How to Clean Smelly Shoes – Our Favorite Methods

Do you bury your feet under your desk? How about in the car? It’s a lot harder to get away with stinky shoes in a car. The enclosed space. Not to mention that air vent near your feet. If you’re worried about the stench of your footwear, it might be time to get rid of the problem once and for all.

Cleaning smelly shoes is a three step process. It begins with ridding yourself of lingering bacteria, deodorizing absorbed smells, and continuing to keep them odor free.

Why Do My Shoes Smell?

Your feet have a staggering 250,000 sweat glands that can produce a 1/2 a pint of moisture (sweat) per day. Half a pint! Think about that next time your drinking a beer or buying ice-cream.

Under well ventilated conditions this isn’t a problem because the moisture evaporates. In cases where the moisture lingers, the bacteria that lives on our skin starts to eat this sweat.

A by product of this process is isovaleric acid, which our noses pick up as the foul smelling odor.

The reason your footwear my stink, even days later, is because the materials in your shoes have absorbed this odor.

Where is the Smell Coming From?

Stinky feet = stinky shoes

No matter what you do, if your feet stink everything else is going to reek too. Before we get to shoes, make sure you have proper foot, sock, and insole hygiene in place. If you’re not sure, the best bet is to attack all of these areas at once.

Feet:

Smelly feet, medically known as bromodosis, is very common.

The most important tip to remember is odor causing bacteria love moisture (sweat). It’s important to not only get rid of this bacteria with proper hygiene, but to continue to keep your feet dry. This will help to keep the bacteria in check!

For more information on keeping your feet neat & clean click here.

Socks:

Think of your socks as another (and important) defense to an odor free shoe. A good pair of socks will wick away any perspiration and continue to promote a “breathable” environment.

Rules of thumb:

  • Synthetic socks (plastic, nylon, polyester) do not breathe well. They also tend to absorb moisture poorly. Combined together, these two factors create a wet environment perfect for bacteria to thrive.
  • Cotton socks are slightly better in that they can breathe and wick away moisture. The only problem is that they can’t absorb a lot of moisture without becoming soggy.
  • Wool socks are much better choices for everyday use. They breathe, wick away moisture, and are able to hold 1/3 of its weight in moisture without becoming a “puddle.”

A pair of wool socks

Soggy Socks by Lunchtime

If you find your socks getting “wet” by mid-day there’s a couple of options to try:

  • Bring an extra pair with you and switching during lunch time.
  • Purchase specialty sweat resistant socks (athletic socks, merino wool, etc). Some of these sweat resistant socks may use synthetic material. Don’t worry, this blend of synthetic fibers are specifically designed to breathe.

Washing Doesn’t Help

Do your socks smell even after throwing them into the wash? If so, it’s time to roll up your sleeves. You’ll need to kill off the bacteria and deodorize the socks at the same time. Here’s a great article on using white vinegar to do so.

Insoles:

If you follow good shoe, sock, and foot hygiene take a closer look at your insoles. In rare cases, it’s solely your insoles that need help. You might try giving them a good scrub down. Here are four methods using household products.

For a more drastic approach, consider purchasing specialty insoles. These are often treated with activated charcoal or baking soda, which helps to deodorize odors better.

How to Get Rid of Shoe Odor

What makes treating footwear so different from everything else is that it’s a bit trickier to clean.

The first order of business is to kill off any lingering bacteria while also removing absorbed odors (deodorizing). There are two methods you can choose:

  • Home Remedies – if you’re starting out try these methods first. They are less damaging to your favorite pair!
  • Chemical Remedies – for extremely smelly cases or if you’re frustrated that the odor is still there. Please be careful. Chemicals can badly react with different materials, and in some cases ruin them completely.

Which method you choose will depend on how severe your case is and what material your kicks are made of. If you’re not sure, or want to be safe, start off with the home remedies first before going the chemical route.

Home Remedies

Most of these methods work by starving the bacteria of moisture. Start with these methods, as they are less damaging to materials.

