How to Clean Dress Shoes Like a Professional

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by  Karlton Miko Tyack | Last Updated: 
how to clean dress shoes - before after results of cleaning dress shoes like a pro

When it comes to leather, there’s a fine line between patinated character and outright sloppiness.

Okay, it’s not that fine. But don’t be the guy who justifies shirking cleaning your leather dress shoes, claiming you’re building the leather’s character.

In fact, properly cleaning your dress shoes contributes to handsome patination, keeping the leather strong and extending the life of your beloved footwear.

Protect your investments and learn to clean them like a pro. It’s easier than you think.

What You’ll Need 

Here’s what you’ll need to get those dress shoes nice and clean.

  • Saddle soap
  • Horse hair brush
  • Clean, undyed cloths
  • Leather conditioner
  • Old newspapers, packing paper, or magazines

And here are some items you may need to deal with unsightly cuts and creases:

  • Iron
  • Damp cloth
  • Resin repair cream
  • 220 grit sandpaper
  • Cream polish
  • Polish applicator

A Step By Step Guide 

Step 1: Remove the Shoe Laces

First of all, you’ll want to remove the shoe laces. They’ll just be in the way of the cleaning process and make it difficult to get into the nooks and crannies of the eyestay area.

If the laces need cleaning, just throw them in with the laundry or soak them in soap water for 20 minutes and rinse. Just make sure to shake off any loose dirt first.

Step 2: Knock Off Excess Dirt and Debris

Speaking of shaking off dirt, you’ll do the same thing with the shoes. I like to clap them together via the outsoles. Then, take a dry cleaning brush or cloth and just dust the surface off.

This step is essential because dust and sand can scratch the surface of your shoes when you’re cleaning them. Moreover, excess dirt can get wet, seep into the leather, and cause your shoes to dry up.

Step 3: Stuff Your Shoes

Next, you’ll take your paper and stuff each shoe. Don’t overstuff. Just fill them enough so that the paper sort of simulates a foot. This will allow you to press your cleaning materials onto the surface of the shoes while they keep their shape instead of deflating.

Step 4: Iron With Dampened Wash Cloth (Optional)

If your shoes are exceptionally creased, this is the point at which you’d deal with that. Otherwise, feel free to skip to Step 5.

Take a damp washcloth and completely cover the shoe. Not partly, completely. This is important to ensure you don’t damage the shoe.

Then, you’ll turn your iron to the cotton setting. Using the iron, go over the surface of the washcloth while it sits over your shoe. You’ll notice steam forming. This steam will soften the surface and loosen the creases.

Make sure you’re constantly moving and rewetting the washcloth if need be.

And to temper creases in the future, you should invest in a shoe tree. Not only do they help your shoes maintain their shape, but they absorb the moisture your foot produces in the shoe’s interior.

This keeps odors at bay while preventing moisture from damaging your shoes.

That’s why I included cedar shoe trees in my round-up of things every shoe lover should own.

Step 5: Apply Saddle Soap

You can use mild hand soap on leather since leather is technically skin. Today, however, we’re doing it the professional way. This means applying saddle soap, which is made specifically for leather.

Create a lather using hot water and a dime-sized amount of saddle soap on a clean rag. Then, using small circular motions, lather up the surface of the dress shoe. Do this until the entire shoe is covered in suds.

Then, using a damp cloth, gently wipe the suds off.

Set your shoes aside to dry. Be patient. This might take a whole day.

Step 5: Condition Your Shoe

Once the shoes are dry, you’ll apply a leather conditioner. Throughout its life and during the cleaning process, a lot of the leather’s natural oils are lost.

By applying a shoe conditioner, you restore these oils, restoring suppleness and strength.

In the same way that you applied the saddle soap, use a clean rag to create small circles of the conditioner on the surface of the shoe.

Many leather conditioners use beeswax, which rejuvenates the leather, and carnauba wax, which helps create a protective surface.

Then, using a cleaning brush, just buff the surfaces a bit to break up excess material. Let the shoes sit for half an hour before wearing them again.

Step 6: Deal With Cuts and Cracks

If your shoes have deep cuts and cracks, now is the time to deal with them.

First, take a piece of sandpaper and sand down the affected area. This will smooth down any rough edges. Use a fine grit sandpaper, ideally 220 grit. Don’t go any coarser than this, or you’ll risk damaging your shoes.

Now, apply a resin-based repair cream that matches your shoe’s color to the crack. You do this by wrapping a clean cloth around your finger, dabbing the shoe’s surface with the cream, then spreading the cream using your cloth-wrapped finger.

This will create an even surface and fill in any valleys left by the crack or cut. For those of you familiar with DIY home repairs, it’s no different than fixing a cracked leather chair.

Set the shoe aside for 20 minutes to let the cream dry. Then finally, apply a cream shoe polish, again the same color as your shoe, to further unify the affected area with the rest of the shoe.

You do this by dabbing your applicator brush or foam applicator into the polish, then transferring it onto the shoe surface using small circular motions. Again, give the polish 20 minutes to dry.


Once you’ve put your old shoes through this spa day of a process, it’ll be like seeing an old friend again.

And if you do this regularly, every two to four weeks, depending on your lifestyle, it’ll be like that old friend never left. 

Regularly cleaning your dress shoes will help them look newer for longer. Since shoes look better with a little aging, though, as we all do in my opinion, I think of it more as ensuring they’re aging like fine wine.


Can you clean dress shoes with water?

You can clean shoes that are new and slightly dirty with just water. It’s a fine temporary bandage or quick fix. However, you’ll eventually need to clean your shoes properly using soap and conditioner.

How do you clean dress shoes without shoe polish?

Shoe polish is used to add shine and a level of water resistance to your shoes. So yes, you can definitely clean your shoes using just saddle soap, water, and a leather conditioner. When you are using polish though, make sure the shoes are clean to begin with.

How often should you clean dress shoes?

You should clean your dress shoes every two to four weeks. Of course, if you put them through a particularly grimy day, say you stepped in a mud puddle, clean them as soon as you get home.

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