How to Clean Birkenstocks
May 28, 2023
I’ve worn my Birkenstock Boston clogs while working as a barista, traipsing around hot cities, and navigating a snowy college campus. Structurally, my clogs have held up fine, but they were stained, and the footbeds developed a layer of slime that was somehow both slippery and sticky.
A quick survey of Wirecutter staffers confirmed I wasn’t the only one with grody Birks, so I consulted cobblers, retailers, TikTok, and Reddit, as well as our own guides to cleaning leather and suede shoes and caring for leather shoes in order to learn how—and how not to—clean, maintain, and protect these sandals, in all of their materials, so they last for years to come.
Birkenstocks can last for generations if you keep them clean and perform regular repairs. Michelangelo Scafidi, who has been fixing Birkenstock sandals for over 40 years at his store in Norridge, Illinois, attributes their durability to their three-part structure: the sole, the footbed, and the “upper” (the part that goes over your foot). Each of these can be restored or replaced multiple times.
Cleaning and repairing Birkenstocks can be complicated, though, because these three parts are made from different materials with distinct needs. I’ve outlined the cleaning basics of each below, and to make things a bit easier, I’ll refer to what Birkenstock calls the “upper” as “straps” throughout this guide. If you have a style of Birkenstock that covers the whole top of your foot (like the Boston model), you can apply directions relating to straps to the entire top surface area.
Lorena Agolli of Sole Survivor, a leather repair shop in Toronto, Ontario, recommends that you take a look at the bottom of your sandals before you start cleaning. Is the rubber sole close to wearing through to the cork? Has it already? If so, take them to a cobbler. Changing the soles now will save you a more expensive cork repair later. You can spend extra money to have the rest of the shoes professionally cleaned as well, but you can easily handle the rest on your own once the new soles are in place.
If you live in a place that experiences winter weather, cobblers recommend taking your Birkenstocks in for repairs during the months when they’re less busy with sandals—October through March.
Though Birkenstocks are known for their distinctive cork footbeds, this part of the shoe is actually made of four different materials: cork, jute, latex, and suede. You only need to pay attention to the cork and suede if you’re cleaning them at home.
First, check on your cork. If it’s crumbling like in the photo above, taking them to a professional now might allow your cobbler to preserve your footbed and prevent further damage.
The upper layer of the footbed—the part of the shoe that touches the bottom of your foot—is made of suede. It’s natural for suede to darken over time, and discoloration is expected as footbeds pick up oil from bare feet and dirt from your surroundings. But if your footbeds smell, feel sticky or slimy, or make your feet dirty, you can clean them.
How to clean your straps depends on what they’re made of. If you’re unsure what you’re working with, check Birkenstock’s materials overview. I’ll focus on the materials that most Birkenstocks are made: suede, nubuck, and natural or oiled leather. You can easily clean styles made from materials like ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) or synthetic leather with soap and water.
Cleaning times for Birkenstocks vary. A quick once-over with a damp cloth, cork sealer, and leather protector can take fifteen minutes plus some time to dry. Here, I’ve broken down the times for deep-cleaning each part of your shoe individually. The standard dirty pairs that I cleaned took about 45 minutes total.
Be sure to leave plenty of time (up to 24 hours) for your shoes to dry after any step involving water or wet cleaners such as saddle soap. Never put Birkenstocks on a radiator or in direct sunlight to speed up the process—this can damage both the cork and suede.
Give your soles a quick brush to get rid of any loose debris or dirt. If you like, you can clean them further with a damp cloth, sponge, or dish brush. Just be sure to avoid getting the cork wet, otherwise you’ll have to wait for them to dry before you clean them.
Make sure to undo the buckles and open up the straps as wide as you can. Access to the inside of Boston clogs, which cover more of the top of your foot, can be tricky, but undoing the buckle gave me noticeably more room to work.
Use a suede brush or toothbrush to remove loose dirt and debris. Be sure to clean around the buckles and the crevices where the straps meet the sole.
For mild cases, a quick brush and wipe will do the trick. To spot-clean stains, try rubbing a suede eraser (many suede brushes come with one, or you can even use a standard pencil eraser) over them just as you would on a piece of paper. If the stains are stubborn or if the entire upper is dirty, you can use a suede and nubuck shampoo, being careful to keep the footbeds as dry as possible while rinsing the shampoo off. I found that a wet cloth or sponge worked well to avoid saturating the cork. Once you don’t see anymore suds, pat the upper with a towel to remove as much water as possible.
If you used any water on the suede, place your Birkenstocks in a dry spot away from direct sunlight and dry overnight before proceeding.
Mild on your leather, yet effective and budget-friendly.
Use a horsehair brush to remove dirt and debris and wipe away any remaining dust with a damp cloth. If your shoes aren’t too dirty, a brush and wipe is plenty.
If your straps are particularly dirty or stained, use saddle soap and a cloth or soft toothbrush to give them a deep clean. Follow the directions on the tin to work up a lather and remove dirt and stains. Make sure to wipe the soap off and allow your shoes to dry thoroughly before continuing.
Its ease of use and efficiency make it worth the price, and one jar lasts about 100 shines.
After your shoes have dried, use a cloth or your fingers to apply leather shoe conditioner in small circular motions. The conditioner rehydrates the leather, preventing damaging cracks and restoring an even finish. Once you’ve worked the conditioner into the leather, allow it to dry for five minutes.
If you’d like to add a layer of pigment, apply a thin coat of cream polish. You can use a brush or your fingers in the same circular motion you made with the leather conditioner. Let your shoes dry for 10 minutes before brushing vigorously with a horsehair brush and wiping them down with a clean cloth.