If any of these method seems too messy (powder) you can either tie it up in an old sock or use a coffee filter.

Small bottle of aroma next to dried flowers

Our Favorite Home Remedies:

Kitty Litter

Rather unconventional, but we love it because it’s harmless to most types of shoes. It’s designed to draw out moisture and deodorize any lingering smells. Leave the cat litter overnight, but make sure to keep it away from your cat. You don’t want to wake up with a nasty surprise!

Baking Soda + Essential Oils

Baking soda absorbs moisture and is a natural deodorizer. The essential oils aren’t necessary, but it’ll make for a pleasant scent experience. For best results, dump baking soda into your shoes and leave it overnight. If you have zinc oxide on hand, you can mix equal parts into the baking soda. This will add an antibacterial component and further help deodorize shoes.

Other Home Remedies:

Dry Tea Bags

Some people swear that putting dry teabags in your shoes will help make shoes not smell. It works by absorbing the moisture and imparting a nice smell.

Wet Tea Bags

Boil the tea for 2-3 minutes. Let it cool and remove excess moisture. Put it inside your shoe for about an hour. The black tea has tannins in it, which is antibacterial in nature. We’re not entirely sold that this method works well. To truly take advantage of the tannins you’d have to soak the materials. Not only is that messy but it could stain your shoe.

Dry Shampoo

Another interesting method that relies on absorbing oils and deodorizing the shoe. Sprinkle or spray directly into your shoes and leave it overnight. This will help get the smell out of your shoes. Dry shampoo works by absorbing an oily substance called sebum. Unfortunately it does not specifically target moisture.

Essential Oils

Lavender, tea tree, and many other oils have antifungal & antibacterial properties. Putting a few drops on a cotton ball or directly into your shoe will help to de-stink your shoes.

Dryer Sheets

A great way to repurpose old dryer sheets. You can stuff them in your shoes overnight or throw a few into your gym bag. This method will help to make your shoes smell better but doesn’t directly attack the bacteria.

Fresh Orange, Grapefruit, or Lime Peels

Place a peel into your shoe and leave overnight. This will help make your shoes smell better. While, citrus has antibacterial & antifungal properties, a peel is likely not enough to completely get rid of the bacteria.

Bar of Soap

If you don’t have essential oils handy, this is another great alternative to making your shoe smell good. Soap is porous in nature and will help to get the stink out of shoes.

Coffee Grounds

If you love the smell of coffee then this might be the method for you. Place fresh coffee grounds into a coffee filter, tie it up, and leave in your shoes overnight. It works by absorbing moisture which helps to get the smell out of your shoes.

Salt

Sprinkle salt into your shoes and leave overnight. The salt absorbs excess moisture which helps to get the smell out of your shoes. Be careful on leather products, as it can overdry them (and cause them to crack).

Deodorizing Spray

You can either buy a spray or you can make your own shoe odor remover. This method usually relies on masking the smell. Be careful if you’re using vinegar, running alcohol, or some other chemical as it can damage your shoes.

Chemical Remedies:

If you’ve tried the home remedies without success it might be time to move to more extreme methods. Keep in mind that chemicals are harsher and may irreversibly damage your footwear.

Yellow cleaning gloves, sponge, and detergent.

Our Favorite Chemical Methods

Rubbing Alcohol

This method works by soaking into the material and killing the bacteria directly. We love it because the alcohol will evaporate so you’re not left with a drenched shoe.

To apply, put rubbing alcohol on cotton balls and wipe down the inside of your shoe. For stinkier cases, soak multiple cotton balls and leave them inside overnight. You can even add a few drops of essential oil to make it smell nice.

Be careful when applying on rubber and animal products (suede, leather, etc). Depending on the type of rubber, it can cause it to break down. For animal products, the alcohol can dry it out and cause cracking.

Bleach & Hot Water

Apply this method as a last resort. It’s very harsh, but a sure way to kill the bacteria in your shoes. You’ll have to submerge your shoes in water, so avoid leather & suede altogether.

