How To Apply Shoe Polish?

The shoeshine boy was once a staple character in the detective story. It was also the pastime of a young, spunky poor boy wanting to make good. A few merciless parodies of the trope plus fewer people wearing shoes that needed shining meant the shoeshine boy was seen less, both in fiction and real life.

Some hotels and some of the ritzier train, air and bus terminals might have places where you can get your shoes shined. For the most part, if you need your shoes shined, you’ll be doing it yourself.

how to apply shoe polish
“Classic Shoe Polish” by Alan Levine, Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Types Of Shoe Polish

There are three different types of shoe polish on the market:

  • Cream or Paste This moisturizes the leather and keeps it supple. It contains mineral oil and is good for restoring the shoes’ color.
  • Wax It is better than cream for covering up scuffs but it seals the leather, making it dry out. It contains Stoddard solvent (naphtha) or turpentine plus carnauba and/or beeswax.
  • Liquid This usually comes in a bottle with its own sponge attached. It’s good for a quick shine but it can also cause the leather to dry out and crack. It’s best not to use it.

How To Open Shoe Polish?

The first step of polishing your shoes is to open that container! This stuff stains, so you need to be careful about it. Many types such as Kiwi contain their product in round tins. Hold down the tab on the shoe polish container, align the end of the tab, and make sure it meets with the area beneath the lid. Push down the tab on the other side of the lever. The container should spring open after that.

How To Apply Shoe Polish?

Working up a good shoe polishing technique will keep your shoes looking good for a long time. The basic equipment you will need for this job is shoe polish, a polishing brush or soft cotton rag, a horsehair brush, an old toothbrush, a soft, lint-free cloth (cotton is fine but chamois is best.) and something to protect your work area such as newspaper or butcher paper.

  • Start by cleaning the shoes. Remove dirt, salt, and dust. The horsehair brush should get rid of the dirt. A little water might help but the shoes should be completely dry when you polish them. It would also be a good idea to take out the laces at this point.
  • Dip your polishing tool in the polish and work it into the shoe using small, circular motions. Coat the entire surface evenly but especially the toe and heel. An old toothbrush can do the detailing.
  • Let the polish dry. When the polish is dry, you may want to repeat the process. Several light layers are the way to go. Allow it to dry again before going on to the next step.
  • Use the horsehair brush to buff the shoes and remove excess polish. Rub vigorously to get the polish to sink in.

How Long Does Shoe Polish Take To Dry Before Buffing?

Fifteen to twenty minutes should do it.

Can You Leave Shoe Polish On Overnight?

Twenty minutes is good, but you can leave it overnight.

How Does Shoe Polish Work?

Shoe polish works by adding layers of wax to the exterior of your leather shoes. These layers can be buffed to a high, glossy shine.

Does Shoe Polish Protect Leather?

It must be remembered that shoe polishing is a vital part of keeping the shoes maintained and in good shape. However, to really protect the leather it is a good idea to spray a leather protectant on the shoes after they’ve been polished and dried.

Does Shoe Polish Waterproof Leather?

It won’t do that job by itself. There are sprays you can use to make your shoes waterproof. Beeswax also works.

Does Shoe Polish Soften Leather?

Leather conditioner is better for this job. You should work some conditioner into your leather once every few months. You should do it more often in warmer climates.

Can Shoe Polish Change The Color Of Leather?

You can, but the results will be temporary. The leather dye lasts much longer.

How Long Does Shoe Polish Last?

You should polish your shoes at least once a week for the best results. Clean and/or polish them whenever it is needed.

Does Shoe Polish Expire?

It does not. It has a manufacture date but not an expiration date. However, the polish can dry out or evaporate if the tin is not firmly closed. Make sure to close the container after every use.

Is Shoe Polish Permanent?

It is not permanent. You have not ruined your shoes if you use the wrong polish. It can stain some fabrics and wood. You can use some heavy-duty solvents for fabric and it may come out of the carpet with isopropyl rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide. If you got shoe polish in your hair, you can soak your hair in a solution of water and rubbing alcohol and then shampooing with baby shampoo.

How To Remove Wrong Shoe Polish?

Using the wrong polish can make your shoes look dirty or stained. All you really need to take the polish off shoes is saddle soap and a brush or cloth.

  • If there are any laces, remove them.
  • Wipe the surface down with a slightly damp cloth.
  • Rub the wet cloth across the saddle soap until lather forms.
  • Apply the soap to the shoe in a circular motion, really working it in.
  • Wipe it away with a clean cloth.

You should see the polish come right off as you wipe. Once you’ve gotten rid of the old polish, you can polish the shoes again with the right kind of polish.

Does Saddle Soap Remove Shoe Polish?

Saddle soap seems to be the best solution for removing polish from leather. Isopropyl rubbing alcohol works with most other surfaces.

Does Rubbing Alcohol Remove Shoe Polish?

If it is your skin, hair, or fabric, rubbing alcohol may be the best way to remove it. It is best to use a light-colored rag for light-colored fabrics and a dark-colored rag for dark-colored fabrics. You can then launder it or scrub it with a paste made from detergent.

How To Keep Shoe Polish From Drying Out?

The easiest way to do this is to close the airtight container when it’s not in use.

How To Soften Dried Shoe Polish?

