The Best Products for Maintaining and Shining Leather Shoes

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A pair of leather shoes might last some people only a year—but with proper care, a high-quality pair of leather shoes can last many years with multiple sole replacements. We spent 30 hours researching shoe-care products and methods, and then we enlisted the founder of Washington, DC’s top-rated shoe-shine shop, A Divine Shine, to help us test. He gave us his initial impressions after testing products on my own shoes, after which he used the most promising finalists in the shop on his customers’ shoes for two and a half more weeks to get a better feel for his favorites. Turns out, you can get all the gear to keep your finest shoes clean and shiny for less than $100.

This guide covers recommendations for all the essentials of calfskin leather shoe maintenance, including shoe trees, shoe brushes (both full size for cleaning or buffing and dauber size for applying cleaner or polish), leather cleaner, leather conditioner, cream polish, and wax polish for both a mirror shine and a long-lasting glow.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

As a research assistant at a major policy think tank in our nation’s capital, and as a menswear enthusiast, I know a thing or two about business casual, but it’s not me you should trust. Stanley Mayes is the founder, co-owner, and master shoe-care expert at A Divine Shine, a well-respected and award-winning shoe-care shop in Washington, DC. A successful real-estate investor and DC-area native since 1950, Mayes decided to open A Divine Shine in 2011 to pursue his true passion in the art of shining shoes. Mayes and his team know a thing or two about shoes—A Divine Shine cares for just over a thousand pairs of shoes and boots every year, and he has seen shoes in every state imaginable.

leather shoe care stanley mayes

Stanley Mayes, founder and owner of A Divine Shine in Washington, DC.

I also spoke with two well-regarded experts in the leather world: Nick Horween, the director of Horween Leathers, the oldest continuously running tannery in the United States; and Justin Fitzpatrick, owner of The Shoe Snob Blog, one of the most prominent voices in shoe care.

Who this is for

If you own leather shoes, you should care for them. And caring for your shoes requires supplies and tools. If you currently depend on your local shoe-shine stand for even the most routine shoe-care needs but want to start taking things into your own hands, whether for pleasure or for economic reasons, this guide will give you the product guidance necessary to build your own shoe-care kit. Similarly, if you already have a shoe-shine routine but are finding yourself disappointed with the results, this guide might help you discover products that will produce better results.

We limited our focus to shoe-care products for calfskin leather shoes, a category that includes most dress or casual leather shoes and boots.

Although we made our picks by testing on high-end Allen Edmonds shoes, these products will work just as well on cheaper shoes and on even higher-end shoes. However, we limited our focus to shoe-care products for calfskin leather shoes, a category that includes most dress or casual leather shoes and boots. If you have shoes made of suede, roughout, waxed flesh, shell cordovan (the material, not the color), or some other niche material, some or most of these products may not apply to your situation.

How to care for your shoes on a daily basis

Anthony D. Covington, professor emeritus of leather science at the University of Northampton, notes in Tanning Chemistry: The Science of Leather that “the suitability of leather for shoe manufacture is based upon the twin abilities of being able to exclude water, but allow air and water vapor to pass through.” However, it can retain those properties only if you maintain it well—with a process not too different from caring for your own skin, as it turns out. Leather needs to be cleaned regularly, moisturized as necessary, and touched up with makeup from time to time to maintain performance and appearance.

Even if you lack the budget or time to dedicate to shining your shoes, you should get in the habit of passively caring for them. This approach requires almost no equipment, and anyone with leather shoes should make an effort to follow it.

When you put on your shoes, always use a shoe horn. Any shoe horn will work, or you can even use a credit card or a driver’s license. Just don’t jam your feet into the shoes; that puts undue stress on the heel counter, which provides structure for the entire shoe and also supports your heel.

Ideally, you will have at least two pairs that you can rotate between. This practice lets your shoes dry out fully between wears, which means they’ll last longer. The Art of Manliness notes that “rotation is important because while your shoes rest with cedar shoe trees inserted, the wood draws out inner moisture and reshapes the leather which will lengthen the life off all of your shoes considerably.”

