Shoes in wet weather: How to deal with rain and salt damage

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Friday, March 6th 2020
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In the past week, perhaps as it has been particularly wet here, I’ve had three comments from readers on old posts about dealing with soaking-wet shoes. 

Those old posts were never very comprehensive, so here is something fuller - dealing with all the care and maintenance of shoes in the rain, as well as my personal experience and advice. 

This article is about repairing the damage, once it has occurred.

A second article will follow about avoiding the issue in the first place, with different types of shoes and soles. 

 

The ideal state: Shoes from Yuki Shirahama

The problem

Leather shoes are great for many things, but they aren’t naturally great in the rain. Water can soak into the leather, over time it can cause it to crack, and the dreaded ridges of salt marks can permanently distort them. 

Leather is still pretty water-resistant, certainly compared to a lot of trainers and canvas shoes, but the look of them can be ruined by rain - and that look is a big part of why we wear them.

There are various ways to deal with this, depending on the severity of the soaking, and affecting both what shoes you buy and how you look after them. 

 

Putting in shoe trees - a snap from our video with Edward Green

Drying out 

Damage to shoes can be minimised by how you dry them out.

Putting shoe trees in will help retain the shape of the shoe, and stop hard creases forming on the vamp (where the shoe bends) that can crack later. 

However, if the shoes are really drenched, it’s best to leave the shoe trees out for a couple of hours, so air can get inside and help the drying. Or, stuff some newspaper in, which will help draw out the water. 

Laying the shoes on their sides can also help dry out the soles, which (being thick) soak up a lot of the water. 

As with most natural materials though, don’t dry shoes close to any artificial heat source, like a radiator, as this will dry them out too quickly.

 

Adding cream and then polish - from our Gaziano & Girling video

Restoring the leather

Once shoes are dried out (best to allow a full day), give them a thorough brush: often a big part of the problem is dirt and debris that has got into the shoes’s folds when they were wet. 

Then, apply some shoe cream. When leather dries out, the oils in the skin rise to the surface - and their absence in the leather is what causes it to crack. So apply cream as you would normally would, or a serious conditioner like Saphir Renovateur if it looks particularly dry. 

The cream will take away some of the polish on the shoe, so you will probably want to re-polish them. This is a pain - a lot of work just to get back to square one - and is one reason readers often say they hate getting shoes wet.

However, it does mean the shoe is fully recoverable, which isn’t the case with many materials. Leather is a living material that can be worked at and repaired, unlike plastic-coated shoes or cheap split leather on trainers. 

 

Soaked shoes before salt stains start to appear - courtesy of Pediwear

Dealing with salt stains

By far the biggest danger with rain is salt stains, because they can cause permanent scarring of the leather, potentially making them unwearable. 

Salt is everywhere - not just when it’s added to the streets to deal with snow - and you can see it come to the surface in white tide marks as shoes dry. Those tide marks are also where the leather will swell, creating a ridge along its edge. It is this ridge, this distortion of the leather, which it is hardest to get rid of. 

Personally, I find that it’s best to try and tackle these salt marks as soon as possible.

When you take off your shoes after rain, look and see if there are any signs of marks or ridges - they're usually above the welt, on either side of the vamp where the shoe bends (and there’s less protection from polish).

If you can see some, take a damp cloth and rub at them. This will start to take off the salt and reduce the ridges. Once that’s done and the shoes are fully dry (check them now and again), you can add cream and polish - the difference being that more will be required, because you have rubbed away more of the surface.

 

When the water goes, and salt remains

Adding vinegar

Sometimes just a damp cloth is enough. Certainly, it’s worth doing that if you can’t do the next stage, which is adding white vinegar* to the mix.

Here, you do the same process but with a mix of vinegar and water, say 3 parts water to 1 vinegar. (Leather likes to be quite acidic.)

Some hard rubbing should deal with those ridges, leaving the surface of the leather feeling smooth. If it doesn’t, you can increase the concentration up to 1:1. If you can, using distilled water is also better as you’re not rubbing any impurities into the leather. 

This vinegar treatment can also be good if there are no salt stains, but the leather has grime worked into it that doesn’t come out with wiping or brushing. 

And there are specialist products for removing salt stains, from Saphir among others - although I’ve found the vinegar mix to be just as effective (and cheaper).

Saphir's anti-salt product

Recovering suede

Suede is often seen as a delicate material, unsuited to wet weather. Certainly, it is easy for the nap to come off when scraped or rubbed when cleaning. 

But suede has one big advantage, which is that it rarely develops salt stains.

Once it’s dried out (see above) all you usually have to do is brush the nap back up. A specialist suede brush might be useful for dirt, but rain on its own is easy. (See video on brushing suede jackets here.)

