How To Deodorize Shoes and Keep Them Smelling Fresh


There are certain problems that runners face more than other people. Injuries, runner’s stomach, soreness… And smelly shoes! While it’s definitely not only a running issue, it’s likely to affect runners since all that sweat goes into the same pairs of shoes.

This is why it’s a great idea to learn how to deodorize your shoes and keep them smelling fresh. Not only does it make you feel better about putting them on, but it also reduces the chances of other problems due to bacteria… Which is what that nasty odor is from in the first place!

The good news is that once you know the tricks and hacks, you’ll always have a way to freshen up your shoes! Try these methods now, even if your shoes don’t smell yet.

What Causes Shoes to Smell?

The culprit behind foot and shoe odor is bacteria. It’s generally not harmful, but it produces organic acids that give off a nasty odor as they grow.

The biggest reason this happens inside shoes so often is that damp, dark, warm places are the favorite breeding grounds of bacteria. So when your feet sweat inside your shoes, it’s the perfect place for this kind of bacteria to grow.

Your feet have the biggest concentration of sweat glands in the whole body! So they WILL sweat inside your shoes, which means this problem is much more common than you might think.

These bacteria live inside the materials of the shoe. But when you put your feet inside it, they can also attach to the skin, making your feet and shoes smell bad.

Why It’s Important to Keep Running Shoes Fresh and Odor-Free

Bacteria not only causes an unpleasant odor in your shoes, but it can also cause the materials of the shoes to wear out faster.

As bacteria produces more and more acid, it eventually begins to eat away at the fabric, causing it to wear away and possibly even compromising its structural integrity. This means smelly shoes can cost you more money in the long run!

Dirt and sweat can also build up inside the upper of the shoe, reducing the breathability of your shoes. This makes it easier for bacteria to grow, but it can also cause your feet to sweat more as they don’t get ventilation. Plus, there’s no way for the moisture to evaporate, which just compounds the problem.

Allowing damp shoes to sit in a dark closet also makes them susceptible to mold, a bigger problem than odor-causing bacteria. While it’s possible to save leather shoes from mold once it’s set in, running shoes that contain mesh and foam may be more difficult to salvage.

How to Deodorize Shoes

The good news is that most methods of deodorizing shoes don’t just mask unpleasant odors. These tips and tricks help absorb sweat in the shoes, removing the moisture bacteria needs to grow.

1. Air Out Your Shoes

This one is quite self-explanatory. Bacteria grows in damp, dark places, so airing your shoes out well removes the dampness, an essential ingredient for shoe odor.

Place your shoes in a well-ventilated area. Avoid placing them in direct sunlight, near a heater, or anything similar; heat will help to dry your shoes out, but there’s also a high chance of heat damaging the material of the shoes.

Allow them to air dry, in the wind if you want them to dry faster. You can place them in front of a fan if you have one; make sure it doesn’t blow dust or other debris on them.

2. Sprinkle Baking Soda in Them

The good news is that baking soda is cheap and easily accessible to almost everyone! It’s also a natural deodorizer, helping to absorb sweat so bacteria can’t develop.

Sprinkle 1/2 to a full tablespoon into each shoe and leave them overnight or up to 24 if you have the time. You can sprinkle it on top of the insole, but if the shoes are very damp, you should lift the insole and put some underneath as well.

In the morning, empty each shoe and give them a good shake to ensure it’s all out. You can also vacuum them out if necessary, and you should be good to go with fresh shoes.

One of the best things about this method is that it does not damage your shoes’ fabric. And with the price of baking soda, you can do this every night if you want to!

3. Activated Charcoal

Like baking soda, activated charcoal absorbs sweat and neutralizes odor. You can use charcoal bricks if you want, but activated charcoal is handy because you can sprinkle it in like baking soda.

Sprinkle a generous amount throughout each shoe and leave it overnight. Shake it out or vacuum it up in the morning, and you should be good to go with fresh shoes.

4. Tea Tree Oil and Water

Essential oils can help to inhibit bacterial growth in shoes, but they also leave a really nice odor.

It’s important to note that not all essential oils are helpful for stopping bacterial growth, but certain ones—like tea tree oil, clove oil, cedarwood oil, and cinnamon oil—show some evidence for it.

Other oils may smell nice, but using them might just mask the odor without actually reducing the bacteria problem. Double-check before choosing an oil to use, but we recommend tea tree oil as it’s pleasant-smelling and is known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties.

You can sprinkle a few drops into each shoe every now and then, but the easier way is to mix some oil with water and put it in a spray bottle. Then, every time you want to use it, just shake the bottle and spray each shoe. Leave it to dry and you’ll have fresher, nicer-smelling shoes.