“So long as you get [a shoe tree] that fits well in your shoe and is made out of some sort of wood, it’s going to do the trick, plain and simple.”
—Justin Fitzpatrick, The Shoe Snob Blog

When it comes to shoe trees, the type you get matters a lot less than just buying them and using them. Justin Fitzpatrick of The Shoe Snob Blog writes, “In reality, buying shoe trees is trivial. They are probably the most important thing that you could purchase in conjunction with your nice leather shoes, but if I must be completely honest, so long as you get one that fits well in your shoe and is made out of some sort of wood, it’s going to do the trick, plain and simple.”

Nordstrom Cedar Shoe Tree
These trees, which will fit most dress shoes (US men’s shoe sizes 5½–17 or women’s sizes 7–18½), are built to last and budget-friendly.

We did some research into shoe trees and found widespread acclaim for the Nordstrom store-brand Cedar Shoe Trees. They meet the specifications for a good shoe tree: They’re made completely out of aromatic cedar, and they come in seven sizes so you can pick a pair that best fits your shoes. They’re also made in the USA, if that’s important to you. If your shoes cost more than $300, investing in custom shoe trees from Hanger Project or a local boutique might make more sense, but otherwise, Nordstrom’s affordable offering will do.

Most likely, your shoes came in a shoe bag. If you wear your shoes on a frequent basis (say, at least once a week), keeping them in the bag isn’t imperative. However, if you have a pair of shoes that see less frequent wear, or if you need to store a pair of shoes for the season, putting them inside the shoe bag (with trees in them) to protect them from dust is your best bet. If you don’t have a shoe bag, a canvas tote bag will do (avoid Ziploc and other plastic bags, which do not breathe and can promote mold growth).

Keep a closer eye on your shoes when the weather is foul; if it’s exceptionally wet outside, you might forgo wearing your shoes outside for that day. Waterlogged leather (which will feel “swollen” and look dark from absorbing water) loses its essential oils quickly as it dries, and it becomes susceptible to brittleness and even cracking. The same advice goes for snowy conditions, where the combination of wet snow and road salt can quickly take years off of the life of your shoes.

The tools and supplies you’ll need to shine your shoes

How often you have to actively care for your shoes depends not only on how well you passively care for them but also on your wearing habits: how often you wear them, what kinds of surfaces you walk on, how long you wear them each day, and even what season it is. Fitzpatrick noted to us that “one does not need to shine his/her shoes more than once a week.” If you are exceptionally hard on your shoes, if you have only one pair of shoes, or if you wear them in heavy rain or snow, you may need to tend to them more frequently.

This guide covers five tools and supplies that we have found through our research, our interviews with experts, and our in-store testing with Stanley Mayes to be indispensable components of your shoe-care routine.

A shoe brush is an essential tool for cleaning off dust from your shoes and for buffing in moisturizers and polishes. While any horsehair brush will work, our testing found that paying more than the minimum amount to get a more effective tool is a worthwhile investment.

Every professional shoe shiner I’ve had my shoes shined by has used an old cotton T-shirt cut into squares and longer strips (for buffing). I suggest you do the same to save some money.

A rag is necessary for applying the various cleaners, conditioners, creams, and waxes you’ll need for a full shoe-care regimen; you can also use a rag to quickly wipe down and dust off shoes or to buff polish to a mirror finish. Although you can purchase special rags for your shoes, nearly every guide I’ve read and every professional shoe shiner I’ve had my shoes shined by has used an old cotton T-shirt cut into squares and longer strips (for buffing). I suggest you do the same to save some money. It is imperative that you use a different rag for every different product so that you don’t end up with cross-contamination. I like to pin a label onto each rag so that I don’t forget.

A leather cleaner removes any foreign substances and dust that would otherwise get trapped under the polish and damage the leather. It also prepares the surface of the leather to accept the moisturizer and polish by stripping away the excess oils and polish already present. Stanley Mayes mentioned that one of the more common issues he sees with the shoes that come through his shop is inadequate cleaning. “Once in a while, it’s important to use a cleaner to strip off the layers of polish (that will often have dirt and other contaminants caked in it) that have accumulated so that the shoe can accept new polish and moisturizer,” he noted. If your shoes look dull, or if you notice flakes of polish in the crease points, it’s time for a cleaning with solvent. Without taking this step, you are reducing the leather’s breathability (which keeps it from rotting) and harming your shoes by allowing contaminated polish to sit against the leather.

