A female hand holding a pink pair of soiled and smelly shoes

Smelly Shoe Solutions: Deodorizing Steps to Banish the Stench

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Have you ever slipped off your shoes and noticed an embarrassing smell? Or maybe you’ve been about to put on a pair but got bowled over by the stink? You, my friend, need to deodorize your shoes, pronto.

I confess, sometimes mine don’t smell like flowers. In fact, depending on which pair I wear, they don’t even smell human. So, read on for how I clean smelly shoes and keep them odor-free.

Why Do Your Shoes Stink?

The reason shoes stink is because your feet are home to 250,000 sweat glands that make about half a pint of sweat each day. This warm, damp environment is an ideal breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria that normally live on our skin, along with less pleasant ones our feet, socks, and shoes collect.

Steps to Solve Your Smelly Shoe Situation

To eliminate shoe odors, you need to eliminate those bacteria, treat your shoes between wearings, and control how much your foot sweats.

Step 1: Deodorize Shoes by Washing Them.

If your shoes are unembellished canvas or fabric, get rid of odor-causing bacteria by washing them. In the machine, use your usual detergent and a cup of white vinegar, but skip all the other additives. Select a warm or cool gentle wash—hot water will shrink shoes and dissolve the adhesives keeping them together.

To wash shoes by hand, slip out laces, insoles and inserts, then dunk your shoes in a basin of cool soapy water with some baking soda sprinkled in. Use a toothbrush and more baking soda on stubborn spots. Change to fresh water and add a splash of vinegar then wait as the fizzing action further deodorizes your smelly shoes. Rinse.

Pro Tip

Use a disinfecting wipe or cloth dampened with shoe deodorizing spray inside non-washable shoes like those made of leather or suede.

Step 2: Do a Two-Step Shoe Dry.

If you’re willing to risk shrinkage, add your sneakers to the dryer or use an over-the-door bag that holds them in place. Keep the heat low and you might luck out. To be safe, check on them every 15 minutes after the first half hour, and pull them out as soon as they feel dry. 

Your safest bet is to air dry shoes somewhere indoors with good air circulation but away from heat, including direct sunlight. First, tuck a clean, dry hand towel into each one and gently squeeze so the towel absorbs some moisture. Repeat with a different cloth, then remove it and let your shoes air dry.

Step 3: Freshen Shoe Inserts and Insoles.

Wash your insoles and inserts in cool, soapy water, rubbing them with your fingers or a toothbrush to dislodge grime. Add a good splash of vinegar to the rinse water for more deodorizing power, then blot with a towel. Wait until they’re bone dry to put them back into your shoes.

Since these hidden heroes of arch support absorb more than their share of bacteria, give them a bath every couple of weeks to help control shoe odors.

Step 4: Deodorize Again After Wearing.

Let them dry

Letting your shoes dry out after wearing is an important step in reducing odor-causing bacteria. You can speed up the drying process by removing the insoles and putting your shoes in front of a fan or outside in indirect sunlight.

Alternate days

We all have our favorite comfy sneakers, but it’s important to rotate shoes so you don’t wear the same ones two days in a row. This helps deodorize shoes by giving them time to fully dry out. A day off also lets them spring back to their original shape, so they’ll feel better, too.

Use a DIY shoe deodorizing spray

A homemade shoe deodorizing spray made from equal parts water and white vinegar plus a dash of tea tree oil is another great way to knock out odors. Spritz the inside of washable shoes, or spray a cloth and use it to wipe the insole of non-washable ones. Both vinegar and tea tree oil target bacteria to leave your shoes fresh.

Or a homemade shoe powder deodorant

If you prefer a powder, shake together 3 tablespoons of baking soda, 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, and 5 drops of tea tree oil. Leave this powder in your shoes overnight and dump out the excess before wearing. The baking soda deodorizes and tea tree oil eliminates bacteria, leaving your shoes smelling sweet. Or at least not gross.

Pro Tip

Cat litter does an excellent job absorbing moisture. Tie a handful in a square of loose-weave cloth and tuck it into the toes of your shoes. Add a tea bag first to deodorize your shoes at the same time.

Step 5: Keep Your Feet Fresh and Dry.

The battle against smelly shoes is ongoing. The drier your feet, the less frisky bacteria get. When you can keep them from multiplying, you’ll keep odors under control.

• Opt for shoes that breathe: Natural materials like hemp, fabric and canvas allow air to circulate so your feet don’t get sweaty. Steer clear of plastic, vinyl and rubber shoes—they’ll trap moisture.

• Wear moisture-wicking socks. Synthetic materials trap sweat. Choose cotton, wool, or bamboo socks to keep your feet dry. And change to fresh ones the instant your feet feel damp.

• Try the freezer trick: Slip your shoes in a plastic bag then stuff them in the freezer overnight. The low temperatures can knock out some of the bacteria.

• Help your shoes dry: After you take your shoes off, stuff them with newspaper or dry rags to absorb sweat. Then use the homemade shoe spray or DIY shoe powder to deodorize your smelly shoes overnight.

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28 Comments

  1. Thanks a lot! This really helped my shoes that literally could not be worn because they smelled so bad… It was embarrassing…

  2. you totally saved me with this article!! tried everything under the sun – how did I not think of white vinegar!!

  3. Annabelle says:

    Nearly 40 years ago I got rid of my husband’s odor in his cowboy boots and his feet! I just kept an solution of baking soda (about 1/2 cup) and water (about a quart) on top of the dryer. When I was throwing his socks into the dryer I put them into the solution, wrung them out, and then tossed into the dryer with the rest of the clothes. I did this for about a month, and he still does not have stinky feet! (His socks were black, and they came out with a salt and pepper look, but it worked).

    1. I just *have* to try this baking soda & water trick! Especially for my dear, stinky J who leaves work with wet feet every day.

  4. Madolyn K Mallory says:

    I. bought a pair of shoes and they smell from the leather or whatever they are made from. It smells like the Polish they used, but really strong. I left them outside all night, but didn’the help. Still smell………….,HELP

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hm. I haven’t encountered that problem before but think I’d try putting them into a large plastic bag and sprinkling them inside and out with baking powder to absorb the odor, then closing the bag and letting them sit overnight. Shake the powder out, wipe the shoes off, and hopefully, the smell will be gone. Good luck!

  5. I remember dryer sheets working, but my wife just tried and said that didn’t help. Thanks for the plans B-F!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome!

  6. We are not sure what has happened to my sons work boots. They have a smell that we can not get rid of. To me, it smells almost like cat urine. He was wearing them out in one of our fields after it rained and yes they got a little wet but good grief, how do we get that smell out? They are leather so we can’t just throw them in the wash so does anybody have any suggestions? Thank you, Kari

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Kari,
      That sounds like an awful odor! I’d suggest removing and replacing the insoles if that’s possible, as well as the laces. Use some soapy water and a washcloth on the outer sole in case it’s something he stepped in. Then try sprinkling the shoe deodorizing powder inside his boots and let that sit for an evening before dumping it out. Hope that helps!

  7. Could I substitute another oil, rather than tea tree oil? I have some peppermint oil.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, peppermint oil has antibacterial properties, too, which helps it kill odors.

  8. Abbie Clark says:

    Wow, I never would have thought to use clay kitty litter as a shoe deodorizer! Thanks for the hack!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You bet!

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