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.
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.
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.
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.
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.