Winter Is Hard On Your Shoes. Here's What To Do About It.


Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

My question, one that stumps me every year, is how to get the salt stains out of my leather boots. I often spray them with a snow/rain/salt repellent spray, which sometimes sort of works but never very well on salt.
And you know, even if you wear your heavy duty snow boots out for the most part during snowstorms, there’s always the day the weather catches you by surprise and you get caught in your favorite boots, tramping through the snow and picking your way through gigantic, cold, awful puddles … the relief of getting back indoors is usually dashed the next day when I look at my boots and they have that gross white salt stain line going all the way around them. Is there a way to get rid of it without further discoloring the leather?

With winter coming, and the inevitable Game of Thrones jokes on all of our lips, it’s time to talk about caring for shoes ravaged by inclement weather. Actually, the time to talk about caring for shoes ravaged by inclement weather is probably February, but by then I’ll be sleeping in a parka and typing with gloves on and the last thing I’ll want to think about will be slushy boots because it will only serve as a reminder that I haven’t actually left the house in two weeks, which the neighbors will know about because my slushy boots will have sat forlornly in the hallway, having been banished from the home and away from my clean floors.

Oh man, it’s not even winter yet and I apparently already have the winter blues. BRB, fetching my sun lamp.

I hesitate to even deliver this news to you, but white vinegar is the go-to for getting salt stains up off of leather boots. I know, okay? I know. But it really is the thing so let’s rip this band aid off quickly—mix white vinegar with water, equal parts will do you, as will a 2:1 or 3:1 water-to-vinegar solution; apply the mixture sparingly to the leather using a soft cloth, rag, cotton ball or a paper towel. The key here is not to saturate whatever applicator you’re using, instead going for more of a damp than soaking thing. Once the salt stains appear to be gone, go over the leather with a dry soft cloth. If there are still traces of the salt, repeat that process. That’s all!

Which brings me to this: Because the use of white vinegar for, well … everything is my own personal version of Groundhog Day I do always endeavor to give you alternatives to vinegar. In the case of salt stains on leather, one alternative is to simply give the shoes a good polishing; the other is to invest in a salt stain removal product. Kiwi, a shoe care products company, makes a good one, as does a horse and leather care products company called Feibing’s. So see now how the answer is always vinegar but not?! I work very hard to make that so.

While I have you, a quick note on cleaning Hunter boots: Hunters, and other rubber boots, can develop what’s known as a ‘bloom’ that can look like salt stains but is actually a naturally occurring phenomenon that comes with aging boots. Armor All or olive oil, applied with a soft rag and then buffed away with another clean, soft rag, will help to take that bloom off, if it’s something that’s bothering you—though you may like the look of it and that’s okay too! Hunter also sells two wellie cleaning products that you can check out, Hunter Boot Buffer and Hunter Instant Boot Shine. For regular cleaning of Hunters, or similar wellington-style boots, warm soapy water will do ya.

I bought a darling pair of wedges, but I have a problem. They are lined with beige suede on top, i.e. where my foot comes in contact with the shoe. As you can imagine, from my mucking around in the street, the suede insole has accumulated some dirt. To make matters worse, I ran barefoot onto the street today to wish my sister goodbye and proceed to walk around all day in the wedges. This was bad news! My feet had left an indelible footprint. What can I do?

You can get a suede eraser! They’re sometimes called “suede bars” and they do exactly what they sound like they’d do: they erase stains and other blemishes from suede shoes and clothing. In a pinch, a white rubber eraser can also be employed for the same purpose, you just want to use a fairly gentle touch if you go that route. When using either product, do a test on a small area to ensure that the eraser doesn’t cause the item in question to become discolored.

Since we’ve already touched on the subject of salt stains, should you find yourself with a salt stained suede situation, a suede brush—which is often sold in concert with a suede eraser for not too terribly much money—will help to brush out dried salt; residual stains can be tackled with the eraser. The brush will also help to restore the nap of the suede, and can help as a final step post-erasing to removing any eraser debris left behind.

The brush will also be the best tool to sub in if indeed the test you did on a small area of your dirty suede didn’t care for the touch of the suede eraser. If the brush doesn’t take care of the grime entirely, try using a baby wipe or a very small amount of dish soap or laundry detergent mixed with water and a soft cloth to rid the suede of dirt and grime. Just be sure to wring that cloth out well so you’re applying as little of the damp solution to the material as possible, while still using enough to get it clean. Then brush the suede to restore the nap.

