Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.

I have a great pair of flip-flops from Reef that I love. They have leather uppers and an EVA footbed. I noticed last summer that after a few wears, these babies were getting ripe. So I did the whole vinegar/warm-water bath and air-dried them over a vent. It worked. For maybe two wears. Is there any advice you have before we roll into spring and summer about how to keep flip-flops not smelling like something died on them? Sure, paying five bucks for cheap ones and rotating them left and right is an option, but dropping 40 bucks or so on good flip-flops that don’t make me look like a college student doesn’t lend itself to owning multiple pairs.

Before we get into the meat of today’s discussion of cleaning your fashion 'flops, a word on men in flip-flops: I am pro, provided that one respects the standard clause that if you’re going to bare your toes to the world, good citizenship dictates that you tend to your feet, in the grooming sense. That means you should have neatly clipped toenails that are free of dirt and fungus; calluses and corns and such should be controlled. Many of you will feel differently, and that is fine, but this is not the place to discuss the relative acceptability of sandals for men.

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Foot-grooming is actually part of what we need to talk about when we talk about keeping your flippers clean, so let’s start with that. Brace, because this is a touch on the gross side: Much of what’s causing that smell is a buildup of dead skin on the shoe. It sloughs off as you wander about in your sandals, embeds itself in the shoe, and begins to rot. Glorious, isn’t it?

A very good way to mitigate the dead-skin effect is to adopt good footcare habits . This is a thing we talked about way, way back when Ask a Clean Person first began appearing on Deadspin, and, what with the warm summer months just around the bend, it's a topic well worth revisiting now.

Here are a few things to be sure you’re incorporating into your bathing and beautifying routine:

  • If you don’t already have them, get yourself a stack of washcloths (here are some inexpensive ones from La Targs that’ll do you right well) and suds one up with a good deodorizing bar soap (Irish Spring, Zest—that sort) when you’re having your shower. (Those body washes and such are also fine, I guess, but I’m a bar-soap kind of gal.) Then use the washcloth to give your feet a good scrubbing; the washcloth is important here because it’s going to slough off a lot of dead skin, and dead skin build-up is part of what’s causing your odor problems.
  • Post-shower, make sure to thoroughly dry your feet—with a towel, not just by scuffing them back and forth on your bathmat. I know, I am a cruel taskmistress. But it will help, especially if you can try to get in between your toesies to make sure they’re nice and dry. Time allowing, wait to put on your socks; that will let your feet un-prune themselves if indeed they’ve pruned up.
  • Start using a daily foot powder like Tinactin or Gold Bond.
  • Consider the use of a foot antiperspirant. These products work a bit differently from foot powders, which will absorb sweat rather than stopping it. There are a number of brands to choose from—The Ugly Little Bottle, Ghost Grip, Neat Feat—and you may find that you have to experiment to find the one that works best with your body’s chemistry (they’re similar to antiperspirant for the underarms in that way).

But good foot-care is only going to go so far, first because your flip-flops are already gross, and then also because no matter how much you scrub your feet, dead skin will still molt off of them and onto your shoes. Plus, there’s the matter of sweat and environmental factors like walking through swamp water or the New York City subway system. (Same diff.)

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There are two different levels, if you will, of cleaning a pair of rubber or leather flip-flops: There's deep cleaning, and then there’s maintenance cleaning.

Deep cleaning is a practice you’ll want to engage in every two to three months of regular wear. Be prepared for it to be a little grotty! In fairness, flip-flop-scrubbing is very definitely an act that falls into my “so gross it’s great in a weird and satisfying way” category, so there’s that. You’re going to scrub the shoes with a paste of baking soda and water; if you prefer, you could substitute Borax or OxiClean for the baking soda. In a small bowl, measure a half a cup of baking soda and then add just enough cool water to make a thick paste. That paste is what you’re going to use to scrub the shoes, along with your hands and an old soft-bristled toothbrush.

Do use the toothbrush; the bristle action is really crucial to removing as much of that dead skin as possible. I mentioned that this process is a pretty raunchy one, and you’ll absolutely want to work over a sink, preferably a utility one if you’ve got such a thing. If it’s nice enough, and you have the sort of space to make it possible, working outside over a bucket isn’t a bad idea. Foot water is going to fly everywhere—this is what I’m trying to tell you.

Once you’ve scrubbed and scrubbed until you can scrub no more, give the shoes a thorough rinsing in cool water and dry them with a rag before setting them aside to air-dry. Tempting though it may be, what with the stink-eliminating properties of sunshine, avoid drying your flippers in direct sunlight. This is especially true of leather flip-flops like the Reefs our LW described, or the ever-popular Rainbows. Too much exposure to direct sunlight can cause the leather to dry out, split, and warp. Dry ‘em in the shade, or indoors.

Maintenance cleaning is what you’ll do in between more involved scrubbings to keep dead-skin buildup at bay. Ideally, once every one to two weeks—or really, whenever you think of it—grab a paper towel or a rag, dampen it with a bit of vinegar (or rubbing alcohol, or even dish soap), and give the footbed a going-over to remove skin, grime, whatever. Wipe the footbed clean with a fresh rag or paper towel and clean water—so those products aren’t lingering around, causing the material to dry out (this is especially true of rubbing alcohol)—and pat dry.

You may find that adopting a more thorough foot-care routine and regularly taking a minute or so to wipe your 'flops down once a week or so may be enough that you never get to the point of needing to hit them with the baking-soda paste. Of course, if that happens, you’ll be deprived of the chance to engage in one of those satisfyingly gross acts of cleaning that you and I both love so very, very much.


Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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