You can do this in the sink or bathtub. You’ll want to pour boiling water into your shoe and add a small amount of bleach to each of them. Let them sit for a few minutes and allow to completely dry out. Be sure to air dry them in the sun or use another drying method below.

Other Chemical Methods

Vinegar & Hot Water

Vinegar acts as a natural disinfectant and deodorizer. Soak your shoes in a half vinegar half boiling water solution. Let them soak for at least 15 minutes. If you don’t want to soak your shoes, consider a homemade spray solution.

Denture Tablets & Hot Water

Denture tablets are antibacterial in nature and have a deodorizing effects. Fill a bucket with hot water and add denture tablets. Submerge your sneakers into mixture after the tablets have completely dissolved. Let them soak for 2-3 hours.

Using a Washing Machine:

Make sure your shoes are machine washable. Not all smelly sneakers and stinky running shoes can be washed! Remove the laces and insoles. Place shoes in a pillowcase and tie a knot. Add towels to for a more thorough wash. We also recommend adding vinegar if allowed.

Be sure to avoid fabric softener altogether. The fabric softener can create a coating that repels water & detergent. When done, let it air dry or use another drying methods. Never use a dryer though!

Preventing Shoes From Becoming Smelly Again

You’ve killed the bacteria and removed the odor from the shoe. Now it’s time to keep them bacteria and odor free after each use. The best way to do so is to keep them dry.

Baby shoes hanging on clothesline using clothespin

Our Favorite Prevention Method

Rotating Shoes

By rotating your shoes, you are giving your shoes a chance to completely dry out each day. For runners, consider rotating them every other day. For workers, consider using one pair for commuting and keeping another pair at the office. Don’t forget to bring another pair of socks too!

Cedar:

Not only is cedar great for soaking up moisture, but it has an antifungal/bacterial property too. You can either use cedar chips (tie them up in a sock), cedar insoles, or cedar shoe trees.

If you use cedar shoe trees you’ll have the added bonus of maintaining the shape of your shoe. Keeping the shape of the shoe will go a long way in extending their life.

Other Prevention Methods:

Sun:

A great method if you’ve just finished submerging your shoes. Take out the laces, lift the tongue and let them air dry in the sun. If your mornings are damp, avoid leaving them outside overnight.

Newspaper:

Another great method to keeping them dry, especially after a rainy day. For an added bonus you can drop a few drops of essential oil or vanilla for a pleasant smell.

What if it didn’t work?

Shoe in fridge with a red x crossed through

Freezing Your Shoes

We’re not convinced this is an effective method to killing bacteria & fungus (microbial organisms). Many microbial organisms have internal mechanisms that allow them to survive deep freezes. To kill them you’ll need to perform a quick & deep freeze, something most freezers at home are not equipped to do.

Many people who freeze their shoes may notice a temporary reduction in smell. This is because the microbial organisms are “hibernating” and it takes time for them to regain full strength. Too often the familiar stench returns in a matter of days.

Repeat Application

Home remedies work by completely drying out the moisture and odor. If it’s a particularly bad case, you might have to repeat the process more than once.

If none of the home remedies seem to be working, you might need to move on to the chemical methods.

Buy New Shoes

You can’t win them all. Some shoes are beyond repair as the bacteria is too deeply embedded. If you’re going to start fresh, don’t forget about your socks and feet hygiene.

See an Expert

What if you’re positive you’ve done everything right and it’s still not working? If your problems are recurring consider talking to a professional. The doctors you’d want to see are a dermatologist (skin doctor) and/or a podiatrist (foot doctor).

Summary:

If only we could all wear well vented footwear all the time – like sandals! Unfortunately living in the modern world usually means wearing shoes that are far from breathable. In fact, many shoes counter productively act as a seal and actually prevent moisture from escaping. A warm, wet, and dark environment – your shoes can be the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

The best way to un-stink your shoes is to disrupt this environment. You’ll need to kill off lingering bacteria, remove the absorbed odors (deodorizing), and continue to keep them dry. Don’t forget that without proper foot, sock, and insole hygiene your odor problem will keep coming back.

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