How To Disinfect Shoes From The Thrift Store? Insider Tips & Tricks

There are many reasons why a person might wear secondhand shoes. If it’s a pair of formal pumps in good condition and the right size and color a bride might want them as her “Something Old”. Someone putting together an Axis Powers: Hetalia cosplay might want World War II army boots with a little authenticity. (Giving a toast with them is optional.)

Someone in charge of costuming for a play might need something that would fit the era it was set in, broken in being a plus. (Little Orphan Annie just can’t go on stage in a pair of pink and white sneakers! Not even if she tied them all by herself!) A clown might decide a brightly colored pair of shoes two times too big for his feet would be the perfect addition to his costume.

A rookie fireman might have to wear the boots of a retired firefighter (we hope he was just retired) until he can buy his own. If you’re getting dressed up for a decade theme party, secondhand stores may be the only place to get those vintage threads. And, of course, it’s a way to save money.

You might get a little criticism for buying clothes and shoes at thrift stores. Don’t let it bother you. If they say “Don’t you have a problem with bedbugs?” respond with “I don’t have a problem with you. How bad can bedbugs be?” If they say “You shouldn’t tell people where you got that.” respond with “I tell people that I know you.” Turn things around by bringing up what they’re sensitive about.

If Uncle Donny tells you “It’s gross to buy clothes other people have worn!” tell him “That dead cat you call a toupee is pretty gross, but here we are.” If they accuse you of being cheap, a good old fashioned “So’s your mom.” will shut them up. But, in all seriousness, you do want to get your secondhand shoes cleaned right away. If you can’t get them cleaned right away, seal them up in something until you can.

For sanitary purposes, shoe stores offer nylon stockings for people wanting to try the shoes on. One little boy who didn’t want to wear the nylons because “That’s for girls!” changed his mind when he was told some football players wear pantyhose under their uniforms. Someone wanting to buy shoes they would normally wear with a hose rather than thick socks may see these nylons as an opportunity to get an accurate feel for the shoe.

Remember that when you try a shoe on, it may have been tried by someone else. Athlete’s foot, marked by scaling and cracking on the feet, can be picked up in communal showers and from wearing shoes worn by an infected person. If you got your shoes secondhand, you may want to give them a good cleaning just to make sure there’s no fungus, bugs, bacteria or other nasty surprises in them.

get foot fungus out of shoes

Take a Good Look at the Shoes First

Before you even take the shoes out of the store, here are a few other things to look for before you buy. This will make cleaning easier. Here are the key points you should look at on a used shoe before any money exchanges hands. Some of the more conscientious thrift stores (Think of a g made to look like a smiley face) have quality control to make sure there are no stains, tears or missing pieces, but it doesn’t hurt to check the item over yourself. Do remember that most secondhand stores have a no-refunds policy.

  • Sole Are the soles clean and relatively unscuffed? Good soles that haven’t been worn down are more common on dress shoes that weren’t worn often or shoes worn by a child that grew even faster than the parents expected.
  • Interior If you can see a foot-shaped imprint on the sole, walk on. These shoes have been worn so often they molded to the shape of someone else’s foot and may not feel right on you. If there’s any fraying or the smell would gag a maggot, you may want to look for something else.
  • Instep If the instep is frayed, worn down or heavily creased, this is a shoe that has walked a lot of steps. Stretching around the toes or being folded down at the heel means the shoes have changed from their original shape.

It can be hard to find anything very specific second hand. Sometimes you just got to let yourself be surprised. Just be patient and keep your eyes open. Some thrift stores rotate the merchandise every four weeks. Do keep in mind that many thrift stores are connected to a charity. Research this charity and determine if it’s one you wouldn’t mind supporting.

How Long Does Fungus Live In Shoes?

Fungi can stay on clothing for months at a time. They can stay on the ground and other surfaces for up to six months unfed. Some can cause nasty rashes. These types are dermatophytes, fungi that live on keratin, a protein found in nails, hair and dead skin. They thrive best in warm and humid conditions and can be spread through physical contact.

