Guide - How to prevent and remove salt stains from shoes

Road salt stains is a pain that many living in colder locations have to battle with. The salt is crude on leather and risk causing sever damage. Here’s a guide going through how to prevent salt stains in the first place, and how to remove it if you still end up with salt stuck on your shoes.


Why road salt is bad for leather shoes

Road salt is used to lower the freezing point of snow and ice, to below 0 degrees celsius, which means that you get water instead of slippery snow and ice to even lower temperatures. Also salted roads and pavements will freeze, but at these lower temperatures the air is so dry that the surface becomes less slippery. So the reasons that road salt is used in colder areas makes sense, it does prevent slippery roads and pavements, which does prevent numerous types of accidents.

Road salt - good to prevent slippery streets, bad for shoes. Picture: Lab Manager

Road salt – good to prevent slippery streets, bad for shoes. Picture: Lab Manager

That said though, road salt is corrosive on many materials, like various metals (bad for cars and bikes) and leather, which is bad for shoes. When salt end up on your shoes, it will first create a stain which looks bad, but the main damage is the fact that it dries out the leather which eventually will cause it to crack. It’s this latter part that is the most severe thing for leather, which is why you always should make sure to remove salt from leather shoes even if it already has created a stain.


How to prevent road salt stains on leather shoes

Of course, there’s no way coming around using footwear during winter, and when it comes to footwear materials leather – a fully natural material unlike petroleum based GoreTex membrane fabrics and similar – has so many pros that makes up for the fact that it is sensitive to salt. However, if you follow the advice in this guide, you should be able to stay away from any serious issues with salt on you shoes or boots.

The best way to avoid salt stains and dried out leather is to make sure that the salt never gets to sit on your shoes. You do this by making it a habit to always wipe your shoes off when coming in after being outside on salted surfaces (also when it’s wet in early spring there’s often salt left on the streets, even if the snow is already gone). Best is to use a regular dishcloth or similar (ideally store one for this particular use at your workplace), but if you don’t have this paper cloth is fine. Moist the cloth/paper with warm water and start wiping the shoes.

Wipe from top to bottom. Picture: Ties

Wipe from top to bottom. Picture: Ties

One very common mistake done here is that people just move the salt around on the shoes (most of you probably recognise having salt wiped off and things looking good, only to discover huge salt stains on them the next morning). What you need to do is to wipe in one direction, from the top down towards the sole edge (so you take the most salty parts last), and continue to switch area on the cloth. Take one extra last take on the area close to the sole edge, again in one direction, from the back forward. Rinse the cloth in warm water, or take new paper, and repeat, at least a couple of times especially in areas where you’ve noticed salt.  This way you should be able to get the salt off the shoes, not just move it around on them.


How to remove salt stains from leather shoes

Should you still end up in a situation where you find these horrendous white salt stains on your footwear, fear not. What you need is something that dissolves salt. For this there are certain products, like Saphir salt and snow stain remover, or you can use a mixture of three equal parts of water, vinegar and lemon juice.

Lemon, water and vinegar.

Lemon, water and vinegar – the perfect mix to dissolve salt.

Moisten a cloth with the mixture, and wipe of the shoes in the same way as is described above, in one direction from the top down towards the sole edge, and continuously exchange part of the cloth, finish going along the sole edge from back to front. Rinse the cloth in warm water to remove all potential salt in it, squeeze it so it’s not too wet, apply the product or mixture and repeat the same process. If the shoes are in suede, it could be better to use an application brush. Finally go over the shoes with only a damp cloth with only water still wiping the same directions.

This should remove all the salt, make sure they dry properly and check for any white residues. Note that you may still have stains on the leather that the salt has created, even if you’ve managed to remove all the salt. But basically, if you don’t see any white salt, you should have managed to remove it, at least if you didn’t have the stain for a long time and it’s corroded so much that it has been able to penetrate deeper into the leather. And another thing that complicates things, is that some leathers, usually cheaper ones, can have the chromium salts used when tanning the leather dissolve when becoming wet, which creates salt stains. In those cases, things are more difficult altogether.

Here the salt is removed, but it had already created a stain which is visible straight after cleaning. No white salt visible though, which shows it has been removed properly.

Here the salt is removed, but it had already created a stain which is visible straight after cleaning. No white salt visible though, which shows it has been removed properly. Picture (also top image): Skolyx

When the shoes are dry and salt gone, make sure to properly moisturise the leather again, preferably first with a good leather conditioner and then with shoe cream and potential wax (here’s a guide on how to polish your shoes properly). If it’s suede or nubuck, good with a spray that nourish a bit and then waterproof. But again, make sure all salt is removed before applying cream and wax or waterproofing spray, since otherwise the salt will be encapsulated and continue to corrode the leather.