How to Remove Stinky Smells from Shoes Instantly
Smelly shoes are all too common, thanks to bacteria, sweat and frequent wear. Learn how to remove smells from shoes with these expert-approved tips.
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Smelly shoes? Don’t sweat it
It happens to the best of us: No matter how well you clean everything and take care of your shoes, there are some pairs that are just bound to stink—gym sneakers, walking shoes and work boots come to mind. Not only is it awful wearing them, but it can also be downright embarrassing (especially if you’re taking them off at a friend’s home). Tempted to toss your smelly shoes? Don’t send them to the trash just yet. Learn how to remove smells from shoes instantly, before they start stinking up your life.
“[Shoe] odor can transfer onto your socks and feet when you wear smelly shoes,” says Alicia Sokolowski, president and co-CEO of Aspen Clean. “If you walk around your home with the same socks or bare feet, the odor can spread to the carpet, furniture and other surfaces in your home. Over time, the smell can become embedded in these surfaces and make your entire home smell unpleasant.” Thankfully, we know how to get rid of odors, how to get smells out of clothes, how to clean white sneakers and how to deodorize shoes.
Why do shoes start to smell?
Shoes are a perfect breeding ground for fungus and bacteria, says Yale Medicine orthopedic surgeon Sean Peden, MD. “There is limited airflow. We don’t wash our shoes. And bacteria multiply when given this kind of environment. Over time, the shoe will absorb moisture and sweat, and the odors will get into the fabric of the shoes.”
Some shoes are more prone to smelling than others based on the material and breathability, and others start to smell simply because of the frequency with which you wear them. “Sweat then gathers in the shoes and the odors may become permanent,” says textile expert Frej Lewenhaupt, co-founder and CEO of Steamery. And while the type of shoe does make a difference, many shoe odors start with your feet, so practice proper foot hygiene and try out these home remedies for foot odor to prevent smelly shoes in the first place.
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Check the care label
When it comes to stinky footwear, the first step in eliminating odor from shoes is to look at the laundry care labels and determine the interior and exterior material or fabric of your shoe. “It’s always a good idea to check the care label on your shoes and follow the manufacturer’s recommended cleaning instructions,” says Sokolowski. “Or consult a professional shoemaker.” Depending on the material, these at-home solutions may be the perfect fit to deodorize your footwear.
Aerate your shoes
As soon they get sweaty, damp or smelly, Dr. Peden suggests immediately aerating them. “If they get wet, put them in a spot with good airflow or even consider using a fan nearby,” he says. “If they are soaked, stuff some newspapers or paper towels inside the shoe to absorb the excess moisture.” The amount of time you should leave them will depend on how saturated they are.
Pro tip: After aerating, store your shoes in a relatively dry room that is kept clean.
Machine- or hand-wash shoes
Many shoes these days can be washed, which is an easy deodorizing method. The key: Follow the instructions on the care label, if the shoes have one. “Make sure to choose a gentle wash cycle and a low temperature on the washing machine,” says Lewenhaupt. If the shoes are hand-wash only (usually sneakers or canvas shoes), he suggests filling up a wash bin with lukewarm water, soaking the shoes and using a toothbrush or scrub brush to rub laundry detergent on them. Use a stain remover on any large stains. Let the shoes rest for 15 minutes and repeat the process if they are still a bit dirty or smelly. Once you’re done, rinse the shoes with cold water until there is no detergent residue left. Let the shoes thoroughly dry.
Pro tip: After cleaning your shoes, Dr. Peden stresses the importance of drying them. Place paper towels inside the shoes and let sit in a well-ventilated area near a fan.
Vinegar is a common laundry solution as well as a natural disinfectant, and it works well to remove smells from shoes instantly. Mix 4 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar with 1 quart of water in a bucket. Massage the inside of the shoes with the blend using a towel or toothbrush. Leave the shoes overnight and then rinse thoroughly. “This will help deodorize the shoes, although they may smell a little of vinegar afterward,” Lewenhaupt says.
Pro tip: If you don’t love the smell of vinegar, try using one infused with essential oils, like Aunt Fannie’s Cleaning Vinegar.
Baking soda is a household staple and an effective solution for deodorizing shoes, says Sokolowski. Sprinkle some baking soda into the interior of the shoes and let them sit for a few hours or overnight. Then, shake out the excess baking soda. Repeat if needed.
Pro tip: Baking soda is also great to remove stains. Mix a few tablespoons of baking soda with enough water to create a thick paste. Apply the baking soda paste anywhere the shoes need cleaning using a soft-bristled brush or microfiber cloth. Rub the paste in and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Use a damp cloth to wipe away the baking soda paste, making sure to remove all residue. Allow the shoes to air-dry completely.