Next, a leather conditioner ensures that your shoes’ leather remains a stalwart buffer against the elements. Dry leather is brittle, which diminishes its waterproofing and breathability. Like your skin, dry leather will feel slightly rougher—running your finger along the shoe is a good way to tell if your shoes need some conditioning. In addition to feeling bad, dry leather makes a poor base for building up a polish patina.

Shoe polish provides the brunt of the aesthetics in a shoe-care routine. Basically dye suspended in oils and waxes, shoe polish fills in small scratches and cracks and renews the color and gloss of your shoes. Polishing your shoes is pretty straightforward (apply polish, buff to shine), but polishing your shoes well takes some finesse and patience. The Shoe Snob Blog has an excellent guide on how to polish your shoes properly (though it features The Shoe Snob’s own line of products). The advice is also available in video form, which is helpful because it demonstrates the motions.

Shoe polishes come in two forms: cream polishes (like the Meltonian and Saphir Médaille d’Or we tested), which are for restoring color, and wax polishes (like the Lincoln and Saphir Pate de Luxe we tested), which are for buffing shoes to a shine. You’ll often find shoe-polishing guides (including the one on The Shoe Snob Blog) that recommend using cream polish before applying a coat of wax polish. But you can use wax polish after conditioning with no ill effects—especially if your shoes’ coloring is fine as is. Similarly, you can use cream polish and not apply wax if you’re not interested in a mirror shine. Ultimately, it’s up to you.

Shoe-shine brushes

Kirby Allison Medium Horsehair Shoe Polishing Brush
This model has denser, more uniform bristles than cheaper options, so it helps you get more done with fewer passes.

While any old rag will work for cleaning and polishing your shoes, a shoe-specific brush is a must-have for everyday maintenance, and you would be hard-pressed to find something lying around your house that does what a good shoe brush does. Commonly made from horsehair, the bristles on a shoe-shine brush are delicate enough as to not scratch the surface of the leather but stiff enough to remove dirt and debris and to work polish up to a shine. Although shoe-shine brushes can be made from more exotic materials, horsehair is consistently accepted as being an ideal bristle material for most shining and cleaning purposes. The brush should be a good enough size such that using the brush is not tedious in any manner or hard to grip. With that in mind, we were able to narrow the field of brushes down to three contenders: the ubiquitous shoe-shine brush made by Kiwi, a more luxe version made by Allen Edmonds, and an elegant and slightly more spendy horsehair brush made by Kirby Allison.

I’m confident in recommending the Kirby Allison Medium Horsehair Shoe Polishing Brush as our top pick because of its high-quality construction. Among our test group, it had by far the best combination of bristle quality, density, and distribution.

leather shoe care bristles

Bristle evenness and density on the Kiwi (left), Allen Edmonds (center), and Kirby Allison (right) brushes.

The bristles on the Kirby Allison brush were more uniformly and densely distributed in comparison with those on the Kiwi and Allen Edmonds brushes. This design delivers a superior brushing experience for several reasons: First, because the bristles are more densely packed, the Kirby Allison brush removes more dirt and debris per stroke than the others. Second, the uniformity of the bristle distribution on the Kirby Allison brush means that you’ll be less likely to have an uneven distribution of polish when you buff your shoes and less likely to have any pressure points where more-dense spots of the brush smash against your shoes, potentially scratching them. While the Allen Edmonds brush offered comparable bristle quality, we saw more variation in bristle density. The Kiwi brush was neither soft nor uniform. Although the Kirby Allison brush is admittedly a bit pricy, shoe-shine brushes are relatively durable (according to Stanley Mayes, brushes in his shop last several years before wearing down excessively), and you can wash yours (gently!) in warm water and leave it to dry to remove caked-on excess polish.

As for user-friendliness, the Kirby Allison and Allen Edmond brushes are each significantly larger than the Kiwi brush, which means that you’ll need fewer strokes to buff a pair of shoes with either of those brushes in comparison with the Kiwi brush. I polled several people around the office of varying hand sizes and genders, and most but not all said that the Allen Edmonds and Kirby Allison brushes were not so large that they were difficult to handle. The Kirby Allison and Kiwi brushes have divots alongside the wooden handles, making them marginally easier to get a grip onto, whereas the Allen Edmonds handle is ungrooved.

Also Great
Kiwi Horsehair Polish Applicator
It’s cheap, but you’ll need one for each polish and cleaner, so that’s good. Its medium-stiff bristles work well for getting what you need out of the tin and onto your shoe.

