How to Safely Clean Sneakers in the Washing Machine
Everybody has a pair of sneakers that could do with a deep clean. Brushes and soaps often do the job, but for many, the lure of the washing machine is an irresistible – and often inevitable – express route from filthy to fresh. Here’s a guide to cleaning your sneakers safely in the washing machine – at your own risk.
By default, sneakers are not typically labelled as machine washable. For the sneaker nerds about to hit the keyboard: yes, Nike tried to sell a ‘Totally Washable’ cross trainer back in the late 1980s, but it never really took off.
Anyway, like any other garment, not all materials can be machine-washed. Definitely do not take leather and suede shoes down to the laundrette – there are better ways to keep Nike Dunks, Air Force 1s and Air Jordan 1s crispy clean. Sturdy textiles like nylon, polyester and canvas are safer bets to go through the wash. However, checking for colourfastness is essential.
Similarly, check that the sneakers are in good enough condition that they can actually handle a cycle. Fragile midsoles and poorly stitched uppers are not prime candidates. For example, 2020 vintage Air Max 90 ‘Infrareds’ can survive a wash, but think twice about the earlier 2005 retros.
This pair of Nike Air Ghostracer retros has clocked some kilometres. They’re great shoes, but the microfibre and mesh construction has always categorised them as Certified Dust Magnets – and it clearly shows here. They also made the perfect candidate to go through the washing machine of fortune.
Firstly, they passed the washing machine–safe material test. Secondly, this pair was only manufactured in 2019, so the glue and construction was still solid. However, there were still some careful preventative steps taken before they hit the water.
The shoelaces were removed to ensure the pair could move freely through the water without anything tangling. Having said that, too much tumble would be bad too, as it could increase the risk of damage. To counteract that, the shoes were wrapped up in a thick bathtowel, which would also help gently ‘scrub’ them mid-wash. For a final layer of security, the bundle was put into a suitably sized laundry bag to prevent unwanted unravelling.
For this experiment, the gentlest wash cycle – ‘hand wash’ – was selected. This setting has the least violent movement from the machine’s drum, and washing is focused on the efficient movement of water through the shoes. Similarly, the spin dry setting was at a much lower speed to again prevent damage. As an aside, a front-loading washing machine is preferable to a top loader, as the former doesn’t have an agitator that can jostle with the shoes.
On the detergent front, it’s not that complicated. However, consider liquid detergents as they tend to dissolve more easily, and scented varieties are a matter of personal preference. There’s no need for fabric softener! A splash of disinfectant also wouldn’t go astray if the pair being washed has a particularly strong pong. Finally, adjust the amount of detergent being used, as it’s not a full load of washing. Now, the shoes are finally ready for a wash. Don’t forget to throw in the laces!
While the first few rotations had the shoes clunking around rather heavily, the movement was more predictable as the machine got up to speed. The water was forming a nice sudsy foam, and penetrating the shoes completely.
Because the shoes were contained in a laundry bag with a towel, there was some bunching of the towel and awkward placement of the shoes at times. However, that was always going to be expected. An hour later, the cycle was complete.
Success! Mostly. The Ghost Racers came out looking much better than they did in, and some sections were glistening. The smoother synthetic panels on the upper and the faux carbon print on the midsole looked brand new. While the neon yellow mesh was also impressively bright.
The most challenging part of the shoes to clean – the white microfibre – came up pretty well, save for some stained remnants on the toe bumper that only some manual focus can remove. Similarly, the crevices between the outsole tread remained dirty.
After two days air drying – please don’t put shoes, wet or otherwise, into a tumble drier or next to an artificial heat source – the shoes were ready to be rocked once again. The microfibre, having been left roughed up from the wash and drying from damp, developed a rougher nap than its original finely brushed surface. A light scrub with a dry brush or suede eraser may restore a softer surface, but that’s probably the least concerning factor about a shoe that’s reached a level of filth requiring a washing machine.
Of course, always exercise common sense and go through the checklist before hitting ‘Start’ on the wash cycle. Like many things in the world, prevention is the best cure. Keep shoes fresh by using protective sprays, spot clean by hand when needed, and only use the washing machine when absolutely necessary.