How to Clean your Shoes

Sadly most shoes never get properly cleaned. Shoes are never cleaned, or in some cases they are cleaned too vigorously.

The average person may rub on, and brush off, some paste wax on a pair of business/dress shoes from time to time, but they never take the time to actually clean them.

Shoes spend their entire lifetime either on a shelf gathering dust, or traveling at ground level through public streets and buildings. Shoes are constantly exposed to all kinds of dirt.

To compound the issue, the wax in the shoe polish used to protect and shine the shoes, also attracts dirt due to the sticky nature of wax (even very shiny wax). In fact, most dirt on shoes isn’t in the shoe leather, it is trapped by the wax layers of the shoe polish.

There is also some confusion around cleaning a shoe, and stripping a shoe. The difference between stripping a shoe and cleaning a shoe is the amount of wax that is removed.

Since most shoes (unless they are brand new) have a build-up of wax, a leather cleaner is only going to remove a few surface layers of wax. This is effective for cleaning because that is where most of the dirt is trapped anyway. Scrubbing harder with a cleaner will remove more wax, but you also run the risk of damaging the leather surface with being too aggressive with your scrubbing.

For stripping shoes I always recommend Saphir RenoMat. Although RenoMat states that it is a “cleaner-stain remover” on the bottle, it is actually a wax stripper. RenoMat will easily dissolve the wax for removal with a cloth, but it will also remove some of the oils from the leather, so you will want to condition your shoes (with leather conditioner) after you use it.

For cleaning a shoe there are a number of products available, which can be broken down into two types:
1. Leather Cleaner
2. Leather Cleaner/Conditioner

The common leather cleaners used for shoes are: Any brand of Saddle Soap, or Lexol Leather Cleaner. Saddle soap usually comes in a paste, while the Lexol Leather Cleaner comes in a liquid. I prefer the Lexol Leather Cleaner for ease of use.
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The down side to using just leather cleaner is that you should almost always use a conditioner on your shoes after they have been cleaned, making cleaning and conditioning a two-step process. Leather conditioner is just oil (or a mix of oils) used to keep the leather soft and supple, so it doesn’t dry out and crack.

Neetsfoot oil can be used as a conditioner, as can mink oil. Lexol also makes a leather conditioner.

Rather than make it a two-step process, I usually use a Cleaner/Conditioner when cleaning shoes. Saphir makes a cleaner/conditioner named Renovateur that is very popular, and very good quality. I used Renovateur for some time, until I created my own GlenKaren cleaner/conditioner, and of course that is what I use now.
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Cleaning with leather cleaner alone works a little differently than cleaning with a cleaner/conditioner combination. This is mainly due to the difference in cleaning agent used. Leather cleaners, like saddle soap, are glycerin (soap) based, while the cleaner/conditioners are solvent based.

The basis of the cleaning agent determines how the cleaner should be used. When using glycerin based cleaners you want to rub the cleaner into the wax with warm water to help dissolve the wax, so that the cleaner and the wax can then be “washed” off along with the dirt trapped in the wax layers that are removed.

With glycerin based cleaners you do not want any of the glycerin left on or in the shoe leather as it will continue to dry out the leather over time. For this reason, when using a glycerin based cleaner you want to rub the cleaner into the shoe gently with a sea sponge, but hard enough to raise a slight foam, then wipe the foam off with a clean sponge (rinse out the sponge in clean warm water). I would suggest wiping the shoe off a couple of times to make sure the glycerin is gone.
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Never scrub a shoe, as that can open the pores of the leather and cause damage. Always rub firmly, but gently. A soft cotton cloth can be used in place of a sea sponge, but you will find that a sea sponge makes the job a lot easier.

A cleaner/conditioner combination will not foam as it uses a solvent to dissolve the wax. In the case of the GlenKaren cleaner/conditioner I use orange oil as the solvent, but most cleaner/conditioners do not list what they use as a solvent.

Because a cleaner/conditioner does not include glycerin, but does include oils, you don’t want to wash it off. You simply want to wipe off the dissolved wax (and trapped dirt), while leaving the conditioner on the shoe. For this reason it is actually better to use a cotton cloth than a sponge.
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After you have cleaned your shoes be sure to let them dry before adding any shoe polish.

You should only have to clean your shoes after every 6 to 10 times you wear them, or if you have gotten them obviously dirty.

