The Right Way To Clean Your White Sneakers

by Kelly Dougher

I knew it would be a mistake to buy white sneakers, but in the end I couldn't help it. I was obsessed with getting myself a pair of Comme des Garcons Play Converse. I loved those shoes and had to have them. At the time, my only worry was whether I ought to get the high-tops or low-tops. It didn't even occur to me that learning how to clean white sneakers — like, actually clean them, not just wipe off some scuffs — would be. I don't wear them that often and when I do I'm extremely careful to avoid dirt and mud. And yet after a year or so of owning them, they've become quite grimy.

In the very likely case that you, too, have a pair of less-than-pristine white sneakers in your closet, you may have been wondering the same questions as me: How the heck do I give these a good cleaning without ruining them? Can I just toss them in the washer? Should I add a bit of bleach? Are they safe to put in the dryer?

Luckily, there's one person who knows the answers to all of those questions. Alison Freer is a costume designer for TV shows and movies in LA as well as the clothes editor at Freer recently put together all of her hard-earned knowledge acquired from years working as a costume designer in a book, How to Get Dressed: A Costumer Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing.

I'm lucky enough to own this helpful book, and it does in fact have a section on dealing this exact issue.

Still, I thought I would go directly to the source and ask Freer herself what course of action she recommends for cleaning my dirty white sneakers (pictured below).

Happily, she did not disappoint.

So, quick! Get your white sneakers out of the closet and assemble your tools. You'll need:

  • An old pillowcase
  • Towels (optional)

The first step, according to Freer, "is to first give them a good brushing with a soft-bristle brush (like an old toothbrush) that has been lightly coated with a bit of baking soda. This will help to soak up and slough off any existing surface dirt."

Dutifully, I took my old toothbrush and some baking soda and scrubbed away at all the dirt that I could see.

There was a small improvement after this, but I could tell they still needed a good washing. On to step two!

"Next," Freer instructs, "hand wash your sneakers inside a tied-up pillowcase in a sink full of cool water and a bit of color-safe detergent. (There are brands out there that tout themselves as being specifically color safe, but I've had great luck with all 'Method' brand detergents, available at almost every Target on earth!)"

I didn't have any Method on hand so I just used whatever detergent I had that promised to be color-safe and crossed my fingers. (It turned out OK — phew!)

And what about bleach? Won't it make my sneakers whiter and brighter? Actually, no. Freer warns, "Avoid bleach at all costs — it tends to make white canvas sneakers take on a yellowish cast." Got it: No bleach!

I made sure to follow Freer's instructions to wash my sneakers for a full five minutes. "A proper hand-wash in the sink involves a full five minutes of swishing, swirling, and soaking. Don't skimp on the time! You need it to really release the grime."

Once your five minutes are up, simply take the sneakers out of the pillowcase and put them aside to air-dry completely. Again, don't rush! Alison says, "The fibers will stretch out and fray if pressure is applied when wet." So make sure they're 100 percent dry before you wear them again.

If you don't want to wash your sneakers in the sink, Alison says that "you can also give them a spin in the washer (again, inside a pillowcase!) with your machine set to gentle. Just toss a few towels in to protect them from getting banged around."

Sounds good to me: clean towels and sneakers in one go! I tried this way next and it worked just as well as the sink cleaning method.

However, if you do opt to throw your sneakers in the washer, remember that they still need to air-dry afterwards. Freer warns, "Never put fabric shoes in the dryer! The heat will lead to the rubber soles cracking and splitting. Not a great look."

Thanks Freer's genius advice, a little bit of scrubbing and swishing, and some patience, my beloved Play Converse now look as good as new. Here they are after chilling in the sun all day post-bath.

Try this method at home yourself the next time your favorite white sneakers start to look a little dingy, and you're sure to be pleased with the results.

Images: Kelly Dougher