There’s also the question of accessory shoe brushes. You can find brushes for nearly every special cleaning task, but if you intend to buy just one specialty brush, I have to recommend getting at least one dauber for applying cleaner and an optional one for polish, which you can also apply with a rag. (Conditioner is better applied with a rag.) Because you will need separate brushes for each color, we recommend going cheap. The most cost-effective 100 percent horsehair dauber is made by Kiwi, and it gets the job done as well as anything.

The best shoe cleaner

Fiebing’s Saddle Soap
Mild yet effective, and very budget friendly, this cleaner is easy to use and formulated not to eat at your shoes’ finish.

Unless your shoes are fresh out of the box, your first step is to clean them. If it hasn’t been too long since your last shine (read: you haven’t lapsed in your routine), and your shoes don’t have any stains, you can probably get by with a solid brushing with a horsehair brush and a wipe with a damp cloth. However, if you have stains on your shoes (even water stains), or if it’s been a while since your last shine, cleaning with a cleaner is a must.

After spending eight hours poring over other shoe-care guides, manufacturer recommendations, and reviews, and after evaluating two weeks’ worth of in-shop testing by Stanley Mayes and his employees of three recommended leather cleaners, I’m confident that Fiebing’s Saddle Soap strikes the best balance between effectiveness and value. Saddle soap removes all but the most stubborn stains, prepares the leather to accept moisturizer and new polish, and remains a hard-to-beat value at an average price of $10 for a 12-ounce tin, which will last you around 40 or so shines.

leather shoe care saddle soap

Good old-fashioned saddle soap cleans the surface of the shoe and prepares it for polishing, with minimal stain loss.

Saddle soap, as its name suggests, was created to clean leather saddles. Every company uses a different formulation, and most (including Fiebing’s) keep their formulations proprietary and thereby unavailable for public review. However, after conducting a meta-review of 15 different saddle soaps and reading multiple shoe-care guides, we discovered that saddle soaps rely on a similar, basic formulation of a mild soap that acts as a surfactant and a blend of oils and greases that replenish some (but not all) of the oils that the soap removes.

With a soft-bristle brush and a bit of water to get a foam going, Fiebing’s Saddle Soap made quite the sight as a pale yellow foam enveloped my shoe. A wipe of a cloth and a close visual and manual inspection by Stanley Mayes revealed the gentle thoroughness of the saddle soap: It had effectively lifted away the dirt and previous layers of polish that had accumulated on my shoe. But it didn’t touch the original finish—unlike Saphir Réno’Mat, which did a great job cleaning the surface-level contaminants but also ate into the original finish of my shoes.

I ran my untrained fingers along the side of the shoe we cleaned with Fiebing’s Saddle Soap and found the surface not particularly dried out or tacky to the touch—a positive sign that the soap hadn’t completely sapped the shoe of its oils (like Réno’Mat) or left an undesirable residue on the surface (like Lexol Leather Cleaner).

The competition

leather shoe care réno'mat lexol

Our competitors: Note how much dye rubbed off on the Réno’Mat’s rag (left) versus the Lexol’s (right).

Réno’Mat has its place in the shoe-care world, but that place should most likely not be your home.

After Mayes worked Réno’Mat on my shoes, he noted that not only had it done an excellent job of lifting off old polish and stains, but that it had also acted as a thinner and taken off some of the finish, preparing the shoe to receive a fresh new base coat of polish. On Mayes’s encouragement, I ran my fingers along the shoe and noticed that the surface felt a bit rougher—a sign that Réno’Mat had stripped away the oils and left it parched. In essence, Réno’Mat had worked as a reset button, restoring my shoes to a near-original state. This result wasn’t surprising to Mayes or to me, as the potency of Réno’Mat had announced itself to us with its stark warning labels and its noxious aroma, which enveloped the store. Réno’mat has its place in the shoe-care world, but that place should most likely not be your home.

leather shoe care réno'mat

A shoe treated with Réno’Mat: Notice how the finish has been stripped from the toe cap and vamp.