You can use a delicate version of the vinegar treatment above if suede does develop salt stains - but be careful. Start by dabbing and trying to blot the surface, rather than rubbing. The danger with suede is always scraping off that nap. 

 

Caring for suede - an extract from our Valstar video

Dealing with oil

This isn’t really related to wet weather, but oily stains on shoes are usually the hardest to deal with, and are one stain usually not helped by the vinegar mix. 

There are products to try and lift off oils, but I’ve only tried using them once, and managed to make the problem worse. In the end, I think this is a problem you'll have so rarely that you’re unlikely to master it. 

With this and anything more serious than water or dirt, I’d recommend taking the shoes to a specialist. Stripping back the leather and having someone re-patina it might be the best option. 

See article here on such resources. 

 

Thick soles and a storm welt - but rain damage is still coming

*White vinegar is sold as such in the US, and most of Europe. In the UK, it’s hard to buy except online - the best equivalent is sold as ‘distilled white vinegar’, even though this is actually malt vinegar and so a different process. All are different to white wine vinegar, which is for cooking not cleaning, not as strong, and a different process again.

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David G

Interesting article Simon, but you fail to mention that there are any number of high quality products designed specifically to protect both leather and suede from being spoiled by rain. Application of these products before venturing out in wet weather is a sensible and effective way of avoiding the problems you describe in the first place.

David G

Fair enough.

But why not do “prevention” first, then follow it up with this “cure” article?

Jay

Hi Simon,
May I ask if you ever use any protection on the leather soles of your shoes, e.g. Sole Guard from Saphir? Does it make any difference?
Thank you.
Regards
Jay

Zo

On the “drying out” section. I can vouch for when you say never put shoe trees into soaked shoes. I did that once with a pair of loafers and ended up with the most stubborn mould on the inside and bottom on the soles. Eventually had to get them resoled.

Bob

The best way to deal with salt stains, I have found, is to soak the shoe completely. I’ve done it with suede, with excellent results.

Here’s all you need to know about cleaning shoes, including dealing with heavy salt stains:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxqFkv-fqNU

Phillip

I’d like to echo your comments on oil – I tried using Hussard “oil remover” on some Church’s boots in Sand suede – needless to say, the marks are just as prominent.

Will redying to a very dark brown/chocolate colour cover these, or will there still be splotches?

Phillip

Thanks Simon – who did you entrust them to, or did you do it yourself?

Is it something the factory would do when selnding back for resoling?

Tomas

Hi Philip, I had a similar issue on a light tan Chelsea boots that got some penut butter on top which is very oily and the leather absorbed leaving a big stain in the middle. The cobbler said he couldn’t do anything so I tried myself. Left baby powder on top of the stain over night and the next day I brushed it with warm water and detergent until it was gone. The stain came out and left a lighter area of course, but with two layers of tan Saphir polish cream one can barely notice. So perhaps is worth a try. I’m aware there are worse types of oil stains but this was my experience.

Hannes

When it comes to harsh conditions for shoes. How would you handle a nightclub situation? Let’s say you were 23 years old. Wearing Flannel trousers (or chinos etc) and a nice shirt, perhaps a casual jacket. A pretty messy student-y nightclub. What would you wear on your feet? Ideally I would wear simple suede sneakers, but alcohol plus lots of people stepping on me would mean they are ruined after one night. I used to wear a pair of black converse (cheap, not fragile, black doesnt show marks), but they are now completely fucked. What would you recommend? Ideally something that also works with jeans (think Magnum P.I.)

Evan Everhart

I’d wear black Chelsea boots. black doesn’t take stains as easily, it’s appropriate for an evening event, and the styling of the ankle boot is appropriate for a night club. Chances are you wouldn’t get too much structural damage in a night, and any spills wouldn’t effect them too badly, especially if you applied a layer or two of actual shoe polish to the uppers before yr evening, which you could then buff off and clean up (you’d have to anyway), before it begins to adversely dry the leather too much. A one night only solution if you will. I used to use that when I went to nightclubs quite a bit in my 20s. Have fun!

Matt

More to the point – Where on Earth is this “messy student night club” with people decked out in flannel trousers and blazers?!?

Or are you saying that you plan to turn up a regular student nightclub dressed like Michael Caine’s character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? In which case – Good luck.

Anonymous

You could swap the suede trainers for similar style but in dark brown or black leather. Or other leather shoes/boots- at lower end of price spectrum eg Loake etc
Bit of wax polish before going out- probably wouldn’t go for a High shine though.
Dark brown or black is a lot more forgiving.
You could also periodically re-dye the darker brown shoes if the colour got bleached/affected by whatever was on the floor.
Alternatively stick with converse or similar and accept they will have a shorter life.

