Shoe Polish vs. Waterproof Spray

Man sitting on shoeshine chair, close-up, low section

Andrew Hetherington/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Shoes require maintenance and care, regardless of the material they're made from. Water is a shoe killer -- drying and staining leather, canvas and suede shoes. Shoe polishes and waterproofing sprays are essential elements of any shoe care regimen that restores lost luster and shine, removing dirt and preventing excessive moisture penetration.

Prep is Key

Regardless of whether you plan on applying a shoe polish or spray, the footwear must be thoroughly cleaned. Brushing the shoes with a horsehair brush knocks off loose soil and dirt. Following this step with saddle soap on leather shoes -- or warm water on canvas -- helps remove the rest. Suede shoes may be treated with a little water, a suede brush and a new pink gum eraser (used to remove scuffs and blemishes). Once complete, the shoes are ready for whatever waterproofing and polishing measures are planned.


Shoe polish comes in cans or jars, typically comprised of natural waxes and silicones for an extra measure of moisture resistance. A properly shined shoe will cause water to bead and run off the shoe's surface. Polishes come in neutral shades as well as hues to match black, cordovan and tan tones. Polishes are applied with a soft cloth in a firm swirling motion. After the polish dries, the shoes are buffed with a horesehair polishing brush. Polishes can be heated or sprinkled with water after application to impart a higher sheen as desired.

Suede Care

Suede is also leather or a microfiber-like material. The signature nap that defines the material's look is not compatible with polish, which would mat the nap and destroy the finish. Suede is instead treated with a few thin coats of a silicone or water-based protective spray, which absorbs into the material and protects it against dirt and moisture penetration. Sprays should not influence the original color of the material, but excessively heavy coats may cause the nap to gum up -- attracting more contamination than an untreated shoe.

The Cream Option

Shoe creams are part moisturizer, part polish. Often confused with wax-based polishes, creams are useful as a base treatment prior to actual polishing with a dedicated wax. These compounds restore more moisture to the shoe than a wax would, and which protective sprays do not at all. Creams are pigmented, which helps to revitalize worn spots or areas that have gotten dull over time. For the best shine, however, it's best to follow the cream treatment with a wax or polish. Creams usually are not sold as a waterproofing treatment.