Because of this, secondhand clothing must be thoroughly washed. This is especially true for pregnant women, children, and persons with compromised immunity. There is also the papillomavirus which causes plantar warts. It thrives in moist environments just as bacteria and fungus do, but usually can only be passed if the skin is broken.

Unless they’re open-toed or made, jellies, crocs or made of a loosely woven material, the interior of a shoe is generally going to be dark. Ideally, it should not be habitually damp. If the secondhand shoes have a questionable odor, think twice before buying. Even if they seem to smell fine, a good cleaning before wearing them won’t hurt anything.

A disinfectant spray will kill the bacteria that cause the fungi. Ultraviolet light and anti-fungal sprays can disinfect the shoes. Vinegar is acidic enough to kill the fungus. Apple cider vinegar works best. Spraying the vinegar in a fine mist will keep the shoe from being too damp. A sprinkling of baking soda can kill odors. Just don’t use those two at the same time unless you like re-enactments of volcano explosions.

How to Get Fungus Out of Your Shoes

Bleach might kill fungus and bacteria, but it can ruin the shoes. (Unless they were white, to begin with. In this case, bleach can make them whiter.) Vinegar must be applied lightly to keep the shoe from being too damp for too long. The same can be said of hydrogen peroxide, which is useful for getting blood stains out of fabric. (Though, frankly, you might want to think twice about buying anything bloodstained from a thrift store.

Someone could’ve been trying to hide the evidence.) Rubbing alcohol evaporates quickly, zaps bacteria and kills any creepy-crawlies living in the seams, but it might not be effective against fungi. Zinc Oxide could do the trick. Some foot powders contain this. Anti-fungal powder weakens the cell membranes of the fungi, making it difficult for them to reproduce.

It also helps to make sure the foot going in the shoes is also clean and dry. If an understudy is wearing the shoes every once in a while, make sure they have clean and dry feet too so the fungus doesn’t spread. Ideally, you should alternate your shoes, but if the shoes are for a costume in a play and you’re on a budget, you may be unable to do this.

Boots, in particular, tend to be infection traps. The thick material and long collar make the toes very dark and the slightest bit of humidity could be stuck that way for a very long time if left unchecked. This makes boots a breeding ground for infectious germs.

Remember, Woody from Toy Story was funny when he said: “There’s a snake in my boot!” There’s nothing particularly funny about “There’s a bacterial infection in my boot!” You don’t want your Germany to lose his dignity or Annie to lose her adorableness because they kept stopping to scratch their feet. So, make sure those shoes are good and clean first.

Bright Light! Bright Light!

Ultraviolet light kills the fungus. Even if a shoe looks and smells clean, some UV rays can further sanitize the shoe and prevent fungi from growing. There are shoe sanitizing devices on the market that emit ultraviolet light to sanitize and deodorize shoes.

You just put them inside your shoes (bags are included for safety so they don’t set your shoes on fire.) and turn on the bulbs. About fifteen minutes will do it, but you can’t overdo it. Some will turn themselves off after a cycle. Take care not to look directly at them when they’re on, just as you shouldn’t look directly at the sun.

However, if your goal is to save money, try good old-fashioned sunshine. It’s completely free! If you bought the shoes at a yard sale or outdoor flea market, they’ve probably been baking in the sun for a while already. Just open the shoe as much as you can and leave them out in a sunny area.

This can damage some leathers, but if your costume would benefit from an aged and rugged look or it’s going to be covered with paint or stage blood anyway, maybe this is the way to go. They may take on the odor of whatever was on the air that day. Most of the time, this will just be a grassy or even floral scent. But, if the neighbors were having a barbecue, your shoes might smell like hot dogs.

