How to Clean White Shoes Without Bleach: Canvas, Leather, and Mesh Sneakers

Wash shoes
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White shoes and sneakers are a staple in most closets: the ideal versatile shoes that go with almost every outfit and look great—as long as they're perfectly clean.

If your favorite pair of white shoes is looking dingy, stained, or dirty, follow one of these tried-and-true methods to clean them using baking soda and other eco-friendly household products.

Considerations Before Cleaning Your White Shoes

There are a few important aspects to take into consideration before you start any of the cleaning protocols below.

The first step in cleaning your white shoes should always be to remove the excess dirt. The best way to do this is to brush it off while it's dry—getting dried dirt wet will turn it into a muddy mess.

Leather shoes (or leather details on a shoe) need a different cleaning and whitening method than canvas. Knit or mesh materials like those found in some athletic shoes also need special consideration, so take note of what your shoes are made of to figure out the best way to clean and whiten them up.

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Baking Soda and Detergent Scrub

Closeup on baking soda with detergent and dirty laundry.
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This technique works best on canvas. Scrubbing lightly might work on knit material or leather, but it could also scratch the leather or damage the knit, so be more gentle with all-over leather or leather detail.

First, make a 50/50 mixture of a tablespoon of laundry detergent and a tablespoon of baking soda in a shallow bowl or small plate.

If the shoes are dry, wet the outside of the shoes—they don't need to be soaking, just moderately wet. Then, dip a nail brush, old toothbrush, or dish brush into the detergent/baking soda mix and start scrubbing. Cover every part of the shoe that's dirty, and keep re-dipping into the pasty mix as needed.

Let sit for 20-30 minutes, then rinse out under a running tap or in a bucket of water (or throw into the washing machine). Hang to dry in the shower or sunshine for an extra blast of natural whitening power.

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Hydrogen Peroxide and Baking Soda

White washed sneakers on the floor
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Another effective way to get your white canvas or knit shoes bright again without bleach is to make your own version of an oxygen cleaner—but this one works best on a sunny day, so plan ahead.

Make a paste of 1 tablespoon baking soda, half a tablespoon water, and half a tablespoon hydrogen peroxide (yes, the same kind that you get at the pharmacy to put on cuts).

Using an old toothbrush or nail brush, gently scrub that paste into your white canvas or knit material sneakers. Then repeat, so you have a thick paste on each shoe.

Set in the sun for 4-5 hours. The paste should be totally dry and flaking off the shoes. Then, vigorously brush off the dry paste. Your shoes don't need to be washed—you can try wearing them right away.

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A Good Wash and Sunshine

Wet sneaker or joggers drying in the sunlight after wash
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The first place to start with yellowed or generally dirty shoes of knit material, canvas, or canvas with leather detail—or pretty much any kind of human-made type of material—is a simple wash and dry.

First, remove laces and insoles (if they are removable) and fill a bucket or small tub with warm water and a tablespoon of laundry detergent. Holding the shoe by the toe or the back heel, swish it around in the soapy water for a few minutes. Let it sit for a few minutes, swish again, then rinse under warm water. Repeat. Or, use your washing machine (it won't be too water wasteful as long as it has a load sensor). In both cases you can toss the insoles in, too.

After the second wash-rinse cycle (machine or by hand) let the shoes drip-dry in the tub or outside. If you can let them dry in the sunshine, this will help them get even whiter. You might find a good washing is enough to get your shoes white again.

If, before you dry the shoes, you think they are not white enough yet, try the scrubbing technique described in the the first method.

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Lemon Juice and Olive Oil Polish for White Leather Shoes

Massage oil bottles with lemons and olive branch
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This combination might work to whiten dingy white leather shoes. First, clean superficial dirt off the shoes with a clear dish soap and water. Let dry.

Then, combine 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice with 2 tablespoons olive oil and mix well. Apply a small amount at a time to your clean and dry leather shoes by dipping a soft cloth (like an old t-shirt), into the oil and juice mixture, and rubbing that in a circular motion into the leather. Work the conditioning and whitening mixture into the shoes a small section at a time. Be sure not to use too much liquid—you don't want the shoe to be soaking when you are done, just a bit damp.

Leave overnight or longer to dry completely. The olive oil will help condition the shoes while the lemon juice helps with the whitening action.

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White Polish for Leather Details

Care shoes and women's white shoes on white
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For leather detail or all-leather shoes, there are several all-natural leather polishes that contain a pigment that can be used to condition, protect, and whiten leather shoes after they've been thoroughly cleaned.

Look for products that contain natural ingredients. For example, Pure Polish's White Cream Cleanser for leather shoes contains orange oil, coconut oil, beeswax, carnauba wax, and a non-toxic pigment.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Does baking soda damage leather shoes?

    Baking soda and other natural ingredients like vinegar and lemon juice can be far too harsh on leather shoes. Baking soda, especially, can cause scratches. Leather shoes almost always require special, material-specific polishes rather than DIY solutions.

  • Can you soak your shoes in water?

    Submerging or soaking your shoes in water, including in the wash cycle, can ruin the adhesives that hold the materials together—not to mention the fabric itself. It's always better to hand "wash" shoes using a minimal amount of water.