A Complete Guide to Cleaning Suede Shoes

If you were around in the ’90s, you might have learned of suede’s delicate nature by way of the iconic episode of Seinfeld called “The Jacket.” In the episode, Jerry buys an expensive suede jacket that boosts his confidence, allowing him to navigate any social situation with ease. 

The problem arises when he’s faced with walking a few blocks in the snow with Elaine’s bitter and intimidating father. In an effort to preserve his jacket from the elements, Jerry turns it inside out to expose the inner pink-striped lining instead. Of course, Elaine’s father refuses to be seen walking next to such an embarrassment, so in typical fashion, Jerry elects to trudge along in shame as the snow irreparably damages his jacket. Don’t worry. At least Kramer got to keep it in the end.  

Suede’s velvety softness is both its main appeal and its Achilles heel. It’s a type of leather that doesn’t include the tough exterior epidermis used in full-grain leather. Instead, it utilizes the softer internal dermis layer, resulting in a delicately napped and open-pored material that is great for comfortable shoes and gloves. The lack of a water-resistant smooth outer layer causes suede to absorb moisture and dirt more readily. 

This all begs the question: if you own a pair of shoes that can’t get wet, how the heck do you clean them? In this comprehensive care and maintenance guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to keep your suede shoes clean and fresh, extending their lifespan in the process.

Items You’ll Need to Clean Your Suede Shoes

Before you start cleaning, here are a few indispensable items that will make the process much easier. While some of these items are specially manufactured for the care of the suede fabric, we’ll also show you how to clean suede shoes using household products. 

  • A hard-bristle suede brush (other brushes, such as a toothbrush, will work in a pinch)
  • A clean washcloth or rag
  • suede eraser (a clean rubber eraser, or even a slightly damp “magic eraser” work too)
  • White vinegar or rubbing alcohol
  • A shoe tree or balled up paper to stuff in the interior (avoid old newspaper so as not to stain with ink)
  • Water-proofing protectant spray

Using Vinegar

While minor stains and marks can often be handled with the proper application of your suede brush, some stains require treatment with white vinegar or rubbing alcohol. Traditional soap and water can discolour or otherwise diminish the shoe’s appearance, so it’s best to avoid those in favour of simple cleaning solvents that air dry quickly.

First, dip the edge of your cleaning cloth in vinegar and apply a small amount to the stain. Don’t saturate the cloth or shoe; use just enough to moisten the area, working the vinegar gently into the stain using a circular motion. The acidic nature of vinegar will work to separate dirt and oil from the fibres, though it can sometimes take several applications to lift the stain fully. 

Once the vinegar has dried, try to brush out the stain by repeatedly brushing with the grain of the fibres. If you attempt to brush the stain out while the treated area is still moist, you’ll worsen the situation by spreading the stain. With delicate materials like suede, patience is key. If all goes well, you’ll be able to brush the lifted material right out while fluffing the textured pile in the process. Don’t worry about the vinegar (or alcohol) smell, as it’ll fade away rather quickly.   

Using Baking Soda

Baking soda is known for its versatility when it comes to cleaning and odour absorption. The mortal enemy of suede is moisture, so this dry powder is an ideal solution for soaking up and loosening stubborn stains. 

The process of how to clean suede shoes with baking soda could not be simpler. Sprinkle it over the affected area, rub it in gently with your cloth or brush, then allow it to sit and do its thing for about 15 minutes. After the baking soda has had time to work, brush out the excess powder along with any foreign material previously trapped in the fibres. An added benefit to this method is that it lifts any strong odours along with it, leaving your kicks smelling and looking fresher. 

Using a Suede Brush

If you’re going to invest in any single item to care for your suedes, this is the one to go for. Suede brushes are the centrepiece of any good suede-cleaning repertoire because regularly brushing dirt and dust from the fibres is the best thing you can do to increase its longevity. These special brushes are inexpensive and can be found in many drugstores, and of course, online. They have tough brass bristles on one side and softer rubber strands on the other.

It’s best to brush suede when it’s dry, using small circular motions to brush with the grain of the fibre. Using the gentler rubber side, brushing with the grain should be your go-to, switching to the brass bristles if the rubber isn’t enough for the job. Going against the grain is rougher on suede’s delicate fibres, but if dirt or stains are deeply embedded, you may need to apply a bit more force, brushing back and forth to free the trapped material. 

So how do you clean suede shoes without a suede brush? If you don’t have one, any brush will do a serviceable job, even a (clean) old toothbrush. An emery board can be used as well, but the sandpaper-like grit can easily rub away fibres and leave shiny bald spots if you’re not careful. 

Overall Cleaning Principles

Always wait until the shoes are dry before cleaning. 

Thorough air drying is best, and using paper towels or a clean terry towel to draw excess moisture from the fabric will help too. Just don’t blow dry or otherwise apply excessive heat to dry them quickly.  

Use a shoe tree or balled-up paper to maintain the shoe’s shape. 

Suede is more durable than many shoe materials, but it’s still supple and pliable. Trying to brush a shoe with nothing inside is frustrating, so do yourself a favour and simulate a foot in there with something. Don’t forget to remove the laces beforehand, so your brush doesn’t rough them up. 

Check the weather before you slip them on to save yourself some time and energy. 

The unfortunate reality is that suede shoes and wet or snowy weather don’t mix. Thus, you can prevent having to rescue your shoes as often by simply wearing them during the appropriate season and on drier days. Subbing in more water-resistant footwear the rest of the time will significantly prolong the lifespan of your suedes. 

White suede shoes are the hard mode of keeping shoes clean, but if you can pull it off, you’ll make a strong statement. 