Bill

My go-to in this situation (if you can’t get away with a trashed old pair of trainers) has been a pair of dark brown suede meermin loafers. They were not hugely expensive and seem to bounce back from more or less anything with a decent brush and drink spills etc don’t show up on them (have owned them 4/5 years and spilt a lot of drinks on them). Leather just gets scratched/stained in my experience.

Tomas

From someone in his late twenties. Chelsea boots are your best option, in calf leather. They will get sticky and dirty but with a wash (saddle soap) and a layer of shoe cream they’ll be good again. If you’re still budget conscious go for something like Meermin, they can step you all night and the leather wont tear…just make sure you’ve broken them in before going out for the sake of your feet.
Alternatively, some chukkas can do the same but I think chelseas look better and more juvenile.

Harry

If salty, I say deal with it as soon as you get home. Immediately! Your diluted white vinegar trick should do it. Also, don’t know if modern newspaper leaves black ink stains inside shoes. I tend to use scrunched up brown paper. ‘Scrunched’, such a lovely word.

E L

One more thing. You can speed up the drying process if you take a paper towel to the shoe and just press, not rub, with the paper towel still flat (not balled up). This picks up a lot of the surface moisture on the outside, inside, and sole (if leather).

Anonymous

Dear Simon,

In your experience – would a pair of cordovan shoes be less sensitive to rain and associated damage?

Kenny

Do you think that bookbinder leather is similarly less sensitive/more resistant to rain? To. be honest, I can’t understand why anyone would wear an expensive pair of shoes in bad weather.

When there is heavy rain and salt on pavements or train platforms, I wear country shoes or boots with commando soles. Slim rubber, or even Dainite, soles lack the necessary traction on very wet or icy surfaces. If necessary, one can change into a pair of formal shoes on arrival at the office or event venue. Galoshes, which draw strange looks from colleagues and passengers, are not a stylish choice.

Jason

Sage advice for the debutant flaneur.
Regarding suede (my staple) some marks can be removed highly effectively with a brand new ‘clean’ white pencil eraser. Start using it lightly.

LAStyleGuy

Great post. Would be even more helpful/inspirational if you showed some “after” pictures, to dramatize how the restoration is indeed possible.

R Abbott

You said: “Here, you do the same process but with a mix of vinegar and water, say 3 parts vinegar to 1 water.”

Did you mean “3 parts water to 1 vinegar”?

Alex

Hey Simon,

I think the ratios for water to vinegar are mixed up. 1:1 is a weaker vinegar solution than 3 parts vinegar, 1 part water (or 3:1), not stronger which is what seems to be implied.

Thomas

Simon I would also stress the benefits of prevention. I have been wearing galoshes from Totes for many years walking the tough (on shoes !! ) streets of Manhattan. Current pair I have had for at least two years. My wife makes fun of them but given how they completely protect my shoes they are a simple and cost effective way to really take care of your shoes. When the weather is awful I don’t think anyone notices apart from myself…

Jasper

Like always very accurate writing and informative. Thanks.
I have to say, this reminds me of moments that I’m considering to stop dressing like this. It can be such a pain at times. Who wants to avoid puddles all day, reduce bike rides and think twice before they put there clothes on in the morning.. Nine out of ten time when I wear my suede jacket or shoes it starts raining for example… The result is that last couple of months I mostly wear trainers, cotton chino’s or jeans and a coat made of a waterproof fabric. It’s a shame, having all these clothes and not wear them so often but this article proves how much time a thought go’s into it. Great that you write more often about casual clothing. I guess we sort of need to dress more casual.

Kirill

I’d recommend one other trick I’ve learnt (through trial, error and ruined shoes).

First, you take off the soaked (and soon-to-develop-salt-stains) shoes and let them dry up a bit without the shoe trees.

Second, you put the shoe trees in, moisten a paper towel and apply it to exposed parts in a bandaid fashion.

Third, you leave it rest like that overnight and let the physics do the job. Through the reverse osmosis the salt and chemicals will be drawn into the towels (with any excess of moisutre absorbed by the shoe trees). Repeat if necessary.

Then comes the usual drill with the cream and polish.

Kirill

Simon, no, I’m afraid I haven’t.

I’d go on a limb now and quote my cobbler (although I have no evidence to corroborate his version). He says that vinegar solutions (and the Saphire detachant hiver) do not actually pull the microcrystals of chemicals out of leather. Rather, they effectively “freeze” their growth and they no longer grow in size, damaging the leather structure from within and creating this ridges and bulges. The point I’m trying to make is that applying vinegar solution on a sheet might help if you apply it super quick. But if the salt stains have already appeared it won’t help.

