5 Tips on Sneaker Rehab From a Sneaker Restoration Expert

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
buying limited edition Air Jordans
A buyer looks over a KAWS x Air Jordan IV sneakers during a sale at Overkill sneakers store in Berlin, Germany. Several dozen die-hard sneakers fans waited in line five days to get these limited-production shoes. So, how do you keep them looking new? Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  1. Caring for sneakers properly extends their life and maintains their appearance. You must use the right cleaning methods based on material. For example, you shouldn't machine wash suede.
  2. Regular maintenance like using a shoe tree helps preserve shoe shape and prevent creases, while specialized products like leather paint can restore or change color effectively.
  3. Applying leather conditioner periodically helps prevent the leather in sneakers from drying out and cracking, ensuring they continue looking fresh longer.

Refer to sneakers as "just shoes" to anyone with a closetful of Jordans and you'll likely get a searing case of side-eye, followed by a complete redux as to why sneakers are an integral β€”nay, mandatory β€” part of modern day fashion. But even if you don't drop big bucks on your kicks, chances are you don't want to walk around looking shabby, either. We talked to custom sneaker design and restoration expert Richard Brown, founder of Ohio-based Proof Culture to find out the best tips for keeping sneakers looking so fresh and so clean, clean.

Those of you wondering why go to the trouble of cleaning shoes when you can just get another pair off the discount rack don't know the half of it. For many, sneakers come with major emotional attachments. "Every shoe has a story; I believe that at its core," Brown says. "I have shoes and I remember where and when I bought them, what was going on at that point in my life that made me excited enough to buy them."


Of course, there's also the issue of value, as some sneakers are rare, limited-edition versions. The hottest models can even fetch big bucks decades later. For example, a pair of 1985 Nike Air Jordan 1s, worn by Michael Jordan, sold in May for $560,000 via Sotheby's auction site! (The estimated value was $100,000 to $150,000.)

The vast majority of sneaks won't fetch that kind of moolah, though β€” and it doesn't matter. "Most of the time there's a sentimental reason why someone wants to bring them back to life," Brown says. So here are five tips on how to clean your sneakers correctly:


1. Get to Know Your Shoe

Adidas sneakers
Proof Culture restored these Adidas sneakers to almost new. Proof Culture

Think of sneakers like laundry. You don't toss polyester and silk in the wash together, so don't treat your shoes the same, either. Sneakers need just as much care and consideration because they can be made from a bunch of different materials, like suede, leather and canvas. Plus, the cleaning method also depends on how old the shoes are.

"It's a really exploratory process to understand how to deal with each shoe in its own way," Brown notes, adding that most canvas and leather shoes can be tossed in the washing machine for a quick refresh, unless they're really old β€” the sneaker glue starts to deteriorate after about seven years. But be warned: "If you throw a pair of suede sneakers in the wash, rest in peace," he says.


Not sure what the sneakers in question are made of? Look up the brand and style online for a product description.

2. Do a Sink Scrub

If you're skittish about tossing your beloved kicks in the wash, opt instead for a basic hand-cleaning. Brown advises putting a little bit of dish detergent (he suggests Ivory) in the sink. Then fill it up with cold water until it's good and bubbly. (Do NOT put soap directly on the shoe or brush because the detergent dye could affect the shoe's color.) Then, use a medium-bristled brush to gently scrub the shoe.

"Avoid flat-out submerging the shoe into water," Brown says, noting that if the shoe doesn't dry properly it'll develop different problems, like mold and sole separation. Visual learners can check out this video by Proof Culture restoration artist Mone, who uses basic household supplies to get the job done.


3. Paint With Care and Caution

Chances are your local big-box retailer has an aisle full of shoe whiteners that promise sparkling results. However, Brown cautions against these discount products. "The problem with the shoe white is it almost never matches [the color of] whatever shoe you're going to use it on. A lot of shoes are some variation of white, not pure white," he says. Also, the whiteners are not designed for different types of leather. The end result he says, "looks really bad."

If you don't want to spring for professional help and have a steady artist's hand, Brown recommends a brand of paints specifically made for leather, called Angelus. This line is of special interest to Jordan owners, as the company has created paints and colors to match specific models. "You don't have to mix the colors," Brown says, adding that the product quality allows the user to have confidence that it'll be absorbed by the leather instead of just sitting on top of it.


4. Use Leather Conditioner

"A lot of people don't take time to think that leather is just skin. Our skin gets dry and starts to crack," Brown says. "Same happens with shoes." Occasional leather conditioning can bring back the shine and prevent cracking. Do this a couple of times a year or whenever the leather starts to look dry.

When it comes to leather conditioner, less is more. "A dab'll do ya," Brown says. Put a little bit on a white microfiber cloth. Rub it on the leather, then allow to sit for three minutes. Use a dry part of the cloth to buff it out. Brown's brand of choice is Lexol, originally made to use on car leather.


5. Use a Shoe Tree for Storage

A common problem in the sneaker-collector community is that people often buy shoes that are too big for them because they're so rare that people can't find them in their own size, Brown says. This oversizing leads to creasing in the shoe toes. "Shoe trees will not only help keep shoes from creasing, it'll also reshape your shoes if they're starting to turn up," he says. "If they have moisture or an odor a shoe tree will help absorb it."


Frequently Asked Questions

How can I remove tough stains from canvas sneakers without damaging them?
With a soft brush, apply a mixture of baking soda and vinegar. Gently scrub the stained areas to lift dirt without harming the fabric.
What is the best way to dry sneakers after cleaning to ensure they retain their shape?
Stuff sneakers with newspaper or a towel and allow them to air dry away from direct heat or sunlight to prevent warping and speed up the drying process.