Fabric softener sheets
Deodorizing sneakers can call for the good-smelling stuff, and luckily, fragrant dryer sheets have many uses (including helping with squeaky shoes). Want to remove smells from shoes instantly? Tuck a new dryer fabric softener sheet into each sneaker and leave overnight to neutralize odors (just remember to pull them out before wearing them). This is also a useful tip to deodorize places where you store your shoes, such as your gym bag. Drop a dryer sheet into the bottom of a bag and leave it there until your nose says it’s time to renew it.
Pro tip: While the best dryer sheets make for soft, fresh-smelling laundry, you should use them with caution in your shoes. Sokolowski says fabric softener sheets can potentially damage your shoes, so be sure to read the care label for more information on its material.
There are plenty of non-cooking uses for salt. It’s naturally antibacterial and absorbs excess moisture and smells, which means it’s great to help remove stains and odors from certain shoes, especially canvas shoes or sneakers, says Sokolowski. Simply shake a healthy amount of salt into the shoe. Shake the shoe around and rub the salt throughout the insole to make sure every inch is covered. Let the salt sit for 24 hours, then vacuum or brush it away.
Pro tip: Want to get rid of stubborn stains on the insole fabric or exterior of your shoes? Start by mixing a tablespoon of salt with a cup of warm water in a bowl. Dip a clean microfiber cloth in the salt solution and gently rub the canvas or fabric in a circular motion. Allow the shoes to air-dry, away from direct sunlight or heat sources. Brush off any remaining salt residue.
Essential oils aren’t just for creating soothing scents in your home. Eucalyptus, clove and tea tree oil are great options for removing unwanted odors. Here’s the trick: Add a few drops to a piece of tissue paper. Scrunch it up and place it in your shoe. The paper will help absorb bacteria and moisture, while the oil will leave your shoes smelling great. After a few hours, check to see if the odors are gone. If not, you can leave overnight.
Pro tip: Avoid spritzing or dropping essential oils that have not been diluted directly into your shoe (they can damage the material). And do not use essential oils on suede or unfinished leather.
Not only will using rubbing alcohol reduce the smell of your shoes as a natural deodorizer, it will also help to disinfect both the interior and exterior of the shoe. Use a three-to-one concoction of rubbing alcohol and water. Then, dampen a microfiber cloth with the solution and gently rub it on the worn interior and dirty exterior of your shoe.
Pro tip: Never douse the shoes in rubbing alcohol. Beyond mixing the water and rubbing alcohol solution in a bucket, you can also add it to a spray bottle and spray to avoid oversaturation.
Who would have thought learning how to get smells out of shoes could involve pantry staples for tea lovers? Black tea contains tannins, which will work to kill the bacteria that builds up in your shoes—and in turn, help to eliminate the smell. Tea bags are great at this because they absorb moisture easily. Place one unused tea bag in each shoe for a natural shoe deodorizer. Let them sit in a dry area for 24 hours.
Pro tip: For extra stinky shoes, pop two or three tea bags in each shoe.
Freeze your shoes
If you’re finding that home remedies aren’t working to remove smells from shoes, you can freeze them overnight, says Sokolowski. “Place your shoes in a sealable plastic bag and put them in the freezer. The cold temperature can kill odor-causing bacteria and help to eliminate odors,” she says.
Pro tip: Don’t forget the bag. A plastic resealable bag prevents damage to the shoe.
Store-bought shoe deodorizers
- Steamery Odor Control Laundry Detergent: Lewenhaupt loves Steamery’s Odor Control Laundry Detergent for sneakers or shoes approved for machine- or hand-washes, as it’s specially designed to remove tough smells at low temperatures.
- Lumi Outdoors Natural Shoe Deodorizer Spray: Giving it more than 21,000 reviews, Amazon shoppers have made this natural shoe deodorizer spray a bestseller for workout shoes, work boots and other high-performing shoes. Just spritz a few sprays of this targeted blend of essential oils to remove unwanted odor.
- NonScents Shoe Deodorizer: Incredibly easy to use, each deodorizer set comes with two pods filled with a blend of natural zeolite mineral, which is also used in drinking water filters. Stick them in your shoes overnight and allow them to work their magic.
What should you do if a smell won’t come out?
Just now learning how to remove smells from shoes instantly? If at first you don’t succeed, try again—or try a different method. “Or at the very least, give them a good wash or scrub, then buy some new insoles and new socks,” says Dr. Peden. However, if your shoes are worn and smell terrible, you are best to throw them in the trash and start over with a high-quality pair with better ventilation, he says. Dr. Peden suggests looking for shoes made of mesh or other breathable materials. And most important, take proper foot-hygiene steps to prevent your shoes from smelling in the first place.