How to Remove Stains from Leather Shoes

How to Remove Stains from Leather Shoes

Leather shoes make a beautiful and long-lasting investment. However, they require somewhat specialized care. If you get a stain on your leather shoes, you must take careful steps to get the stains out. While leather doesn’t absorb wine and ketchup stains the same way that cloth does, it is prone to stains from other things that you might not expect.

In the sections below, we’ll go over the various stains that you may end up needing to remove from your leather shoes, how to remove stains from leather shoes, and a few techniques that can help you protect your shoes in the future.

What Stains Leather Shoes?

Leather, as a material, is not as absorbent as cloth. As such, it’s not as likely to take on the color of a sudden spill unless it’s left to soak in. Additionally, since leather tends to be pre-dyed, it doesn’t take on dyes as quickly (fortunately for us).

Leather is a porous material, but it’s not a woven material like cloth. As such, while it’s permeable to water and other liquids, it doesn’t happen nearly as fast as the way fabric absorbs moisture. As long as you wipe leather quickly, it tends to survive wet encounters reasonably well.

However, because of this same nature, getting stains out of leather that has set in can be twice as difficult. If you want to have any hope of getting set-in stains out of your leather shoes, you’ll need to know the most effective (and safest) ways to do it, as well as what culprits to watch out for.

The most common offenders for leather shoe stains are:

  • Water
  • Salt
  • Dirt
  • Oil or grease
  • Ink

Leather shoes are also very vulnerable to scuffs and scratches, but these imperfections require a different sort of approach.

Water Stains

Water stains are the bane of any leather shoes’ existence. We’ve all been there: you slept in too late, you’re in a rush to get to work, and you trudged right through a puddle in your best leather shoes on your way into the office. No time to dry them off! You run into work and sit down at your desk, and before you know it, your best shoes are sporting some new water stains.

Fortunately, most water stains on leather come out fairly quickly. It’s usually as simple as wetting the rest of the shoe and allowing it to dry all at once. Instead of getting the water stain out, it’s all about letting the entire shoe to dry at the same time rather than in spots.

Instead of allowing water spots to form on your shoe in the first place, it’s a good idea to protect them with leather shoe polish or wax several times per year. While wax won’t protect your shoes from damage if they’re submerged or dunked, the coating will make water bead up and roll off instead of absorbing into the leather in most cases. This is especially important for suede shoes, as these shoes can suffer permanent damage from water.

Salt Residue

Salt residue is the next most common culprit for leather shoe stains, but it can be a bit trickier to remove. Salt stains will collect on any shoe that you wear out and about in the wintertime, but the stains tend to be especially visible on leather and suede shoes.

On top of that, salt is already quite damaging to the leather itself. Salt tends to attract moisture, so it dehydrates most materials that it comes into contact with. Leather isn’t immune to this effect, of course. Salt contact can crack, dry out, and otherwise deteriorate your expensive leather shoes. Suede shoes, in particular, show salt stains very strongly.

Fortunately, there’s no reason to keep your shoes salty and white-capped. Removing the leftovers from salt residue is easy to do, and it’s easy on your boots, too. You will need several things, including:

  • Cold water
  • White wine vinegar
  • A small towel
  • A mixing receptacle

To begin, fill your container with about a cup of cold water. Add one tablespoon of white wine vinegar to the water, then mix them thoroughly. Next, wet the towel with the vinegar-water mixture and wipe the salt stains until they disappear. Let your shoes air-dry afterward. You may want to add some balled-up newspapers or towels to your boots as they dry to help them maintain their shape and dry quicker.

Caked-On Dirt

While dirt isn’t necessarily a “stain,” per se, it can still be a bane to your leather shoes. This is because the stitches and seams on your leather shoes are magnets for dirt and mud. Dirt and mud particles caught inside your shoes can cause them to wear out, cause scratches and scuffs, and, of course, make them look untidy and unprofessional.

A leather shoe brush is your best bet for routine dirt and dust removal from your shoes. However, if your shoes find there way into a muddy puddle, you may have to do a little extra work to remove the excess mud. If they’re not too dirty, you may be able to clean your shoes enough with some baby wipes.

