Why should you polish your leather footwear?

Is it really necessary – or a marketing gimmick so you’ll spend money on an overpriced can of paste?

From medieval times (between the 5th and 15th Century), dubbin, a waxy product, was used to soften and waterproof leather. It was made from natural wax, oil, soda ash, and tallow. As leather with a high natural veneer became popular in the 18th century, a high glossy finish became important, particularly on shoes and boots. In most cases, homemade polishes were used to provide this finish, often with lanolin or beeswax as a base.

Shoes are the foundation of your outfit, and as such you subject them to more abuse than any other item in your wardrobe. You literally slap them against the ground into water, salt, dirt, grease, and grime thousands upon thousands of times. To ensure your shoes last you need to take care of them by ensuring the leather stays supple and resists water penetration.

What does Leather polish do?

Well, the simplest explanation is that leather is an animal hide (either cow or buffalo). Leather is therefore skin. And like your skin – it’s tough but still fragile relative to rough surfaces and needs protection and care.

Unlike your skin – which is alive and receives nourishment from the body (sweat and oils) – the leather on your shoes only receives the nourishment you give it. It can easily dry out, over-absorb water, or be damaged in numerous other ways.

A good leather polish is therefore designed to be readily absorbed and will nourish/restore flexibility in the fibers.

This is important as leather is prized as a clothing material because it can be both flexible and durable. If leather loses its natural oils and moisture, it loses its flexibility and its fibrous interweave will start to crack and eventually break down. Once this happens it is lost and needs to be replaced.

Should you polish your shoes before wearing them for the first time?

Absolutely yes! – You need to polish your shoes or boots before wearing them. Most footwear does not come conditioned and polished out the box. In order to keep your purchase clean, neat and tidy for when you receive them. (Imagine opening a new shoe box with polish stains inside!) So, this is your responsibility. As far as you know the leather may have sat in dry conditions for months and may be screaming for oil and moisture.

Polish thoroughly, and then you’re ready to go!

How often to polish your Leather Footwear?

When your shoes need it – which depends primarily on Environmental Conditions.

  • If you spend a lot of time out and about in arid areas like the Northern Cape (Upington, Kathu or Hotazel), you want to polish once every two weeks.
  • Working daily on construction sites in sandy, damp conditions in areas like Durban or Cape Town? Once a week.
  • Occasionally wearing your boots at a university, short term architectural project, or a once a week fast food restaurant shift? Once a month.

Use your discretion. Now that you know what is required, it’s your preference.

So, the next time you find cracking along the bridge or outer sides of your shoe or boot… remember, this was either caused from the leather drying out or water damage – which could have been prevented with polish! Try it, at very least you’ll get a shine.