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- Conditioner, shoe cream, and wax polish work hand-in-hand to keep leather footwear looking its best.
- Don’t skimp on your leather-care routine if you want your shoes and boots to last.
- Think of these leather-care products as skincare for your shoes.
I still vividly remember the time when a TSA agent told me I needed to shine my shoes as he watched them pass through the scanner at the airport. I was mortified. I’m notoriously hard on footwear, so keeping them looking their best is a constant battle. Thankfully, there are some great products out there to help in this Sisyphean effort.
The three product categories covered in this guide are cream polish, wax polish, and conditioner. I also spoke to Tony Pecorella, the owner of Manhattan’s Modern Leather Goods, a storied leather care and repair business that’s been around since the 1940s, who explained to me what each product is good for. Conditioner and shoe cream both moisturize the leather, but the cream polish leaves a thin layer of cream that helps blend scratches and scuffs and gives the shoe a medium shine. Wax polish is the best at covering scuffs and scratches and leaves a higher shine, Pecorella said. For more on our conversation, see the FAQ section below.
To narrow down the best shoe polishes, I did some testing at home with products that have gotten high marks from experts and customers. I used them on a single boot or shoe as a before-and-after snapshot to see what kind of coverage, shine, and conditioning power they had. Other considerations included price, ingredients, and range of colors. Note that these products are for smooth leather, not suede or nubuck.
The 5 best shoe polishes in 2021:
- Best Conditioner: Saphir Renovateur
- Best Wax Polish: Saphir Medaille d’Or Pate de Luxe
- Best Color Polish: Tarrago Cream Polish
- Best Budget Polish: Moneysworth & Best Cream Polish
- Best Self-Shining Polish: Tarrago Self-Shine Kit
- Best Cream Polish: Leather Spa Leather Cream
Saphir Renovateur revitalizes shoe leather. It comes with a premium price tag but is well worth the money.
Sizing options: 75 ml and 250 ml
Modern Leather Goods almost exclusively uses Saphir products and it’s not alone. Of the many guides I’ve read on shoe care by various industry professionals, nearly all of them list Saphir as the top leather product company and the brand’s Renovateur as the best conditioner. I put it to the test on a pair of old cowboy boots I’ve had for 20 years that have seen a lot of wear and tear, and much less care. The leather greedily soaked in the Renovateur and I could see the results quickly. The leather had a more regular color, a light shine, and took on a richer brown.
According to a company rep, Saphir, a French company founded in 1920, continues to manufacture its products in the same way it did when it was first founded. The ingredient list (and the smell, which is quite pleasant) is closer to what you might find in a skincare product than what you’d expect to rub on your shoes. The list includes lanolin, beeswax, and mink oil.
While expensive at more than $20 for a 75 ml jar, a little goes a long way and it doesn’t need to be applied that often, perhaps once a month. If you’ve invested a chunk of change in your leather footwear, the Renovateur is worth the cost to help keep your shoes and boots looking their best.
Pros: Conditions beautifully, works quickly, and imparts a light shine.
Cons: None to speak of
Best Wax Polish: Saphir Medaille d’Or Pate de Luxe
Saphir Medaille d’Or Pate de Luxe instantly revives the color of your shoes and provides a high shine with little work.
Sizing options: 50 ml and 100 ml
Saphir is a hard brand to beat and this is especially true with its wax polish, the Medaille d’Or Pate de Luxe. I used it on a pair of dress shoes I haven’t worn in a long while that were desperately in need of some TLC. The color had faded so badly I thought I might need to use shoe dye. I applied the Pate de Luxe as directed and the polish immediately revitalized the faded color, and didn’t require a large amount of product to achieve coverage. Saphir uses a higher concentration of pigment in the Pate de Luxe than other brands, and it shows.
According to the company, you can achieve a high gloss or mirror gloss with the Pate de Luxe and can be used with the Renovateur and a cream polish. Like the Renovateur, the ingredients list mostly reads like a high-end face cream — jojoba, almond, and macadamia oils — plus beeswax, and natural solvents like turpentine oil. I was able to buff the shoe to a high shine with little effort.
I tried it against the Leather Spa Luxury Wax Polish and found it had better coverage and didn’t require as much product to achieve similar results and costs about the same price. You can buy a 50 ml tin of the Pate de Luxe for about $12 on Amazon, depending on the color. It comes in 12 colors.
Pros: Beautiful coverage, revitalizes faded color, achieves a high shine, several color options
Cons: None to speak of.
Best Color Polish: Tarrago Cream Polish
Tarrago Cream Polish has a huge range of colors, provides excellent coverage, and gives a medium shine.
Sizing options: 50 ml
Tarrago is a Spanish brand that’s been around since 1940 and was the first company to offer water-based polishes back in the 1960s. (It’s now owned by the same parent company that owns Saphir, Alma FRC.) The brand offers a range of nearly 100 colors in the cream polish. The wax polish comes in seven color choices.
I used the Tarrago cream polish on a pair of gray leather sneakers that were badly scuffed. The thick cream quickly soaked into the leather and easily covered the various scuff marks. After it dried, I buffed it to a medium shine. If you’re looking for a high shine for your colored shoes, your best bet is to use the Tarrago Cream Polish, followed by a neutral wax polish that can achieve a higher shine.
The Tarrago Shoe Cream is available on Amazon for $7. Not all the colors are available on the site. For more color choices, Myshoesupplies.com also carries it for $3.05, but you’ll pay a $4.29 shipping fee for orders under $60.
Pros: Huge range of color choices, good coverage.
Cons: Doesn’t provide a high shine.
Best Budget-Friendly Polish: Moneysworth & Best Shoe Cream
Moneysworth & Best Shoe Cream provides a light shine, comes in a good range of colors, and is a great value.