If the solvent in shoe polish evaporates, that leaves wax to crack and separate. Melting the wax and adding solvent may revive the polish, but this is very difficult and somewhat dangerous. If you do it, turn on the fan and try not to inhale the fumes. Follow these steps:

  • Take note of how much of the dried-up polish in the tin.
  • Pour in the solvent (Turpentine works but orange oil smells better.) at about 25% to 30% of the volume of the polish in the tin.
  • Fill the bottom pan of a double boiler about three-quarters full with water.
  • Place the top pan of the double boiler on top of the bottom pan.
  • Put the polish tin in the bottom center of the top pan.
  • Turn the heat up to about halfway and let it heat up until the wax melts. Remember that beeswax melts at about 145 degrees Fahrenheit (after about ten minutes) and carnauba wax melts at about 180 degrees Fahrenheit. (after about fifteen minutes)
  • Once melted into liquid, turn off the heat and allow the wax to cool. This can take about an hour. You may lift off the top pan with the polish tin in it to hurry the cooling, but make sure not to spill any polish out of the tin.
  • Once the tin is no longer hot to the touch, you have a good useful tin of shoe polish again.

Is Shoe Polish Toxic?

As we learned from the above experiment, shoe polish when heated can produce toxic fumes. Some people like huffing it for a cheap high. Don’t do this. Shoe polish often contains turpentine, naphtha, benzene, gum arabic, and other chemicals.

It can be toxic and should not be ingested or put near mucous membranes. (There’s another good reason why you shouldn’t put it on your face, but we won’t go into that.)

If your child or pet has ingested shoe polish, take it away from them and call either 911, (800) 222-1222, or (888) 426-4435 for an animal. Tell the operator on the line what was swallowed (be prepared to read the label), what symptoms the patient is displaying, and follow the operator’s instructions. Do not induce vomiting unless told to.

If the polish gets into eyes or other mucous membranes it should be flushed out with lukewarm water. If you find someone has been huffing shoe polish, get them outside into some fresh air and call 911. If they stopped breathing, you may have to do CPR.

How Do You Get Shoe Polish Off Your Skin?

This is not an emergency but should be handled quickly. After polishing your shoes you’re bound to get a little on your fingers. You should really clean it off before eating or using the restroom. Sometimes just soap, water, and some rubbing alcohol will be enough but here is what you do if you’re spattered with a very nasty stain.

  • First, wash your hands with grease-cutting dishwashing liquid. Use a cloth if you really need to scrub. Rinse with warm water.
  • Rub cold cream into the stained skin in a circular motion and wait fifteen minutes. Rinse it off with warm water and pat dry.
  • Use a soft cloth to rub vinegar into your skin. Do this until all the stain is nearly gone.
  • Wash with automotive soap.
  • Rub isopropyl alcohol on the skin. The stain should be cone by now.

Shoe Polish Ingredients

A major ingredient is naphtha, a petroleum distillate that dissolves wax spreads it out thinly and evaporates. A dye of some sort will provide the color. Dimethylaminoazobenzene is produced from diazonium salt and adds intensity to the color.

Carnauba wax is what makes the shoes shiny. Stoddard solvent dissolves wax as does the naphtha. Trimethyl Benzene is a natural byproduct of the Stoddard solvent. Solvent Black 7 (also known as Nigrosin) is often used in black shoe polish.

Shoe Polish Alternatives

If you are in a pinch, there are various common items you can use in place of shoe polish. Look through your kitchen. A banana peel, coconut oil, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano leaves, peeled potatoes, walnut oil, baking soda, vegetable oil, bread crumbs, cornflour, and orange slices can all temporarily restore a shoe’s shine. Look in your medicine cabinet.

Body lotion, hair gel, lip balm, rubbing alcohol, petroleum jelly, and toothpaste can make decent shoe cleaners and/or polish alternatives. They all have their pros and cons of use and none really serves as a permanent replacement for good old-fashioned shoe polish.

Shoe Polish Vs. Shoe Cream

The shoe cream is more like a conditioner. It adds moisture to the leather. It does more than just condition. It adds a layer on top of the shoes that polishes and brings color. When it comes to restoring color and covering scuffs, however, it is not quite as good as shoe wax. Compared to shoe polish, the cream doesn’t give quite as brilliant a shine.

Shoe Polish Vs. Wax

Shoe wax is what is needed for covering scuffs and polishing as well as sealing and protecting the leather. It does bring a nice shine to the shoes. However, it tends to build up and dry on the shoes over time. it also does not have a high level of nourishing and conditioning that cream polish does. If you do use wax, use something close in color to your shoes.


Top Shoe Polish Brands

  • As shoe polish brand popularity goes, Kiwi has nearly become a generic trademark. If a sergeant tells a private “Put Kiwi on those boots!” you can bet he doesn’t mean fruit.
  • Lincoln is an established and trusted shoe polish brand that has been on the market for many years.
  • Saphir Médaille d’Or Pâte de Luxe sounds fancy and it comes naturally from Paris. Naturally being literal in that it’s selling point is natural ingredients such as beeswax, carnauba wax, and natural turpentine oil.

How Often Should I Polish My Shoes?

For most practical purposes, shoes only need to be polished once a week. People in the military may have to do a spit shine at least every other day. In spite of the name, water or alcohol is better for this technique than saliva.


The oldest confirmed photograph of human beings was of a man getting his shoes shined. In 1838, the photography pioneer Louis Daguerre attempted to photograph a cityscape of Boulevard du Temple in Paris, France. Because the exposure time took ten minutes only things that stood still that long could be photographed.

The Boulevard in real life would’ve had many pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages but the photo shows a street that looks deserted save for a man and shoeshine boy, whose names are lost to history. The fact that the man had to stand that long for a shoeshine tells us that getting shoes shined and getting them done right takes some effort, but is well worth it.


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