How to Clean Thrifted Shoes
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How to Clean Used Shoes & Thrift Shop Shoes

Buying a pair of shoes from the thrift store is a great way to save money while getting your hands on vintage shoes you can rock with any outfit. However, it is good to clean your thrifted shoes before styling out your new look. 

Thrift store leather boots, suede shoes, or any type of secondhand shoes could come with fungus or bacteria, which you can transfer to your feet. The good news is that you can easily disinfect used shoes from second-hand stores or online thrift shops and ensure your shoes are clean, odor-free, free of bacteria, and ready to wear.

This article will cover several cleaning methods for cleaning and disinfecting thrifted shoes. 

Why you need to clean/disinfect used shoes 

Pile of thrifted shoes
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash.

When you go thrifting and buy used shoes, keep in mind that someone else has worn them before. They could be exposed to germs and bacteria that you know nothing about. Unlike new shoes, you also don’t know if the former owner had fungal or bacterial infections. 

These types of infections are difficult to treat and can be very painful. It is better to be safe than sorry to avoid contracting fungal or bacterial infections. By cleaning and disinfecting your shoes before wearing them, you can protect your feet and get rid of bad odors. It is also important to clean your shoes regularly to ensure they last. 

Don't let that put you off, however. We may all have different reasons for buying second-hand, not least buying second-hand shoes saves the materials required to produce new ones. And you won't be alone; the sneaker resale market alone is worth over $6bn.

Related: You can also browse our list of the best sustainable shoe brands for eco-friendly new options. For cruelty-free options to buy new, also check our lists of the best vegan running shoes and vegan skate shoes.

How to clean used shoes

Cleaning used shoes is essential because you are buying shoes that may contain bacteria or fungi, which can lead to infection. Let's explore a few techniques for cleaning shoes from second-hand stores. 

Related: After cleaning, jazz up your used finds with our ideas for upcycling shoes.

Cleaning removable insoles 

The inner soles are the first part of your shoes to pay attention to. You will need a bowl, some hot water, zero-waste dish soap or liquid laundry detergent, and a toothbrush (preferably a hard-bristled brush) to clean them. 

To start the process, remove the insoles and soak them in a soap and water mixture for around five minutes. Next, rinse with cold running water and squeeze to remove excess dish soap. Then, use your brush to scrub off stains. Look out for the toe areas and tackle them. Lastly, hang your insoles in a well-ventilated area, free of direct heat, to dry. Ensure that they dry properly before putting them back in your shoes.

If you find heavy watermarks or prints on your insoles, it may be better to avoid molds. 

Hand-washing delicate shoes 

For shoes with delicate materials like suede and leather, it is best to use handwashing. This is to avoid tears and scratches that could occur using other rigorous methods like a machine wash. If any soapy residue remains, avoid disposable wet wipes and rather soak it up with a reusable paper towel.

Suede shoes 

Suede shoes are made from delicate material and so cannot go in a washing machine. All you need is minimal water and a cloth to wipe off any stains to clean them. You can also use a suede cleaning block or specialist suede brush to wipe off minor marks. 

For suedes with deep stains, add some soap to warm water and then use a soft brush to scrub off stains in downward strokes. Next, replace the soapy water with plain water and tackle the stain with plain water alone. Lastly, leave it out to air dry without direct heat. 

Avoid oversaturating your suedes with water. This is especially true if they are very dry. If they have some salt stains, you can scrub them out using a little white vinegar and a damp cloth. You can also condition them using a conditioner and soft-bristled brush. 

Leather shoes 

To clean leather shoes, you only need a minimal amount of water. Simply remove the shoelaces and separate them for washing separately (where applicable). Also, remove the insoles and follow the cleaning method for the insoles mentioned above. 

Mix water and a few drops of liquid soap to clean your leather shoe. Next, use a clean cloth or soft sponge and gently wipe to create a soap lather on the shoe surface. Remove any excess moisture with a dry cloth and allow to dry near heat. Once your leather shoes are properly dry, you can condition them using a leather conditioner. 

Machine washing used shoes. 

Machine wash dirty used shoes
Photo by nam mau.

If you have canvas or fabric shoes, white sneakers, running shoes, or mesh shoes, you can easily toss them into a washing machine. Machine washable shoes can come out just like new! For plastic, suede, or leather shoes, it is best to wash them by hand. 

Before putting your shoes in the washer, remove the shoelaces and remove any loose dirt stuck to the shoes. Next, wash them under a delicate cycle using a laundry detergent and warm water. After washing your shoes, allow them to dry outside. Avoid putting your shoes in a dryer. To prevent creasing, you can put shoe blocks or a ball of newspaper in them.

How to sanitize or disinfect used shoes 

Germs, fungus, and bacteria could accumulate on used shoes, causing infection and a bad smell. Disinfecting shoes gets rid of fungus and bacteria lingering on them. Below are a few ways to disinfect shoes from thrift stores. 

Rubbing alcohol

You can clean shoes using rubbing alcohol. It is one of the strongest cleaning solutions and is especially effective for delicate shoes. Simply get a cloth rag and wet it using rubbing alcohol. Next, wipe the cloth on the inside and outside of the shoe. You can also add some alcohol to the insoles. 