Lexol Leather Cleaner, on the other hand, had difficulty removing the old polish that had built up on the shoe. It did an adequate job dealing with small stains on the surface, but only with some serious working by Mayes did it manage to lift a nominal amount of the old polish. Removing old polish is an important step, as old polish can suspend dirt and other grime that then gets sealed underneath a new polish layer, where it can rub against the leather. The Lexol cleaner was gentle, as promised, but it also produced a noticeably tacky feeling on the shoe, meaning that it left behind some residue.

leather shoe care lexol

The Lexol cleaner left the finish intact but did little to eliminate surface stains.

The best shoe leather conditioner

Saphir Renovateur
Its ease of use and efficiency make it worth the premium. Shoes treated with this conditioner had a better shine, and one jar will last about 100 shines.

After you clean your shoes (with a cleaner or with a slightly damp rag), conditioning them is the next step. Conditioning should form the basis of your leather-care routine. Out of the 25 shoe-care guides I read—written by shoe-care professionals, shoemakers, leather tanners, and menswear enthusiasts—21 enthusiastically recommended the use of conditioner (the four guides that didn’t simply failed to mention conditioner use at all). Conditioning your shoes is a vital step because leather is basically flesh—without moisturization, it will lose its pliability and start to acquire a decidedly duller look as creases form. In extreme situations, the leather will start to crack and flake, which is in most cases irreversible.

Leather is basically flesh—without moisturization, it will lose its pliability and start to acquire a decidedly duller look as creases form.

After reading through 20-plus-page debates about conditioner choice on menswear forums, reading shoe-care guides, speaking with leather-care experts and tanners, and conducting in-store testing with Stanley Mayes and his crew, I can say with confidence that Saphir Renovateur is worth the extra cost over Venetian Leather Balm and Lexol Leather Conditioner.

leather shoe care venetian leather balm saphir renovateur comparison

Comparing Venetian Leather Balm (left) and Saphir Renovateur (right): Notice how Renovateur leaves a shinier surface and quenches the hairline wrinkles still present on the Venetian-treated side.

Renovateur has a lot of hype surrounding its supposedly miraculous abilities to nourish leather. Although a good deal of that is hyperbole, Stanley Mayes and I both ended up pretty impressed with Renovateur’s performance. Kirby Allison, of the menswear website Kirby Allison’s Hanger Project, writes that Renovateur “deeply penetrates the uppers to supply the essential nutrients required to maintain the leather’s optimum condition and suppleness, while preventing any drying.” Nick Horween of Horween Leathers (one of the oldest continuously running tanneries in the US) told me that he found Renovateur to be a “a very refined product and easier to control than the Venetian,” one of our other tested conditioners.

Stanley Mayes and I tested the leather conditioners on my Allen Edmonds Clifton bluchers. Due to a series of circumstances (including, but not limited to, vacation and laziness), I’d last had them polished about three months prior, and I’d worn them only several times thereafter. They weren’t cracked or flaking, but they did feel as if they could use some conditioning.

As I watched Mayes work Renovateur into my shoe, I recognized the ease of control that Nick Horween had attributed to the product. It didn’t sink into and darken the area where Mayes initially applied it (unlike Venetian Leather Balm). Instead it remained malleable, and it spread easily and evenly across the leather. Mayes told me that Renovateur’s superior spreadability allowed him to get more coverage out of a single dab compared with an equivalent amount of Lexol Leather Conditioner or Venetian Leather Balm. We noticed that Renovateur took longer than the other products to fully absorb; this is good, however, because it gives inexperienced home users a larger margin of error.

As Mayes closely examined the shoe and ran his fingers alongside the vamp and quarter that he had treated with Renovateur, he commented on how nourished the leather felt—that’s what polish-ready feels like. I also took the liberty of flexing and feeling the Renovateur-treated vamp and quarter, and in comparison with the results from using Lexol Leather Conditioner and Venetian Leather Balm, the Renovateur-treated side felt more naturally moisturized. The leather no longer felt as dry, and I didn’t detect as many micro-wrinkles as I had before.

All three conditioners, according to Mayes, did an adequate job moisturizing the leather, but he and I preferred Renovateur for several reasons. The Lexol Leather Conditioner–treated side felt moisturized, but much like the Lexol cleaner, the conditioner left a perceptible tack to the surface. Moreover, Mayes said that he felt the Lexol product failed to penetrate as deeply into the leather—for your shoes, this means that the conditioner’s effects won’t be as long-lasting. Venetian Leather Balm also left the surface adequately moisturized, but Mayes and I noted that it too left a perceptible residue on the surface—not tacky like the Lexol product’s results, but more of a plasticky, artificially smooth feeling akin to the feeling of a laser-printed image on paper.

