Terrible winter weather is just about done (praise be to whatever you believe in), but we aren’t totally out of the woods yet. Freezing rain, snow, slush, and ice are still sadly on the horizon—and you’ll need to baby your leather shoes and boots a little bit longer if you want to keep wearing them many winters from now.
I know you are all very busy, but proper leather footwear maintenance is so simple that an infant could do it—and it’ll only take about ten seconds out of your day.
Any time leather is exposed to salt and other de-icing products, damage is occurring. (And in winter, that means every single step makes it worse.) Salt is enemy #1 of leather—it starts corroding the instant it makes contact. But you can reverse this horror for free with plain old water, so get into the habit of wiping any accumulated salt residue from your shoes at the end of every day with a damp, well-wrung rag. (I love these “unpaper” towels for this exact purpose.) It’s the simplest "life hack" there is.
Some of you may chime in here and say that people should actually be using a mixture of water and magical white vinegar, the coconut oil of cleaning products (is there anything it can’t do?), to clean your leather boots and shoes. It is technically correct that the acid in vinegar will indeed dissolve salt deposits; however, a vinegar and water solution is not the best cure for daily salt buildup on shoes (and I’d kindly ask you to not angrily Tweet at me about this matter).
Vinegar can discolor leather if you aren’t careful—and will dry your boots out with repeated use.
Also, I’m aiming to make winter salt residue removal something that can be accomplished in seconds flat. If I have to open up a bottle of white vinegar and pull out a bowl to stir up a magical potion to clean my boots every day, I’m never going to do it. And truthfully, nobody ever really does it—so let’s give up the vinegar fantasy.
But even the drunkest, tiredest of humans can manage to run a rag under the faucet, wring it out well, and drag it across their salt-slushed footwear every night—and this one simple act will save your fancy leather boots from certain death.
A warning about this miracle H2O cure: If your shoes or boots are made of suede, never, ever use water on them. Remove salt residue from suede shoes with a small stiff bristled brush (like a toothbrush) only. And always work in the direction of the fibers, making sure your suede shoes are completely dry before brushing. Brushing wet suede only succeeds in grinding grime further into the shoe’s surface.
If your boots get soaked all the way through, resist the urge to put them near a radiator or other heat source to dry them overnight. It’ll just cause the leather to shrink, crinkle, and crack. Instead, consider investing in an electric shoe dryer. The best one is under $40—and will continuously circulate room-temperature air throughout your wet footwear, drying them in record time without causing any damage. We use them on set to dry out our actors' sweaty shoes at the end of a long day of filming.
If your shoes have already been beefed by wet weather, mold may start taking over. You’ll be able to spot it by the telltale furry ‘blooms’ sprouting out of both the sole and where the stitching meets the sole. Your first order of business is to give the mold spots a good firm brushing with a stiff nylon brush, like a kitchen or nail brush. This should remove the bulk of the mold immediately.
Vinegar truthers, get excited: Once you’ve forcefully removed the bulk of the mold blooms, your best bet to kill the fungus completely is to wipe the affected areas with a well-wrung rag dampened with a mixture of equal parts water and a natural fungicide: magical white vinegar! Make sure you don't allow your leather surface to become soaking wet with the vinegar solution, as mentioned previously—a slightly-damp application is what you’re going for. You can also use a water-diluted mixture of Simple Green, rubbing alcohol, or tea tree oil. (Simple Green and rubbing alcohol can be mixed 50/50 with water, while full-strength tea tree oil should be mixed at a ratio of five to six drops per ½ cup of water.)
Once cleared of mold, take care to dry your boots thoroughly throughout the rest of the season so that you need not use the vinegar solution again anytime soon. (You know why.)
When traveling somewhere cold and snowy, I don’t even wait until I arrive back at the hotel to wipe street slush from my fancy boots. I carry a bandanna in my bag and give them a quick once over mid-day in the lobby of whatever building I happen to be striding past. I always get funny looks from doormen, but I certainly didn’t spend six months languishing on a waiting list at Barney’s to let the grimy NYC snow ruin my brand new knee-high boots. And as Ben Franklin once said: “An ounce of preventative shoe care is better than a pound of ruined footwear.”