For sneakers, you can opt for soaking them in rubbing alcohol for about an hour and then letting the shoes dry. You can also add some drops of tea tree oil to the mix to remove tough stains and disinfect the shoes. 

Disinfectant spray 

You can sanitize your shoe using a disinfectant spray to kill the fungus. Spray the disinfectant spray inside the shoe to avoid creating stains on the surface. Note that a disinfectant spray differs from a deodorizing shoe spray, which removes bad smells. 

Bleach can work as an effective disinfectant for white shoes. All you need to do is dilute it with water, put it in a spray bottle, and use it as a shoe sanitizer spray or to bleach stains. You want to avoid using bleach on colored shoes. 

Antibacterial spray 

You can use an antibacterial spray to disinfect the insides of your shoes. You can use products like Clorox wipes to clean your shoes or Lysol spray. They are powerful and can kill germs while removing bad odors. Pay particular attention to the insoles, as this is where most germs accumulate. Once done, put it out to dry, or to speed things up, pat dry with a clean towel.

Wear socks

Wearing clean socks is a simple way to protect your feet from fungi infection. Avoid wearing damp socks. Instead, go for moisture-wicking socks. Synthetic fiber socks, bamboo socks, or hemp socks are always great options. Some socks may come with dye chemicals that release bad odors and retain moisture. To prevent this, you can wear white socks. In summary, your socks should be moisture-wicking. 

UV light 

UV light is well known to kill fungi. With the device, you can spot fungi hidden in shoes that may even smell fresh. The device will not only kill fungi but prevent their growth. All you need to do is place the shoes in the UV light device and turn it on. Sanitation will take place only after a few minutes. While using the device, avoid looking directly at the UV light. 

Apple cider vinegar 

This is made by fermenting sugar from apples. Apple cider vinegar is used to make cosmetic cleaning products like eco-friendly shampoo. They can also be excellent disinfectants for your used shoes; all you need to do is spray them on the insides of your shoes. 

Baking soda 

Insoles from used shoes may often be smelly because of trapped sweat, dead skin, and bacteria. Baking soda can work well for removing bad odors from your used shoes. Simply put the insoles in a plastic bag and sprinkle baking soda in the bag. Leave overnight and take it out to dry. You can use a disinfectant in addition to baking soda. 

Dryer sheets 

You can stick dryer sheets inside used shoes with a bad odor and leave them for some days. You can remove the sheets when you’re ready to wear them. Dryer sheets are particularly recommended for dress shoes that can’t soak with disinfectants. Alternatively, you can take them to a professional cleaner. 

Disinfecting the bottom of your shoes 

It may not come to most people, but when you walk around in your shoes, you come in contact with dirt, bacteria, and viruses, which you can bring into your home after a day’s outing. Before bringing your shoes in, it is important to disinfect the bottom of your shoes.

Simply take them off outside and remove any dirt or debris using a cloth, soap (preferably a laundry detergent), and warm water. Once clean, leave it out to dry.

Next, spray with a disinfectant and wipe with a cloth. You can use a bleach spray or hydrogen peroxide to disinfect the soles. After disinfecting them, allow them to dry properly for a few minutes before bringing them into your house. 

Dos and Don’ts for disinfecting used shoes

Here are a few things to consider as you disinfect shoes from thrift stores:

  • When cleaning or disinfecting used shoes, avoid scrubbing the surface rigorously. This is to avoid scratches and tears on the surface. 
  • Do not wash your suedes, leather, or plastic shoes in a washing machine. 
  • Remove dirt before washing used shoes in a washing machine to avoid clogging the machine.
  • Avoid using hydrogen peroxide or bleach on colored shoes to avoid discoloration.
  • Do not wear shoes with damp socks. 
  • Avoid putting on used shoes without a pair of socks. 

What to consider before buying shoes second-hand

Before heading to a thrift store to buy second-hand shoes, you need to consider a few things. Here are some things you should remember as you shop for second-hand shoes. 

Go prepared.

When searching for thrifted shoes, don’t forget to grab a pair of socks. This is for two reasons. Firstly, wearing socks will help you check the accurate fit of the shoes. If you buy shoes without trying them with socks, they may not be the proper fit when you finally wear them with a pair of socks.

The second reason you need those good old socks is to keep your feet from making direct contact with unsanitized shoes as you try them on. 

Sole strength.

Next, you want to check the shoe sole you want to purchase. Ensure they are clean and not excessively worn out. If you are getting sneakers or flat shoes, ensure the soles are not too thinned out, as this could be uncomfortable and cause some pain in your feet. Also, consider the inner soles and ensure they do not have a foot-shaped imprint. In summary, go for fairly used shoes.  

Check the shoe quality and fit. 

Inspect the used shoes you want to buy carefully. Ensure they are of good quality and are in good condition. Look at the shoe size and ensure the pair fits properly on both feet. If you buy leather shoes or suede shoes, the material may stretch and even take the shape of the person’s feet. Also, you want to ensure that the used pair of shoes is free of any nasty smell and that they are not completely worn out. 

Final thoughts. 

Buying second-hand/used shoes comes with multiple benefits. You can save money and also get very stylish shoes not common in the market. They are also good for the environment.

However, it is important to thoroughly clean/disinfect your used shoes before putting them on your feet. With the cleaning guide above, you should be able to clean your shoes properly and start wearing them right away. 

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Margaret Polinder on Unsplash
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