Always try to give your shoes a quick brush, whenever you take them off or put them on, to minimize the collection of surface dirt.

Non-Toxic Shoe Polish

I love shoes, and I love to take good care of my shoes. I also have a lot of shoes to take care of, because I love shoes. This means that I do a lot of shoe polishing in my spare time.

My wife, however, is not nearly the shoe lover that I am, and she gets bothered by the chemical smell of the solvents in the shoe polish I use. I have tried all different brands to find a better smelling polish, and to see which brands polish best. I also want polish that will keep my shoe leather healthy and last a long time.

In my research I determined that Kiwi Parade polish was the worst and Saphir cream polish was the best. Kiwi Parade polish does create a good shine, but it contains silicone to help create that shine, and as I have mentioned in my other articles, silicone will shorten the life of leather.

Saphir cream polish probably smelled the best and worked the best partly due to using turpentine as the solvent, whereas other polishes typically used petroleum by-products. Still my wife did not care for the smell of turpentine.

When I’ve talked to the average person about shoe polish over the years, they are always surprised when I tell them that the main ingredient in shoe polish is solvent, and one of the most common solvents is Stoddard Solution. This is what dry cleaners use to get body oils out of clothing.

Shoe leather, on the other hand, needs oils to keep the leather from drying out. So it seems odd to have a solvent in shoe polish, but the solvent is there to keep the wax soft in the tin or jar. The majority of it evaporates during the shoe polishing process.

If you have ever opened an old can of polish and found hard, cracked, polish that is because some or most of the solvent has evaporated. The polish still has wax and oil, and can still be used.

During my research I was also looking for a paste polish that would allow me to produce the best mirror shine possible on the toe and heel counter of my shoes. I didn’t find any that I really liked.

Finally, I decided to make my own polish that was good for shoe leather, produced a great shine, and (most importantly to my wife) smelled nice.

First I discovered that coconut oil was used as a skin conditioner in a large number of skin care products, and further discovered that coconut oil has a lower rancidity rate than any other oil (animal or vegetable) by far. So I had my leather conditioner.

The solvent was my main concern for two reasons: I didn’t like the negative aspects of putting a toxic solvent on shoe leather, and I had to find something that didn’t smell like a chemical, but still be a solvent. Orange oil was the solution to my problems.

The only thing left to add was wax and color. The wax was easy. I could just use the same beeswax and carnauba wax typically used in shoe polish. Both were all natural, non-toxic, biodegradable and a great substance for providing shine to the leather.
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I was also able to create a High Shine paste for producing the mirror shine on the toes and heel counters of my shoes. By using a high ratio of Carnauba wax I was able to produce a hard paste that created a great mirror shine with only a few coats.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was able to also make a very soft cream leather cleaner/conditioner that does a very good job of cleaning the shoe (and a few layers of wax) while adding a light conditioning to the shoe.

Since the ingredients I had selected to this point were all natural, non-toxic, and biodegradable, I decided to keep the polish that way. Now I just had to find a natural, non-toxic way to add color to the cream polish.

I couldn’t use vegetable based coloring because it tends to fade over time with exposure to sunlight, and most other dyes and pigments are chemical based; except for pigment made from earth and ocher.

Now I had everything I needed to create the shoe polish I wanted. I already knew the standard ratios of solvent, wax, oil, and pigment used in most shoe polish, but making a non-toxic version was a bit challenging.

Two things had to come together: The mixture had to have a texture and consistency similar to the typical toxic shoe polish on the market (in this case a cream polish), and it had to have the proper ratios of solvent, wax and oil so as not to add too much oil or too much wax to the leather when polishing the shoe.

It is actually easier to match the denser paste polish with non-toxic ingredients, than it is to match a cream polish, but since I use mostly cream polish when I polish my shoes I decided to start with that. The results were not exactly the same texture as cream polish that use toxic solvents, but it was similar.

I also did some research on the effects of orange oil as a solvent in regard to use on leather, and found examples of orange oil mixtures being used as leather cleaners for close to 100 years.

Once I created my polish, I liked it so much I decided to share it with the world. I created a company named GlenKaren Care Products (I included my wife’s name because she was the main motivator in getting me to stop using toxic polish… and a whole bunch of other reasons).


If you would like to learn more about the GlenKaren shoe polish please visit