How to Clean Canvas Sneakers

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Treat Your Favorite Shoes to a Bath

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You've heard the expression, "as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers." Sneakers' reputation as go-to comfy footwear is well deserved. That's especially true for those made of canvas. This durable fabric is flexible and tough, and it allows your feet to "breathe" so they're never too hot or too cold.

If you've had your canvas sneaks awhile, they're probably carrying little mementos of all the places you've worn them to in the form of dirt, scuffs, stains, and splotches. Don't throw those old faves out just yet, though! As long as they're not ripped or riddled with holes, you can probably eke more time out of them with a good bath.

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What They're Made Of

woman's feet in white sneakers standing on dock
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Consider what your canvas sneakers are made of to understand how you should clean them.

True canvas is made from hemp, which is the seeds and fiber of the Cannabis Sativa L plant. It's a durable, comfortable, popular choice for casual shoes and sneakers. (Some sneakers labeled as made from "canvas" are actually made from cotton, which yields a fabric that's similar in texture and durability to that originating from hemp.) The soles of athletic shoes are usually made of rubber (which, incidentally, explains their nickname: Wearers can walk very quietly in them). Athletic shoes, sneakers, tennis shoes ... whatever you call them, they are low-maintenance footwear.

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What You Need to Clean Your Sneakers

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You don't need to buy anything expensive to get your sneakers sparkling clean and in like-new shape again. Gather these items:

  • Nylon bristle brush or old toothbrush
  • Soap, such as laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, or a cleaner made for suede and fabric
  • Nylon scrub pad
  • Baking soda
  • Plain paper
  • White cream shoe polish (for white canvas sneakers)
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Remove Excess Dirt

Cleaning Canvas Shoes
Photo Illustration by Ellen Grusse

If the sneakers are muddy, wait until they dry before cleaning them.

Knock off any loose dirt by smacking the sneakers on pavement or by tapping the soles together over a wastebasket or newspaper. Wipe the sneakers with a damp cloth to remove any remaining caked-on dirt.

Remove the laces.

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Wash and Rinse

Washing Canvas Sneakers
Photo Illustration by Ellen Grusse

Rinse shoes with warm water inside and out. Scrub the canvas sneakers' outsides, insides, and liners gently with the toothbrush and a mixture of water and mild detergent. Rinse with clean, cool water.

If scuff marks remain, scrub them gently with the nylon pad. Rinse again. If the liners still retain foot odor, scrub them with a paste of baking soda and water. 

Washing Canvas Sneakers in a Washing Machine

Some folks get good results by cleaning canvas sneakers in the washing machine, but most shoe manufacturers discourage this because it can break down the adhesives used to glue the shoe together.

Colored Canvas Sneakers and Special Detailing

When cleaning colored canvas sneakers, use a non-bleaching soap. Do a small spot test with your cleaning mixture to be sure it doesn’t fade or bleach out the color.

You can clean sneakers with mesh inserts the same way you clean plain canvas shoes.

If your sneakers have leather detailing, dampen and clean the canvas as directed, and use leather cleaner on leather parts.

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Don't Forget the Laces

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Dirty laces will stand out in stark contrast to your newly clean sneakers. Just throw them in the wash with a load of like-colored laundry and air-dry when done.

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Drying Canvas Sneakers
Photo Illustration by Ellen Grusse

When you're done washing your sneakers, shake off the excess water. Stuff them with crumpled brown paper bags, paper towels, or white office paper to absorb extra moisture and help the sneakers maintain their shape. (Don't use newspaper or colored paper because the ink will transfer and stain the shoes).

Set the sneakers aside to air-dry. Do not dry them near a fireplace or heater. Direct heat breaks down canvas fabric and causes it to become dry and brittle.

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Add the Finishing Touches

Polishing Canvas Sneakers
Photo Illustration by Ellen Grusse

When the shoes are thoroughly dry, replace the inserts and laundered laces.

If stains persist on white canvas sneakers, lightly dab on white liquid shoe polish.

Some manufacturers suggest spraying the tops of new canvas sneakers with a fabric protector before you wear them—but first, consult the care instructions included with your sneakers or on their tags to make sure this won't damage them. If none are available, visit the manufacturer's website or call their customer care number. Your best bet for getting the longest life from your sneakers is to follow the company's recommendations.