If you have a bigger problem than baby wipes can handle, use a solution of warm water and mild dish soap to wash the shoes.  Use a second cloth soaked in clean water to wipe away the soap, then let your shoes air dry. Again, we recommend stuffing your boots with towels or newspaper to help them dry and keep their shape.

Oil Stains

Oil stains are a bane on any material, not just leather. This is because oil, unlike water, doesn’t naturally evaporate out of the fabric and otherwise “dry.” If you get an oil stain on your clothing or shoes, it’s there until you otherwise take it out, and they tend to get worse as they set in, too.

To get stubborn oil out of your shoes, the best thing to do is to create a dry environment that the oil “likes” even more than your shoes! To do this, sprinkle baking soda or corn starch on the stain and rub it in gently with a wet finger. Leave the powder on the oil stain overnight, then wipe it off with a soft cloth in the morning.

Ink Stains

Ink stains, like oil stains, tend to ruin most any fabric or clothing material that they come into contact with. Fortunately, while challenging, removing ink stains from leather is possible. To do this, you’ll need several things:

  • (Non-acetone) nail polish remover or rubbing alcohol
  • Cotton balls or swabs
  • A clean, dry cloth

Start by dipping your cotton implement into the removal agent that you’ve gathered. Next, dab it over the ink stain until the ink begins to come out. Do not rub at the ink stain, as this can cause it to spread across your shoe! Continue doing this until the ink is visibly gone from your leather shoes. Make sure to wipe any remaining cleanser with a clean, dry cloth when you’re done.

How to Remove Stains from Leather Shoes

Leather shoe scuffs aren’t “stains,” per se, but since leather shoes are more prone to scratching and scuffing than standard cloth shoes, they’re a nuisance you’ll likely need to deal with over the lifetime of your shoes.

Many different products can remove scuffs from leather shoes, and you most likely already have the majority of them lying around your house.

Petroleum Jelly

Petroleum jelly is a gentle cleanser and moisturizer for leather shoes that also works to help lift away scuff marks. If you’re wondering how to remove stains from leather shoes with petroleum jelly, just rub the jelly gently into the scuff marks, then buff it away with a clean, moist towel. The petroleum jelly should lift away most scuff marks without damaging your expensive leather shoes.

Pencil Erasers

Believe it or not, pencil erasers work to remove marks from a lot more than just paper. They can remove scuff marks from shoes, too! For this method, just rub the eraser against the scuffed area of your boots (gently) until the scuff mark diminishes. We recommend using a brand-new eraser, if you can, as a used eraser can run the risk of spreading pencil marks on the surface of your shoes.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is a versatile household cleaner that can be used to remove stains on a wide variety of surfaces. To use it on shoes, mix one-part baking soda with one part water until you create a thick paste. Then, scrub the paste into the scuffs with a cloth or old toothbrush. You can repeat this process as needed until the scuff marks recede, but be careful not to abrade the surface of your leather shoes.

Dishwashing Detergent

Mild dishwashing detergent is another excellent household cleaner, and it can be just as effective on shoe scuffs as it can be on other household surfaces. All you need to do is add a few drops of gentle detergent to a moistened towel, then use it to wipe away the scuffs. Be sure to use only mild detergents and wash away any excess soap afterward.

Nail Polish Remover

Nail polish remover can also be useful for removing shoe scuffs, but be very careful not to use any acetone-based removers on your shoes! Acetone is supremely drying and damaging for leather shoes and should be avoided at all costs. For this method, just dip a Q-tip or cotton ball into the polish remover, then gently scrub away the scuff marks in question.


Believe it or not, toothpaste can work well for removing scuff marks, too. This is mostly because of its gently-abrasive nature. Just as toothpaste can scrub away food and stains on your teeth, it can remove scuff marks on your shoes, as well. A toothbrush is an appropriate method of transfer for the toothpaste, and it pays to moisten the paste a bit, too.

Scrub the toothpaste and wet toothbrush against the scuffs until the paste foams up nicely. Rinse with water afterward and reapply as many times as needed to remove the scuffs. We do recommend using a soft, gentle toothbrush to minimize the chances that you’ll scratch your leather shoes.