If you’ve found yourself on the wrong side of deploying a suede protector, you’ll be happy to know that you can still trot those products out even if you’ve already worn and sullied a suede item. Go ahead and clean the shoes (or coat or chaps or whatever!) first, that’ll be important to do, then apply the protective coating. Kiwi makes a suede and nubuck protector; that brand’s Leather Protect All will also work and can be used on regular leather as well, so it’s more of an all purpose thing if that’s what you’re into.

I got some fabulous new shoes, but being a bit of a sloth by nature, I have no idea how to care for shoes made of anything other than cheap, disposable, mystery materials, and by “care for” I mean staple back together when they fall apart midday at work and then throw away when I get home.
The biggest challenge is that the upper fur is made of cow leather—I can barely keep the fibers going in the same direction (any tips on that while I’m here?), let alone properly cared for. On top if that, they are a snow leopard print so dirt will show. Any tips for general maintenance of quality apparel for those of us still fighting this adulthood thing?

You guys! I have awesome news!! THE ANSWER IS NOT VINEGAR!!! [SHIMMIES]

The answer is weirder and more delightful. The answer is cornmeal. (Cornmeal. Not cornstarch. I once got a very irate email from a reader carrying on something awful about how cornstarch didn’t at all work to clean her fur-lined boots and how I was a failure and a liar and etc etc etc. I just sighed, filed it away and poured myself more wine because I’m pretty darn patient, but my patience only goes so far, ya know?)

But back to that cornmeal! Cornmeal will absorb dirt and oil that can build up on fur, both the faux kind and the real deal. And then whatever you don’t use to clean your shoes or boots or stoles can be turned into a delicious crust for apple pie. (I’m going to OD on seasonal enthusiasm if I’m not careful.)

There will, of course, be questions. Such as, “Lady, what in the world are you talking about? What? Do I just rub some cornmeal on my shoes and magic happens?”

I would like to answer yes to that! Alas. Right, so the thing you’ll do is to put the shoes into a brown paper bag or a plastic grocery bag or any sort of sealable thing that’s big enough to fit the shoes. Then add a cup or two of the cornmeal, seal the bag or container up and give the whole thing a good shake. Sort of like how you’d coat chicken for frying, if that’s a thing that you do. (If you do, got any good recipes you’d like to share with us? Super, thanks!) After that, let the shoes hang around in the bag with the ‘meal for an hour or so, then dump them out, shake and/or brush the cornmeal free from the shoes and you’ll be good to go.

To treat the issue you’re having with the fur heading off in all different directions—and these are the instructions you’ll follow if you’ve got matted down fur as well—a slicker brush, which is a thing made for grooming dog and cat fur, will allow you to gently comb and groom it as you see fit.

The Squalor Archive: Armpit Stain Eradication | Blood Stain Removal | Booze Stench Elimination | Brightening White Towels & Sheets | Cleaning Car Consoles | Caring for Athletic Clothing | Cat Pee | Dog Mess on Carpet | Filthy Couches | Football Glove Care | Gasoline on Clothing | Grain Moth Infestations | Grease/Rubber Stain Treatments | Gross Computers |Guests & Bedbugs | Karategi Cleaning | Ketchup Stains | Laundering Bathmats | Lube Stains |Makeup Debris in Bathrooms | Makeup Stains On Upholstery | Marijuana Stench | Mayo Stains| Melted Microfiber on Enameled Cast Iron | Menstrual Cup Care | Mildewed Towels | Moldy Trousers | Mustard Stains | Nail Polish Stains | Odor Removal for Non-Launderable Items |Oven Cleaning | Pee-Smelling Bathrooms | Rank Roller Derby Pads | Rust Stains on Clothing |Scorched Pots | Scummy Glass Shower Doors | Semen Stains | Sheet Changing Cycles | Sheet Changing Etiquette & Tricks |Skidmarks | Stained Tennis Whites | Stinking Sinks | Stinky Feet | Sunscreen Stains | That Orange Stuff In The Shower | The Great Bra Washing Extravaganza | Toilet Mold | Towel Laundering Cycles | Treating Testicular Odor | When Butter Attacks | Yellowed Fingernails | Yellowed Sheets | Yellowed Swimsuits

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.

Image via VLukas/Shutterstock.

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