Mayes told me that he discontinued testing Lexol Leather Conditioner on his customers’ shoes because he found it to be inferior to the bulk conditioner that he was already using in the store.

Under longer-run testing, Mayes confirmed the conclusion that Renovateur was the best conditioner for home use, even given its higher price. Mayes told me that he discontinued testing Lexol Leather Conditioner on his customers’ shoes because he found it to be inferior to the bulk conditioner that he was already using in the store.

He then pulled out a surprise for me: He had gone ahead and cleaned, conditioned, and polished the Allen Edmonds Cliftons I had left behind, but had used Venetian Leather Balm on one shoe and Renovateur on the other. He directed my attention toward the toe caps; on any shoe, the toe cap is especially vulnerable to scuffs and scratches when you drag it against the sidewalk, say, or stub it against the teeth of an escalator. “A good conditioner,” Mayes told me as I looked closely at the toes of my shoes, “should fill in minor scuffs and scratches and prepare the surface to receive an even polish.”

leather shoe care comparison

Note the shinier, smoother look of the shoe treated with Saphir Renovateur (right) in contrast to the Venetian Leather Balm–treated shoe (left).

As you can see in the pictures, Renovateur was far more effective in smoothing out the scuffs I had generated over the course of several wears (the DC Metro system does your shoes no favors). The shoe treated with Renovateur also had fewer small wrinkles (the larger ones remained on both shoes—no conditioner is a miracle worker) in the crease points where the toe box bends. Mayes mostly attributed this result to Renovateur’s superior nourishing qualities.

As with an expensive face cream, a little bit goes a long way.

The only major concern he had about Renovateur involved its packaging. It comes in a squat, wide-mouthed glass jar that looks more like a container of expensive face cream than a shoe product. And as with an expensive face cream, a little bit goes a long way. He noted that a dime-sized dab would be good enough to cover at least half of one shoe—meaning that three dimes’ worth of product would be good enough for one shine. Following this guideline, a 75-ml jar should last you at least 100 or so conditioning treatments. Unfortunately, Mayes said, the wide mouth means that an overzealous person could easily kill the jar in five or so polishes, and that “for the price it’s sold for, I wouldn’t be surprised if a customer I sold this product to came back upset if they ended up using too much.” The key to avoiding that situation is to dab with Renovateur rather than to pour it out.

The competition

leather shoe care saphir renovateur venetian leather balm lexol leather conditioner comparison

From left to right: Saphir Renovateur, Venetian Leather Balm, and Lexol Leather Conditioner.

Venetian Leather Balm suffers from the same problem as Saphir Renovateur: It comes in an open-top container (though one that’s decidedly more utilitarian-looking than the Renovateur jar), which means that overuse is a very real possibility. In our tests, while Renovateur’s consistency was closer to that of a lotion, Venetian Leather Balm’s consistency was akin to that of a toner—nearly liquid. This meant that Stanley Mayes had to be diligent about keeping his rag moving along the shoe, lest the product absorb unevenly into one spot and not thoroughly nourish another. Although the precise formulation of Venetian Leather Balm is not available, I have heard several shoe-care and menswear experts speculate that it contains a higher level of solvent. In practice, Venetian Leather Balm absorbed the fastest into the leather; however, Mayes mentioned that the fast absorption may have happened partially because the elevated level of solvent meant that the substance was also dissipating into the atmosphere.

Lexol Leather Conditioner comes in a shampoo-bottle-like container, which in our tests made controlling the amount that came out significantly easier. The consistency was somewhere in between that of Renovateur and Venetian Leather Balm—not really a lotion but not really a liquid, like a homemade salad dressing. And the Lexol conditioner itself took somewhere in between the time of the other two products to absorb into the leather.

Mink oil is another product that experts frequently cite as an ideal substance for moisturizing shoes, and for good reason: Mink oil is remarkably similar to human sebum (the body’s natural oil that also serves to “waterproof” our skin) in chemical composition. You can find a bevy of mink-oil products, and in fact, our top pick, Saphir Renovateur, is a mink-oil suspension. But we did not test other mink-oil products, for two reasons. First, Renovateur was the most widely recommended mink-oil-containing product, so it stood in as a competitor representing the general field of “good” mink-oil products. Second, many mink-oil-based products also contain silicone, which serves as an effective waterproofer because it blocks up the pores of the leather—but this action prevents the leather from breathing, which leaves it susceptible to moisture buildup and faster decay.