Shoe Polish

Shoe polish is the product most made for removing shoe scuffs, and it’s the best for your leather shoes, too. However, that doesn’t mean any of the other methods listed above work any less well! For commercial shoe polish, always follow the manufacturer’s directions included with the product.

Read Also: How to Remove Scratches from Leather Shoes

Preventative Measures for Leather Shoes

In the future, there are plenty of things you can do to prevent the accumulation of stains and scuffs on your shoes. After all, if you take steps to prevent the formation of stains in the first place, you’ll have much less work to do later on. Among the things you can do to protect your leather shoes are:

  • Regular shoe cleanings
  • Shoe-protectant sprays
  • Shoe polish
  • Beeswax
  • Leather conditioner

Regular Shoe Cleaning

Regular shoe cleaning is the most important thing you can do to maintain your leather shoes! Not only will your shoes appreciate it when you clean them frequently, but stains will be easier to clean, too. It makes logical sense that small, frequent cleanings will be easier than large, infrequent scrubbings.

While your leather shoes may not always be stained, watch for building dirt, scuffs, and salt build-up on your leather shoes. Like we mentioned earlier, the seams and stitches in leather shoes can be especially vulnerable to dirt build-up. This dirt will be easier to take care of (and will cause less damage) if you remove it frequently instead of letting it accumulate too much.

The same goes for salt and scuffs, too. The longer you go without cleaning your shoes, the more layered the imperfections will become. Too much dirt and accumulation can even damage your shoes by rubbing against vital components, also.

Shoe Sprays

Several different varieties of leather-protecting sprays exist formulated explicitly to protect your shoes from damage. These sprays serve a variety of purposes, too, from repelling water, to preventing scuffs, and keeping away dirt and salt.

Each spray is formulated differently, and each serves a different purpose. As such, you should take plenty of time to determine which one is best for you, what your shoes need protecting from most, and what formulations will be most comfortable on your shoe. Things like cost, toxicity, and composition should be taken into account, too.

Leather Shoe Polish

Leather shoe polish isn’t only a way to remove stains and scuffs from leather shoes; it can be used to protect them, too. Like leather protecting sprays, shoe polish comes in many different formulations, types, and functions. For example, leather shoe polishes can come in both creams and waxes.

Shoe polish creams and waxes serve entirely different purposes. While creams are intended to restore the color and vibrancy of your leather shoes, polishes are for shining and protecting your shoes.

Shoe polish creams are excellent for re-dying scratches, scrapes, and faded areas in your leather shoes. Over time, your shoes might lose some color, suffer damage, or otherwise fade from vibrancy. Shoe polish works to restore this vibrancy while also conditioning your boots.

Shoe polishes with wax, on the other hand, should be used regularly to protect your shoes from water, scuffing, and other damage. Wax is water repellent, so it will protect your leather shoes from water stains, among other things.


Beeswax is an alternative to shoe polish for protecting your shoes. Some prefer to use wax because it’s a more natural, non-toxic alternative. However, it has some distinct disadvantages over shoe polish and shoe sprays.

For one, raw beeswax tends to be hard at room temperature. If you’re to use wax on your leather shoes, it requires several phases of melting and re-melting to achieve an attractive finish. It also tends to dry cloudy and requires a good bit of buffing after the waxing process.

However, beeswax specifically made for leather shoes also exists. These shoe polishes are formulated around the use of wax, and they’re much easier to use, too. However, they do tend to be more expensive than raw beeswax.

Leather Conditioner

Leather conditioner is the secret to keeping healthy, flexible, and attractive leather shoes. Your leather shoes should be conditioned frequently to stay sturdy and flexible. Leather tends to dry and crack over time, but unlike live skin, it has no way of moistening or replenishing itself. As such, if you want it to stay nice and healthy-looking, it requires regular care with a moisturizing agent like a leather conditioner.

It’s not hard to learn how to remove stains from leather shoes. In fact, as long as you know how to treat leather, it’s a relatively straightforward process. However, leather is an entirely different material than cloth, and as such, it requires special care and upkeep. As long as you can tend to the specific needs of leather, it will reward you with a long, healthy life!