How to clean white shoes (including those pesky grubby white soles)

And it’s not as hard as you might think…

I get a lot of questions on Instagram about the practicalities of shoes; how to break in a new stiff leather pair, for example, or how to refresh the footbed of some old Birkenstocks (still working on that one). But one of the most common that I get asked by my readers is, how do I clean my white leather shoes? Because I have a fair few pairs, from sneakers to brogues, and I’ve managed to keep them in good nick.

cleaning white shoes

In our current climate emergency, it’s important to look after your shoes and make them last as long as possible rather than giving up on them prematurely when they get a bit dirty. I totally get that on the face of it, white shoes might not seem like the ideal choice when it comes to longevity. But if you’ve bought well in the first place, even the grubbiest shoes can be saved from oblivion.

I recently wore my beloved Grenson Ethel fisherman sandals – some beautiful quality white leather shoes with a white Vibram sole – out for a friends’ birthday. What I thought was going to be a quiet drink down the pub ended in a 2am dance off in a nightclub and my shoes were covered in a thick layer of disco dirt the next day. I’m not going to lie, I was scared for their future, but here’s how I got them gleaming again.

Grenson leather and Vibram ‘Ethel’ sandals, 2 years old; People Tree TENCEL trousers, 3 weeks old, £115 ([AD] peopletree.co.uk) | Crep Protect cleaning kit, £13.99 (crepprotect.com)

Meet Ethel’s saviour: Crep Protect’s cleaning solution. This kit also includes a brush and cloth which is really handy for the application. You just fill a bowl with warm water, dunk the brush in, pop some solution on the brush and dunk it again, and then get scrubbing. The results are really amazing, and I was especially impressed with how it cleaned the white Vibram soles, which were looking really sorry for themselves.

While I had it out, I cleaned my white Birkenstocks, too and they came up a treat (except for the footbed, which wasn’t improved after a 24 hour cake of baking soda). This solution was invented for trainers, so isn’t solely for white shoes and is a handy thing to have for cleaning all your footwear.

Grenson William Green’s cleaning tonic, £12.50 (grenson.com) | Fratelli Rossetti leather loafers, 6 years old; Topshop polyester/viscose mix trousers, 1 year old (not a material or brand I would buy now)

For a quick fix I also love William Green’s cleaning tonic, which is available from Grenson. It does a good job of cleaning those Vibram soles (although I think the Crep Protect is a bit more hardcore) and it’s brilliant for dabbing off little smudges and marks, which these loafers were carrying a few of. It also smells really fantastic and leaves the leather looking lovely. A little goes a really long way – I’ve had this bottle for a good couple of years and it’s still 80% full.

I’ve tried a lot of other products but these are the two that I think work the best for white leather. I’m not going to recommend any of those individual wipes, because you throw them away and they’re often individually wrapped in plastic: not a sustainable option. These cleansers, though, last for ages and are applied with reusable, washable cloths and brushes. Sometimes the old tricks work the best. Speaking of which, if you need to wash your white canvas Converse (or similar), use the oldest trick in the book: just whack them in the washing machine! You’ll need a cool wash, pop them in a pillowcase to protect the drum, and don’t dry them on the radiator as it will make them shrink. Job done.

I’d love to hear how you clean your shoes! Leave comments below.

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