Suede is essentially the opposite side of leather, ensuring it’ll attract and absorb what leather would normally repel. White shoes serve as a blank canvas for any tiny imperfection or smudge. Combine the two, and you’d be forgiven for walking around with trash bags tied to your ankles for fear of ruining them. However, that doesn’t have to be the case; the same principles apply to cleaning white suedes as any others; you just have to be diligent in taking care of dirt and stains as soon as they happen.   

Black suede shoes are easier to keep clean-looking but can present their own challenges.

Black shoes aren’t just sharp and versatile; they also hide stains and scuffs much better than lighter-coloured shoes. The danger with a pair of black suede shoes is that repeated brushing and spot cleaning can cause the colour to fade. Quick fixes for how to clean black suede shoes range from the application of special suede dye to gently rubbing a black crayon over the affected area before brushing to even it out. 

Just because your suedes are water or stain-resistant doesn’t make them immune.

Some modern suede shoes are treated with protective coatings or even made with durable faux suede, so they’re easier to care for. However, that doesn’t mean you can treat them like your regular trainers and expect them to hold up. Even if your shoes don’t get dirty as easily, the same maintenance principles apply if you want them to last. 

Getting Rid of Scuff Marks

Scuff marks press the grain of the fabric down in one direction and can be lifted and corrected with the brass bristles of your suede brush. If the scuff marks don’t respond to vigorous brushing, resist the urge to go ham and potentially damage the shoe; instead, switch tactics and employ a suede rubber eraser specially made for this task. 

If you don’t want to go through the hassle of finding one, any clean rubber eraser will do the trick with enough patient rubbing. A lightly moistened “magic eraser” can also work well.  

Getting Rid of Water Marks

While the idea of cleaning suede with water flies in the face of everything previously mentioned on this page, it truly is an effective method of dealing with watermarks if done correctly.

The trick is in how much water you use and how you apply it. Make sure to wet the entire outer surface of the shoe with a slightly damp brush. Water may be the source of the discoloration, but when applied evenly and allowed to dry, it will render watermarks invisible once again. You can use a sponge or cloth to dab the suede until the surface looks uniform, then put the shoes in a well-ventilated area to dry. Don’t apply direct heat or leave them in the sunlight, as both of these drying methods can fade or damage the shoe.

Once dry, give the shoes a thorough brushing to restore them to the desired texture and look.  

Getting Rid of Dirt

Your suede brush can easily dislodge and remove dry soil, but if caked-on mud or moist dirt is the issue, you’ll have to take a bit more care. Ensure you let the mud dry completely before flaking off the excess with your fingers or gently brushing it away. If you try to deal with the issue when the dirt is still wet, you’ll risk embedding it deeper, which will require more work to remove later. The solution to cleaning dirt off your suede shoes isn’t complicated, though patience is required.

If drying and brushing are not enough to remove the stains, applying your eraser or aforementioned cleaning solvents should do the trick. 

Getting Rid of Oil Stains

Oil and grease are among the most difficult substances to remove from suede, and depending on the situation, your efforts may not be enough to save them. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though, and if you act quickly, you can avoid having to take your shoes to a professional to restore. 

As soon as you notice the wet grease, find some cornstarch to apply directly to it before it dries (baking soda and even baby powder can work to absorb the oil as well.) Give it a few hours to soak up the oil, or leave it overnight, then brush it off the surface to avoid an obvious stain. 

If you find yourself powderless, don’t feel powerless; blotting away the grease with a paper towel or any other absorbent material will work, though not as effectively.   

If a light stain is present after this process, treat it with your vinegar and brush. 

Getting Rid of Salt Stains

If you live in an area that experiences significant winter snowfall, salt stains are almost inevitable. Even if you’ve waited for dry conditions to wear your suede shoes out, the sheer amount of salty residue from snowmelt on the ground is difficult to avoid. Thankfully there’s no need to feel salty about it (sorry, I’ll let myself out.)

While salt stains can be stubborn, an even application of diluted white vinegar (2 parts water to 1 part vinegar) over the affected area usually does the trick after being left to dry. Once completely dry, wipe away the remaining residue with a clean brush to restore its fuzzy exterior.  

Storage Tips for Suede Shoes

If you’re wondering how to store suede shoes in a way that’ll extend their longevity, here are a few guiding principles. 

Use a suede protector spray.

A can of suede protector spray will make caring for your shoes so much easier. You can find it pretty much anywhere shoes are sold (or online), and the hassle it can save you is worth it. The spray acts as a seal against moisture and dirt, lending the fibres some of the repellent properties of more traditional leather. 

Ideally, it should be applied right after taking your new shoes out of the box, reapplied after cleaning, or every six months. Just keep in mind that the spray doesn’t guarantee your shoes won’t pick up a stain or get wet, though it does reduce these incidents significantly. 

Store your shoes in a dry place away from excessive heat.

Avoid storing your suedes near a source of direct heat or sunlight, as these will cause the colour to fade and warp the shoe’s shape. If you’re concerned about moisture or dampness, using silica packets and wrapping the shoes in a breathable cotton pillowcase for protection will help. 

Use a shoe tree or stuff with crumpled paper to retain your shoe’s shape and absorb moisture. 

Suede’s supple nature can cause it to lose shape and definition over time, but simply stuffing the shoe with some ink-free paper can avoid this issue. The ideal solution is a shoe tree made from specific unvarnished wood. Not only do these inserts help keep the shoe’s shape, but their untreated wood material also has antimicrobial and moisture inhibiting properties that will keep them fresh and dry. 

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