The best shoe polishes

I left five top-rated cream and wax polishes with Stanley Mayes so that he could use them on shoes that came into his store that were of a suitable color. After two and a half weeks of in-shop testing, and 20-plus hours spent reading shoe-care guides, interviewing shoe-care experts, and trying to track down MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) information on the polishes, we came to some conclusions.

Cream polishes

Meltonian Boot & Shoe Cream Polish
This polish rubs in easily to create a rich color and won’t leave excess residue on your shoes.

You can think of a cream polish as a hybrid of a conditioner and a polish. Accordingly, a cream polish will be a bit more nourishing than a wax polish,1 but it won’t provide the same high-gloss shine that a wax polish will. However, because it soaks into the leather as opposed to staying on the surface, cream polish is better for restoring faded colors—for example, if you were overzealous in cleaning your shoe, and the cleaner ate away at the original finish. If you stop here, you end up with a matte, colorful finish that has a natural look.

Saphir and Meltonian are the two major brands of cream polish. Between them, Saphir Médaille d’Or Pommadier Cream Polish is considered the higher-end product, but after testing, we prefer Meltonian Boot & Shoe Cream Polish for home users. The Saphir polish is richer and more nourishing, but the Meltonian polish is easier to work into the shoe and thus delivers the same result with less effort. Stanley Mayes noted that when he tested the Meltonian product on a customer’s shoes, it provided a more-than-adequate level of nourishment to the shoe leather, although it was not as nourishing as the Saphir polish. Moreover, because the Meltonian polish easily worked into the leather and did not leave residue behind, it provided superior aesthetic qualities in comparison to the Saphir polish, restoring the color of the shoe leather and creating a matte shine (the type of shine that you can expect a cream polish to provide).

leather shoe care

The Saphir cream polish (left) was richer than the Meltonian (right), but ultimately too rich. It took forever to work in and didn’t produce a noticeably better result.

Mayes compared the Saphir cream polish to an incredibly rich hand moisturizer, “a moisturizer so thick you keep rubbing it in, but eventually you give up and go to wipe it off with a hand towel.”

Our experience with the Saphir cream polish is an example of how more is not necessarily better. Although Mayes conceded that, when used perfectly, the Saphir product is probably more nourishing of a polish than the Meltonian product, the fact that he had difficulty getting it to fully absorb into the leather made us hesitant to recommend it for routine, home use. Mayes compared the Saphir cream polish to an incredibly rich hand moisturizer, “a moisturizer so thick you keep rubbing it in, but eventually you give up and go to wipe it off with a hand towel.”

Leaving unabsorbed polish on the surface of your shoes is bad because it might stain your pants or furniture, and it’s certain to attract dirt and grime. Not only will this leave your shoes looking dull and resistant to shine, but the trapped particulates can also damage the leather over time if you don’t clean them off.

Wax polish

Lincoln Stain Wax Shoe Polish
This wax polish is the one to get if you want a high-gloss shine. It lasts longer than Kiwi polish and has superior spreadability.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $20.

Saphir Pate de Luxe
Splurge on this polish if you want a longer-lasting luster. Just don’t expect to see your reflection in it.

Wax polishes achieve the mirror-like “going to Congress” look that many people associate with an old-fashioned shoe-shine-stand polish job. Generally a wax polish also does a better job of covering up minor scuffs that a conditioner has properly filled in. This is because a wax polish, unlike a cream-based polish, does not sink into the leather and instead forms a thin layer that sits on top of the shoe. For this reason, you must make sure to clean or brush your shoes thoroughly before you apply a wax polish. It’s important to do that before every polish job, but especially prior to a wax polishing because any remaining dirt and debris will get trapped under the wax layer. Once trapped, it will rub against the leather of your shoes and remain there (until you strip off that polish layer), which can cause serious damage in the long run.

