their shoe. Sometimes, a brisk brushing will take the transfer mark away.
  • Magic eraser – These foam pads are typically used for household cleaning, but you can dampen one and use it to scrub away some scuffs and light black marks.
  • Toothpaste – We touched on the toothpaste when we discussed cleaning white leather shoes, but you can use the same strategy to eliminate scuffs from leather shoes of any color. Apply it directly to the scuff and then brush with a soft-bristle toothbrush. Wipe the paste off with a damp cloth when you’re done.

Patent leather care

While that attractive shine may look high maintenance, you don’t need to do much to care for patent leather shoes. We discussed how you should go about cleaning them as needed, and there isn’t much else to it. Use a pencil eraser to buff out small scratches, and you’ll have well-maintained shoes that should maintain their shine for years to come.

You don’t want to use polishing creams on your patent leather shoes. Avoid harsh cleaning products and solvents because they may damage the coating that was applied to the surface of the leather to create that intense shine. There are patent leather cleaning wipes that allow you to wipe the surface down as needed quickly.

Storage tips

Store your leather shoes away from direct sunlight, heating vents, radiators, and other sources of intense heat. Exposure to a lot of heat can dry the leather out and may cause it to crack with time. Most spaces within a closet will work well for shoes made from all leather types, assuming they aren’t placed too close to a floor vent.

brown leather shoes in a box with clothes
Photo by David Lezcano

To help leather shoes maintain their shape when not worn for periods of time, use shoe trees. They’re placed inside the shoe to hold the opening in place just as your foot would. Alternatively, you can stuff the shoes with a soft fabric or paper to keep them in place.

If you don’t wear your shoes for a while, take them out for occasional wipe-downs with a damp cloth. That allows you to assess the shoes to make sure they’re still in excellent condition while waiting for you to wear them again.

How to protect leather shoes?

Weather protection is essential for leather shoes. Leather doesn’t do well with a lot of moisture or exposure to water, so getting caught in a thunderstorm may cost you a pair of shoes if you don’t apply protection to the outer surface. You never know when those downpours are coming.

If your leather shoes had a protective sealant applied during manufacture, you might not need to use a protective product until you’ve had them for a couple of years or longer. If you don’t know if your shoes were protected from the start, it’s not a big deal.

You can use one of the following products to add that protection on your own:

  • Skidmore’s Premium Beeswax Waterproofing
  • JobSite Snow Shield Waterproof Beeswax

Notice both of these products have beeswax as the base. Some sprays may seem easier to apply, but they generally aren’t as effective as beeswax protective products. Whatever you choose, follow directions on the package for proper application and determine its frequency.

How to stretch leather shoes

It’s been a long journey, but we’ve made it to the end! You know how to clean, store, and care for your leather shoes. All that’s left is to discuss how to stretch your leather shoes when needed.

It’s common for men and women to notice that their leather shoes are a bit tighter than they prefer. It doesn’t mean that you picked the wrong size or that you need to return them immediately. In many cases, giving the leather a little stretch will lead to the perfect fit.

wooden shoe stretcher
Photo by Jez Timms

How to stretch leather shoes?

The best and safest approach is to invest in a wooden shoe stretcher. It goes inside your shoe and is made from wood, so it’s safe for use with all types of leather. Start by spraying a liquid shoe stretch formula to the areas that need to be stretched. Then insert the shoe stretcher and let it do the work for you.

If you don’t want to invest in a shoe stretcher or take your shoes to a professional, you can try using a hairdryer and thick socks. This method has spread across the internet, and many people have tried it with success. You put on thick socks and then push your feet into your shoes. Standing in the shoes, you spray heat over the shoes with a hairdryer.

If you go that route, make sure you don’t put too much heat on the shoes. Heat isn’t always a good thing for leather.

Final words

Hopefully, you’re a bit more comfortable cleaning leather shoes than you were before finding this page. Bookmark or print out our step-by-step cleaning guide as well as any other tips you found useful. Use that information to keep your newest leather shoes shining while ensuring your well-worn, most comfortable shoes never look their age.

Leather is one of the most durable and versatile shoe materials. When properly maintained, you can expect a good pair of leather shoes to last for many years. Whether you wear them gently and clean them up occasionally or work them hard followed by routine touch-ups, the information presented on this page will help you protect and clean leather so that you always look and feel your best.

While suede shoes are often lumped in with leather, they are a bit different when it comes to cleaning. Check out our tutorial on cleaning suede shoes to make sure your suede looks just as sharp as your smooth leather. You may also want to check out our guide on washing canvas shoes because it’s not always as simple as tossing them in the washing machine.

Do you have your own tips to share about cleaning leather shoes? Feel free to leave a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter if you haven’t already. We love keeping our subscribers informed when new data is released. And we promise never to sell your information nor spam your mailbox.

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