Birkenstock suggests using soap and water to clean footbeds, but all the cobblers I spoke with endorsed dry methods, which I found faster and more effective. Though getting caught in a rain storm won’t ruin your shoes, it’s worth avoiding applying lots of water to your Birkenstocks, because it can cause the cork to degrade and pull apart from the upper part of the footbed.
Start by brushing away any loose dirt with a suede brush. Unlike spot-cleaning suede straps, an eraser did not stand up to the job of a grimy footbed. Instead, use fine-grit sandpaper, a drywall sanding screen, or a flathead screwdriver to gently remove the upper layer of skin oils and dirt. Each method produces dust, so it’s best to do this process over the sink, trashcan, or newspaper.
I first followed the advice of Complete Birkenstock, an independent shoe store specializing in Birkenstocks, to clean my footbeds with 160- to 180-grit sandpaper. I found the method to be fast and effective, but Scafidi’s suggestion to use a drywall sanding screen left my footbeds much softer. Whichever you choose, cut a 2-by-2-inch square and sand off the top layer of grime to reveal the soft, clean suede below. You can follow up with a flathead screwdriver, gently scraping the surface to get to hard-to-reach places or to remove stubborn debris.
You can also use a flathead screwdriver on the entire footbed. I was wary of this method, but it came recommended by our experts and led to the fluffiest suede. The screwdriver’s length also helped me reach into the covered toe boxes of Boston clogs, but be careful not to puncture the raised areas where the suede has molded to your foot, especially around the toes.
When you are finished with the sandpaper, screen, or screwdriver, brush your footbeds firmly towards the heel with a suede brush. This removes loosened dirt and gets the fibers of the suede (also known as the nap) going in the right direction to restore your footbed’s fluffiness.
No pair that I tested smelled after removing the upper layer of grime. You can tackle any residual odor by wiping the footbeds and undersides of the straps with rubbing alcohol or lemon juice diluted with water. Be sure to let your shoes dry fully, and give them another brush to restore the nap.
In addition to cleaning your Birkenstocks, it’s important to protect them with sealant so they’ll last. Depending on how often you wear your sandals, aim to do this every 2 to 4 months.
Cork sealer helps protect cork from water damage, and the cobblers I spoke with said any commercial brand works. Apply the sealer around the outside of the footbed using the brush that comes attached to the lid, then allow it to dry for 30 minutes. Important tip: Be sure you apply sealer to the cork and nothing else. Scafidi told me that his greatest Birkenstock horror stories come from customers applying cork sealer to the suede footbed, effectively covering the soft footbed in a layer of glue.
When your shoes are dry, apply three layers of protector spray to the straps. Since each layer of the spray needs to stick to itself as well as to the shoe, be sure to let each application dry before adding the next. You don’t have to apply protector spray to your suede footbeds—it will likely just wear off onto your feet and not do any good.
Cleaning Birkenstocks with baking soda is a popular cleaning trend on TikTok, but we don’t recommend this method. Scrubbing with this abrasive cleaner hardens and dries your footbeds, and the amount of water required to rinse it out can damage the cork.
I cleaned one footbed with baking soda, to disastrous effect. The resulting dry surface left my feet raw and even gave me blisters when I wore them for a few hours. This dryness is not only uncomfortable, but it can lead to long-term damage by making the suede prone to cracking. This method is also inefficient. It took me 35 minutes of hard scrubbing to clean one footbed, which means you’d spend over an hour brutalizing a pair.
After three months of consistent wear, the clog I scoured with baking powder is almost back to normal. Its footbed remains a little rougher than the one I cleaned with a screwdriver, but it no longer rubs my feet uncomfortably. For the sake of my skin, I’m glad I conducted this experiment during the height of Birks-and-socks season.
I was underwhelmed by Birkenstock’s proprietary cleaning kit. It comes with a multipurpose brush that’s nice and compact but less effective than a suede brush. The refresher spray neither cleaned nor had a lasting effect on scent. I was optimistic about the cork sealer, but found its application sponge messier than the brush I used.
Cleaning Birkenstock Arizona EVAs, or “BirkenCrocs,” is easy. Rubbing them with a little dish soap, water, and a sponge should do the trick, but don’t put them in a washing machine or a dryer. Let them air out in the sun. For more intense stains, see our guide on how to clean Crocs. The two kinds of shoes are made from different types of ethylene-vinyl acetate, but the cleaning process is the same.
This article was edited by Joshua Lyon, Brittney Ho, and Sofia Sokolove.
Lorena Agolli, cobbler and owner of Sole Survivor, phone interview, November 15, 2022
Michelangelo Scafidi, board-certified pedorthist and owner of Michelangelo’s Foot Comfort and Pedorthic Shoppe, phone interview, November 20, 2022
Vincent Rao, cobbler and owner of Vince’s Village Cobbler, phone interview, December 21, 2022
Sarah Gannett is a Wirecutter contributor and a former editorial intern. As a child, she received a book titled Knit Your Own Cat. Her interests remain largely the same.
by Justin Krajeski
These good-looking sandals are affordable and durable, and they complement almost any warm-weather outfit.
by Justin Krajeski
Unlike traditional cork-soled Birkenstocks, the EVAs are extremely lightweight and way under $100. We’re sliding into them even as temperatures fall.
by Justin Krajeski and Alex Arpaia
After many winters testing dozens of slippers, we think L.L.Bean’s women’s and men’s Wicked Good Moccasins are the most comfortable and durable pair.
by Wirecutter Staff
These shoes, shirts, and accessories were the most-purchased Wirecutter clothing picks in 2022.Optional:SolesStrapsFootbeds