Granted, this must depend on the specific formula of the chemicals used. So, for clarity sake, I state that this method works for me in Moscow 🙂

Roger Pegg

I always wear overshoes in bad weather which usually avoids most of the problems caused by water. I have overshoes in black, brown and orange. Which meet most requirements. I also have a pair in the car just in case

harryofmonmouth

Winter months – out come the rubber sole shoes & boots
Leather sole spring summer autumn
(simple really)

Robert F.

Hi Simon,
It is rather delighting to read and follow the blog. I would like to thank for the advice with the vinegar and water mixture, it has been useful indeed.
Thank you.

Matt

Help!

I got caught in a summer downpour whilst walking to work last week and now how dark brown water stains all around the front of my tan C&J Dorsets.

I’ve left them to dry over the weekend but the marks still there! How do I remove them. I’ve looked online but there seems to be a mixture of advice ranging from the dubious to the downright odd and I’m reluctant to try anything that might cause further damage.

Is it possible to remove watermarks from tan leather?

Matt

Thanks Simon. I’ve read the article but it seems to be based on assumption that waterstains will fade with drying out and can then simply be dealt with using polish or cream. In my case, the issue is that the waterstains don’t appear to have faded significantly after 3-4 days of drying out time and are considerably darker than the colour of the shoe / polish.

Is it simply a case of waiting longer to see if the marks eventually fade? I’m reluctant to apply Renovateur Cream as I assume any additional moisture will simply ‘reactivate’ the stains?

Thankfully, this being summer, salt stains aren’t the issue here.

Anonymous

it actually happened to me as well on a pair of shoes last year. there are small dark stains next to the sole, in the front part of the shoe (where my toes are). not knowing how to treat wet shoes, that time i just stuck shoe trees in them and left them to dry out.

today i got caught in the rain again, in the same shoes, and the same kind of stains appeared, only bigger (longer time in the rain). it’s almost like the wetness has been raising from the wet sole towards the vamp – so the stain is a bit higher where the leather creases). this makes me think that these are not oil marks or any other dirt from the street, since they are not splattered randomly on the shoe.

this time i stuffed the shoes with paper, gave them a quick wet wipe to get rid of other small white stains and dirt and then pressed dry paper towels on them. they’re now resting on their side in the foyer. i’ll update on the results in a few days, but i’m not optimistic. the good news, such as it is, is that they are a somewhat darker shade of brown so i don’t think they’ll be completely ruined even if the stains remain.

Initials CG

During summer, the streets tend to accumulate automobile oil and waste. You can actually see those greenish blue streaks in the puddles or running drainage when rain comes after a long dry period. This oil and grease gets splashed on to the sidewalks as well.
Matt, It could be that you have that oil an grease in the leather given it was a summer downpour.
Best to take to a specialist shoe care where they’ll likely strip the leather with an acetone wash and re-dye the leather. Sounds awful but a friend of mine had his shoes come back better looking than before., but I imagine that really depends on each situation and the skill of the shoe repair person. Good luck!

Initials CG

Sorry, Matt and Simon. Clarifying on the damage to tan shoes:
It’s very unlikely that they will be returned to the original color. But, you can get back a Beautiful lightly burnished chestnut color, which in my humble opinion looks much smarter on light summer grey or cream linen trousers than tan.
Tan shoes are such difficult shoes to pair well. They seem like the right summer color, but they tend to look odd or amateurish at worst – just my opinion though. I used to love them, and had all kinds of tans – from oxfords to summer loafers. After several better dressed gentlemen would kindly comment, “what a beautiful cream linen suit, but perhaps your shoes are too light after 3pm…,” I wore light tan shoes less and less. I turned three pairs of tan shoes into chestnut, Bordeaux and brown … and get so much more out of them now. I kept the tan loafers, however, for a mid morning coffee break in spring and summer – always praying we don’t get a summer downpour when I wear them.

Chris

Hi Simon,
I recently bought a pair of Edward Greens, at an amount of money which was very expensive for my means.
Within a week of buying, I was walking home and it started at best spitting with rain . I was maybe 10 houses away from my house and they caught a few rain spots.
I was pretty amazed and gutted that these have caused visible damage to the leather. I’ve had them looked at by the same people who look at your shoes and they were unable to improve the rain damage though they were happy to look at them again and might be able to help over time .
I’m not sure the next move – as said, I’m stunned tbh. I expected more from the leather on a £1100 shoe to the point I am considering returning them. Be interested to know your thoughts. Thankyou as ever.