The Futility of Cleaning Sneakers

Some people like to wipe their sneakers and clean them daily. But this is this why you probably shouldn't do that.

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Complex Original

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Let us set some basic parameters here: I am not advising that you don’t clean your sneakers at all. That’s just insane. If, say, a bird craps on them (whether it’s good luck or not) or someone drops a ketchup-laden french fry or you step in some Pomeranian’s poop, by all means clean off the offending substance. Tracking around—whatever—is just a good way to get beat up, evicted, or both. And I’m not saying to never wear your sneakers ever, either. That’s insane, too. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I used to clean my sneakers. Not religiously or anything, but back when all I had was one or two pairs it was important they stay as new-looking as possible. We’re talking white shoe polish on the leather, bleach on the mesh, whatever it took. Unfortunately, things never wound up looking right, and the reek of combined cleaning products made up that of desperation. Bleach and polish all you want, there was no way to conceal a fraying seam here, uneven outsole wear there. Sneakers are only new once.

Since then, sneaker cleaning has become more than just a habit, it’s an industry in and of itself, with sneaker-specific cleaning products and even an actual sneaker-cleaning boutique (in Los Angeles, of all places, where no one even walks). With people paying upwards of a grand or two for the most sought-after models, this is somewhat understandable. I wash my car, after all, and it cost less than half of what a pair of Yeezy 2s does. Proper care is required for any investment.

But there is certainly such thing as going too far. Wear sneakers sparingly and gingerly, keep them in a climate-controlled dark room with cedar shoe trees and packs on packs of silica gel, they’re still going to age, and they’re still going to get dirty. Clear soles will yellow, midsoles and toeboxes will crease, outsoles will wear down. Eventually the medial sides will scuff themselves, seams will start to unravel. This should not be seen as bad.

Without getting too philosophical, this happens to everything. The best approach is acceptance, rather than some desperate attempt to turn back the clock. Think of the creases on your toeboxes as a precursor to the wrinkles you’ll probably wind up with yourself. Are you going to try and eradicate those, too? It’s possible, sure, but look at Joan Rivers sometime and consider that halting the aging process never really works out too well for anyone or anything.

 Think of the creases on your toeboxes as a precursor to the wrinkles you’ll probably wind up with yourself. 

Unlike benchmade dress shoes or a classic car, sneakers are ultimately disposable. They’re made in a factory, usually from some sort of synthetics. They are not easily re-soled (well, most aren’t) or restored. But even classic cars—which ARE easy to restore—are increasingly being kept in as-found condition. Just as something is only new once, it’s only original once as well. Even the most painstaking restoration is a restoration. That original finish can be duplicated, but it’s never quite the same.

So embrace those creases, that wear, even those first stains. If you love a sneaker, wear it, and wear the hell out of it. Don’t jump into mud puddles on purpose or anything, but understand that the very act of putting a pair of sneakers on for the first time and lacing them up causes wear and imbues a mass-produced product with some individuality. Thousands upon thousands of people may have the same exact brand-new pair of—whatever—but it’s the act of wearing them that makes them truly yours. Even your grails should show signs of use, not be something that needs to be dusted weekly like a museum artifact. That first stain is the hardest, you just need to get past it. The rest is—well, gravy.

Russ Bengtson is a senior staff writer at Complex, and he doesn't carry wet wipes. You can follow him on Twitter here.