5. Spritz Your Shoes With White Vinegar

Vinegar might have a strong smell but is also good at neutralizing bacteria. Make sure you mix white vinegar with equal parts water first—that will tone down the strong smell, but will still be effective.

Spray your shoes with this mixture and leave them to air-dry in a well-ventilated area. Shaking the shoes out might be a good idea, and ensuring there’s no debris inside them before spraying.

6. Scented Dryer Sheets

Chances are you’ve got dryer sheets lying around the house somewhere! Stuff a few of them into your shoes, and they should absorb sweat and leave a nice odor behind as well.

This may not be a practical solution for long-term use, as dryer sheets are more expensive than baking soda, for example. But in a pinch, this is a quick way of deodorizing your shoes so you can get going again with freshness.

7. Cat Litter

Cat owners, this one’s for you! Kitty litter is excellent at absorbing liquid, as you already know. This means you can use it to absorb sweat and leave a light deodorized scent in your shoes too.

We don’t recommend sprinkling it into your shoes as is, because the tiny pieces can get stuck under your insole and cause damage. You can wrap some up in a coffee filter, or even fill some old socks with cat litter and stuff them into your shoes to absorb odor.

8. Lemon Peels

The acid in lemon peels has antibacterial properties, so when you place them in your shoes, they can help eliminate bacteria growing there. Plus, the subtle lemon scent makes your shoes smell fresh!

Note that lemon peels will do nothing for damp shoes. They will definitely help it smell better, but they won’t absorb sweat, which is the more pressing problem in most cases.

9. Dry Tea Bags

Tea bags contain tannins, which are compounds known to kill bacteria. There are two ways you can use tea bags here—dry or moist. Throw a few dry tea bags into each shoe, which help absorb sweat and remove odor.

Or, you can boil the tea bags for a few minutes, activating the tannins and making their effects more potent. Squeeze out the excess water and place the damp tea bags into your shoes for a few hours.

10. Put Your Shoes in the Freezer

Bacteria thrive in warm, damp conditions, opposite the freezer! Putting your shoes into the freezer might not kill bacteria completely, but it can significantly reduce it to the point where it can’t multiply.

Don’t just stick your shoes on the freezer shelf, though—place them each in a ziploc bag first to avoid contaminating anything or getting dirt in the freezer.

11. Sunlight and Fresh Air

We advise using caution when it comes to placing your shoes in sunlight. Harsh heat can damage shoes, but the gentle sun can dry them out nicely. When paired with fresh air, your shoes can dry out well and have little to no odor.

However, we recommend trying other, less damaging methods first and using this as a last resort, or if you aren’t too worried about your shoes getting damaged.

12. Shoe Deodorizers

If you prefer, you can buy a shoe deodorizer spray. You won’t have to mix up your own, and these often come in various scents so you can find something that works for you.

We recommend choosing something like this Shoe Deodorizer & Odor Eliminator Spray by Lumi Outdoors. Natural ingredients are always best, and it’s easy to use.

How to Prevent Smelly Shoes

Deodorizing shoes is easy if you know how. But preventing foot odor in the first place is helpful. While you can’t stop your feet from sweating, here are a few ways that might help prevent smelly shoes.

Rotate Your Shoes

Rotating your shoes can help each pair get ample time to dry between uses. If you’re using the same pair every day, it may not dry fully before you put it on for your next use, which can increase the chances of bacteria developing.

We suggest using at least two different pairs for any given activity, especially if you’re doing it daily. Take your shoes off at the end of the day—or the end of the activity—and place them in a well-ventilated area to dry naturally.

Clean and Dry After Each Use

Whether you’re using one, two, or more pairs of shoes, it’s a good idea to clean your shoes after each use and make sure they dry properly. Remember, dampness is bacteria’s best friend!

Place your pair of shoes in front of a fan to dry off quickly without damage. Also, remember to be careful about placing them in the sun.

Wear Moisture-Wicking Socks

Choosing moisture-wicking socks can help to get rid of sweat so it doesn’t build up in your shoes. These kinds of socks draw sweat away from your feet so it can evaporate. The key to this being effective is to also make sure you have breathable shoes.

Use Washable Shoe Inserts or Insoles

Choosing washable insoles can be helpful. Just throw them in the washing machine along with everything else, and they’ll come out clean and odor-free… With no damage to the shoe material!

Wash Your Feet More Often

It might sound tedious, but if you often struggle with smelly shoes, washing your feet every time could be a good idea before putting on your shoes.

You don’t need to shower or have a full-on scrub, but a quick wash with soap will make sure you aren’t accidentally getting old dirt or sweat into your shoes before you even start wearing them.

Photo of author


Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.