Sizing options: 1.55 ounces
Moneysworth & Best is a family-owned Canadian company that started out as a Toronto shoe repair shop in the 1980s. The Shoe Cream is made in Spain from all-natural ingredients, including lanolin, and various oils, waxes, and pigments. The product comes in more than 30 colors.
I used this on two different pairs of beat-up vintage boots. The shoe cream had decent coverage, but it wasn’t able to hide some staining. The product has a creamy consistency and soaked into the leather quickly. After buffing, I was able to get a light shine. While it didn’t completely cover the issues on the boots, it did give the leather a more even, smoother appearance and definitely made me feel comfortable wearing the boots in public again. That said, I’d recommend this product for shoes or boots that are still in good condition and don’t require a lot of pigment.
It’s available for $2.99 for a 1.55-ounce jar. For more colors, Amazon also carries Moneysworth & Best Shoe Cream, but be warned that the pricing varies, with some colors costing around $7 or more.
Pros: Good coverage, better price.
Cons: I could only achieve a light shine, won’t cover all blemishes and stains
Best Self-Shining Polish: Tarrago Self-Shining Kit
The Tarrago Self-Shining Kit is perfect for reviving your shoes in a hurry while also helping to nourish the leather.
Sizing options: 50 ml
Tarrago’s Self-Shining Kit provides a quick and easy way to revive your shoes with very little time or effort. It contains a sponge applicator on the top that you simply dip into the cream polish and apply to the leather. I used it on a pair of my wife’s boots that were moderately scuffed and hadn’t been shined in several months. One pass across the leather was all it took to bring them back to life. It easily covered the scuffs and scratches and produced a medium shine with no buffing.
The product contains a high amount of carnauba wax, which provides the instant shine. The wax is derived from the leaves of a Brazilian palm tree. It’s sustainably harvested as the trees aren’t damaged during processing.
While the Self-Shine kit doesn’t come in nearly as many colors as the company’s regular shoe cream (there are only about a dozen options), it’s a great choice for when you’re in a hurry and need to get your shoes in order. I wish I would have used this before I headed through the TSA line all those years ago. The kit is $7.99 for a 50 ml jar.
Pros: Fast, easy, good coverage, and a medium shine.
Cons: Not as many color choices as Tarrago’s Shoe Cream.
Best Cream Polish: Leather Spa Cream Polish
Leather Spa’s Cream Polish nourishes leather, ably hides the scrapes and scuffs of everyday wear, and provides a medium shine.
Sizing options: 1.4 ounces
Leather Spa, the famous New York City-based leather care and repair business, also makes shoe care products, including a shoe cream. Leather Spa has its origins in France and that’s where the company’s shoe cream is produced using all-natural ingredients. It doesn’t contain any silicone or petroleum products that can end up damaging leather over the long run.
I used the cream polish on a pair of my wife’s boots. The cream very quickly soaked into the leather, giving it a nice sheen. It had very good coverage, evening out the color, and hiding the scuffs. It didn’t quite cover a small divot in the leather, but as Tony Pecorella stated, a wax polish is better at hiding those kinds of blemishes. I buffed the boots and was able to develop a medium shine. Leather Spa’s Shoe Cream is $8.95 for a 1.4-ounce jar. It comes in 34 different colors, which is a major plus for matching shades other than the typical black or brown.
Pros: Moisturizing, evens out the color, hides scuffs and small scratches, many color options.
Cons: Can’t hide larger blemishes like divots in the leather.
What else we considered
Lexol’s leather conditioner is billed as a conditioning product but imparts a nice glossy shine to leather. In a head-to-head comparison between it and the much pricier Saphir Renovateur on a pair of my father’s 1960s ankle boots, Lexol did well, except that it required a much longer drying time. The Saphir product dried in a few minutes. Lexol took several hours. For the price, around $7, it’s a great product, but not the best choice if you’re in a hurry.
What other products do I need to polish my shoes?
Besides conditioner and polish, there are a few basics you’ll need to do the job right. A horsehair dauber brush, which typically has a round head that tapers down to the handle, is good for applying saddle soap to clean the shoes before polishing. Some people also use this type of brush to apply polish. Kiwi makes a good one.
A horse hair brush is important for buffing your shoes once you’ve applied the polish and have let it dry. The brush helps bring out the shine. Kirby Allison makes an outstanding version.
Some people like to use a microfiber cloth for applying conditioner and polish and for a final buff for a higher shine. I personally use old cotton T-shirts cut into strips to apply polish, a trick I’ve seen professional shoe shiners use.
Do I need to clean my shoes before polishing them?
Yes. You can take a damp cloth and wipe away any visible dirt. If they’re very dirty or have stains, you can use saddle soap, like Fiebing’s, that can be applied using a slightly damp dauber brush. Rub the brush in the soap until you get a light lather and then apply on the shoes. Wipe away with a dry cloth. Now you’re ready to condition the shoes followed by shining them.
How often should you polish your shoes?
“That’s the age old question,” Pecorella said. “It differs by person and wear. If you wear the same shoes every day, once every two to six weeks. If you alternate shoes, maybe once a month to two months. It really is based on the eye test and nobody knows your shoes better than you do.”
When should I use a wax polish versus a cream polish?
According to a Saphir rep I spoke with, cream polish is more for nourishing and recoloring, while wax polish is for creating a high shine. It’s mainly for dress footwear where you want a high gloss.
Can wax polish damage my shoes?
Tony Pecorella warns that wax polish, unlike cream, doesn’t moisturize the leather and can build up over time and dry the leather out. Cream polish won’t harm the leather, even if used frequently.