After testing three popular wax polishes, I’m comfortable recommending either Saphir Pate de Luxe or Lincoln Stain Wax Shoe Polish depending on your aesthetic preference and your budget. Although the longevity and nourishing qualities of the Saphir product are great, a good moisturizer (which, again, is a vital step) levels out the playing field. If you’re inclined toward a more natural-looking wax shine and willing to pay extra for it, the Saphir product is better suited to you; if you want a more high-gloss shine, the Lincoln polish is the more appropriate choice.

leather shoe care saphir lincoln wax

The Saphir wax (left) is shinier in the tin, but less shiny when applied to your shoe compared with the Lincoln (right).

In testing, Stanley Mayes found that the Saphir wax polish had a higher oil content in comparison with the Lincoln wax polish; its glossier in-tin appearance indicated that the Saphir polish was a richer product. Although a wax polish will not fully absorb into the leather like a cream polish will, you’ll work the oils in as you buff your shoes to a shine.

leather shoe care saphir pate de luxe

Five days prior to this picture, Stanley Mayes had polished these boots with Saphir Pate de Luxe and left them exposed to the air.

After describing the nourishing qualities of the Saphir product, Mayes pointed out a pair of women’s boots sitting on the shoe-shine stand behind me. He had shined the boots using the Saphir Pate de Luxe wax polish after cleaning and moisturizing them. The surface had the telling gloss of a wax-polish shine, but it did not reach the mirror finish that many people have come to expect from wax polishes. I noticed that the toe cap seemed well restored and that the wax polish had been successful in filling in any small nicks and scratches that invariably would have formed. Overall, the shine was nothing spectacular, just a solid, everyday shine rather than a high-gloss, mirror-finish shine. What did make this shine special, however, was the fact that it had happened five days prior. The Saphir polish’s hardiness is impressive, given that Mayes hadn’t placed the boots in a shoe bag, instead leaving them out and exposed to the air. Wax polishes tend to be relatively unstable—after a couple of days, the shine typically wears off as the solvent dissipates into the atmosphere.

leather shoe care lincoln stain wax

Lincoln Stain Wax Shoe Polish created a classic mirror-finish shine.

Lincoln Stain Wax Shoe Polish was better at producing the classic mirror-like shine that many people expect from a wax polish. Mayes pulled down a pair of walnut-tan oxfords he had cleaned and shined using the Lincoln wax polish. As you can see in the photo (especially when you compare these shoes with the boots that Mayes shined with the Saphir product), the Lincoln polish gave the shoe leather an almost glasslike surface and texture. This glasslike surface did a better job of obscuring some of the micro-creases that had formed in the natural flex points of the shoe.

Whether you choose the Lincoln or Saphir product, you’ll get a great polish—both products have their advantages. But you should avoid the Kiwi polish that’s available at almost any grocery store or pharmacy. Mayes noted that he does not use Kiwi polish unless a customer’s shoes are of a color he cannot match otherwise—or unless the customer requests it. The reason is that Lincoln polish outperforms Kiwi polish in every way even though they occupy the same price tier: Lincoln polish, Mayes told me, is a bit easier to work with in terms of spreadability, and it holds its shine a bit longer than Kiwi polish does.

Wrapping it up

Like anything worth buying, leather shoes require care and maintenance to preserve their performance and good looks. Although you could just buy a new pair every few months, the combined cost of everything we feature in this guide is only about $100. So for about half the cost of a new pair of good leather shoes, you’ll be able to keep several pairs looking great for years.

(Photos by Bryan Kim.)


1. Although you might be tempted to skip the conditioner step when using cream polish, don’t. Cream polishes are not designed to serve as a two-in-one product—they do contain some conditioners simply because they are cream suspensions, but they do not provide an adequate level of nourishment for your shoes. Jump back.

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  1. Antonio Centeno, How to Build Your Wardrobe: Part II – Men’s Clothing Specifics, The Art of Manliness, May 13, 2010
  2. Justin Fitzpatrick, , Editor and proprietor of <a href="">The Shoe Snob Blog</a>, Interview
  3. Justin Fitzpatrick, Polish Your Shoes Properly, The Shoe Snob Blog
  4. Nick Horween, , Director of <a href="">Horween Leathers</a>, Interview
  5. Stanley Mayes, , Proprietor of <a href="">A Divine Shine</a>, Interview
  6. Anatomy of the Shoe,
  7. Getting Started with Saphir Shoe Polish, Kirby Allison’s Hanger Project

Originally published: December 16, 2015

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