How to Wash Tennis and Athletic Shoes

Keep your sneakers clean with a quick wash

Muddy sneakers
Pete Starman/Getty Images

Tennis shoes are certainly not just for tennis players and athletes, they're for everyone. Whether you need specialty shoes for specific sports and activities or just like the canvas basics, they all need to be cleaned every now and then. The great news is that washing most athletic shoes is easy and takes just a few simple steps.

Both leather and fabric tennis shoes can be washed in a washer unless the manufacturer specifically says not to do so. If you have a standard top loader, always wash the shoes with a load of towels to help balance the bulk of the shoes. In a high-efficiency top loader or front loader with no center agitator, there is less need to balance the load.

Step 1: Remove Laces and Insoles

Your shoelaces are often the dirtiest part of the shoe. Begin your tennis shoe cleaning project by removing the laces as well as any removable insoles or inserts. The laces can be washed by putting them in a mesh laundry bag and tossed in with a load of laundry.

If your laces are really dirty or worn out, it might be better to replace them and it doesn't cost much to do so.

The insoles should be handled separately. Remove them from your shoes and wipe them down with a cloth dipped in a warm water and baking soda solution. One tablespoon of baking soda stirred into 1 cup of water works well. Allow them to air while you are cleaning.

If the insoles are particularly smelly, sprinkle the insole and the inside of the shoe with baking soda to absorb odor and moisture. This should be done frequently, even if you are not cleaning the rest of the shoe.

Step 2: Wash Your Shoes

Most tennis shoes will travel through the clothes washer with no problems. If you're not sure, check the manufacturer's website; almost all of them offer cleaning instructions.

Begin by rinsing the outside of the shoes with cool water to remove any loose dirt or soil.

When it's time to wash, place the shoes in a mesh laundry bag and simply use warm water and a heavy-duty detergent (Persil and Tide are top performers) and wash them with a load of similarly colored towels. If you have a washer with adjustable final spin speeds, select a lower speed to prevent the washer from becoming unbalanced.

If the shoes are really pricey and new, hand washing is a bit more gentle. Use a soft-bristled brush and a solution of mild liquid detergent in warm water. Scrub the inside and outside of each shoe. For scuff marks on leather or faux leather shoes, a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser works wonders. Use a gentle touch and wipe away residue with a damp cloth.

Step 3: Dry Your Shoes

Never put your tennis shoes in a high heat clothes dryer. High heat can cause them to lose their shape and that will affect their support and fit. Instead, put them in a well-ventilated space or, if you must, use the air-only dryer cycle.

Stuff your shoes loosely with white cotton towels or white paper to prevent color transfer and to help them retain their shape. Don't use newspaper because you'll find ink on your socks the next day.

It is best to avoid direct sunlight when drying leather tennis shoes because the heat can cause the leather to dry too quickly and crack. You can, however, use a circulating fan to help speed the drying process.

Step 4: Spruce Up Your Shoes

When your shoes are completely dry, you can use white, black, or an appropriately colored shoe polish to touch up any scuffs on the leather. In a pinch, a permanent marker works wonders to hide problems.

For real leather tennis shoes, a leather conditioner will help keep your shoe leather supple and prevent cracking. For canvas shoes, a fabric protective spray will help repel dirt and stains between cleanings. Both products can be purchased in most grocery or shoe stores or at online retailers.

How to wash sneakers
Illustration: Lara Antal. © The Spruce, 2019

Can You Wash Sneakers in the Dishwasher?

If you search online for instructions on how to wash tennis shoes, you may find a story or two about using the dishwasher. Yes, you can put your athletic shoes and shower shoes in the dishwasher. Should you? No.

While the hot water and mechanical spray action of the water will remove soil, dishwasher detergents are extremely harsh. They can ruin leather and cause fading in cotton and some synthetics. Plus, the high heat of the drying cycle can cause shrinkage and even melt parts of the shoe. Save the dishwasher for your dishes.

Disinfecting Tennis Shoes

If you are concerned about bacteria and athlete's foot fungus, you should disinfect your shoes while washing them.

Pine oil disinfectants, which are effective in hot and warm water, are safe to use with athletic shoes and they won't damage the fabric or leather. Recommended brands include Pine Sol, Spic-n-Span Pine, and Lysol Pine Action. They should be added at the beginning of the wash cycle. To be effective, the product must contain 80 percent pine oil.

Phenolic disinfectants are also effective in hot and warm water. Lysol brand disinfectant is a phenolic disinfectant and is readily available. Phenolic disinfectants may be added to the wash or rinse water. If you add it to the rinse cycle, be sure to set the rinse water temperature to warm as many machines automatically use cold water for rinsing.

When you finish cleaning the tennis shoes, be sure to carefully wash socks and gym bags using the same products. This will help prevent the spread of any bacteria and fungus that can cause the problems to occur again.

Getting Rid of Poison Ivy

If you have had an encounter with poison ivy sap, remove the irritant by grabbing a pair of rubber gloves and carefully cleaning both the outside and inside of the shoes.