While ultraviolet light (whether artificial or natural) is a good way to kill and prevent further buildup of fungi, it works better if used in conjunction with other methods. Wear antifungal socks to prevent fungal build up.

They will provide a substantial barrier between your flesh and the shoe itself. That will keep moisture and sweat from building up. When it’s time to take the shoes off, make sure they get good and dry before they’re worn again.

It’s Sock it to Me Time!

You should wear a clean pair of socks every day. If the socks get damp, they should be changed right away. They should be made of something that wicks away moisture like synthetics or bamboo fiber. Some dye chemicals can cause bad odors and dark colors retain heat so wear white socks whenever you can. (It saves you the trouble of trying to get socks that match if they’re all white!)

Remember to keep it so that your socks are a moisture barrier, not a moisture trap. Socks must be kept in a cool, dry place all the time. They must always be washed as soon as possible after wearing them. This is particularly true for athletic socks or if the wearer has feet that perspire more than most.

Let Us Spray

Remember that a deodorizing shoe spray and a disinfecting spray are not the same things. The deodorizing spray will just get rid of the bad smells. You need the disinfectant spray to effectively kill the fungus. Some sprays do both. Keep the spray on the interior of the shoes so it doesn’t stain. Read the label! It should tell you what exactly the product does and how to use it.

And of course, you would prefer something EPA approved. Some disinfectants will advertise themselves as specifically to be used against athlete’s foot or other foot fungi. Anything that kills bacteria will work. The same can be said of most foot powders. Foot powder may clump up, but can easily be shaken out.

Sole Cleansing

Let’s say you’ve found out that this pair of used shoes have removable insoles. Then the best way to get rid of all fungus and bacteria would be to take those soles out and give them a good scrubbing. Just follow these simple instructions. You will need two dishes of warm water, laundry detergent, a rag or sponge, a towel, a plastic bag, and baking soda. Keep some vinegar on hand if all else fails.

  • First, prepare a solution of warm water and detergent in a small bowl.
  • Next, dip a sponge or rag in this solution and rub it vigorously on the insoles until the stains, dirt and/or smell are all gone.
  • Rinse the soles out in clean warm water.
  • Lay the soles on a towel to dry. Line drying works too if it’s a sunny day.
  • If after drying, the soles still smell a bit, seal them in a plastic bag with some baking soda overnight.
  • If the soles are still a bit rank, soak them in diluted vinegar for a couple of hours and repeat the process.

Machine Washing

Can you use your trusty washing machine to wash shoes? If they’re made of canvas or mostly cloth, you can. Leather, suede, and plastic need to be washed by hand. Remove the shoelaces first and try to scrape off any heavy dirt before you put them in. Use warm water and a strong detergent. Something marked “anti-bacterial” is a plus. Let the shoe air dry with newspaper stuffed in the toes.

Hand Washing

If your shoes are too delicate for the machine, they must be washed by hand. Simply make warm water and laundry detergent (liquid works best) to dip a rag or brush in. Gently scrub the shoes with this mixture. You should use a fresh cloth and clean warm water to rinse. Be extra careful with suede.

Utilize a rag or soft-bristled brush to clean the suede using downward strokes. Brushing and cleaning the suede in one direction will aid in lifting stains from the material. Dress shoes that you don’t want to get wet at all might be freshened up by just leaving a dryer sheet in the shoe overnight. When in doubt, go to a professional cleaner.


Whether you want second-hand shoes as part of a costume or just to save a little money, it pays to be vigilant. Fungus and bacteria can live on surfaces for up to six months and will multiply rapidly if fed. For some types, food is dead skin and toenails! Antibacterial and antifungal agents can kill these germs that can cause ugly and itchy rashes.

When considering a shoe purchase at a secondhand store, look and smell. Could any flaws you find be something you could easily fix? There are sprays and gadgets you can use, but sometimes all you need is a little vinegar and sunshine. Use some smart moves, and you could give a gently used pair of shoes a second life.

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