Sometimes I get really mundane sounding emails from parents paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of unregulated, potentially toxic chemicals in our everyday consumer products. Last week someone even emailed to ask how to wash their hands! But I get why they asked (they really were trying to find out what soaps are good to use and what I do when I'm not near soap and water). I'm always happy to respond.
Similarly, a few weeks ago, a reader asked me how to polish shoes. This one made me smile, as I had just gone to my parents' apartment to shine my own. Since I began my green-formation, I have used up, recycled, or managed to throw out/give away all products from my former life that contain all sorts of undesirables. Shoe polish fits that bill - it can contain "such toxic ingredients as trichloroethylene, trichloroethane, methylene chloride, ethanol, perchloroethyleme xylene, and nitrobenzene," according to Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home. Since giving the stuff up, I haven't yet found a good replacement, nor have I really needed to. Still, I had somewhere to go and wanted to appear shinier than scuffed. So my own mother came to the rescue. She still owns the gunk. Sad (on many levels) but true. I vowed to figure out a less toxic alternative for the next time I needed to be spiffy (one of the lovely things about motherhood - it isn't often I have to look overly acceptable). The emailed question helped spur me along.
So, what to use instead of regular old shoe polish? Not just any product touting itself as nontoxic, as Dadd says she has eliminated most products claiming to be natural or nontoxic after examining their MSDS sheets. Ah, greenwashing. "There are only two shoe care products I can recommend at this time," she writes, though she hasn't tried them herself (she lives mainly in sandals in Florida). They're both made in Germany from plant-based ingredients. The first is Tapir Leather Care, which contains some organically grown ingredients and no petroleum. And while some of the below tips for shine only do that, Tapir has some colors, as well as leather balm, and even suede care. And it's moisturizing. The other product she suggests is Livos Snado Shoe Polish, but she says it's very hard to find.
To her list, I'd ad Po Zu, which is billed as an edible shoe cream. It's Soil Association certified and only contains organic, cold-pressed coconut oil that has not been hydrogenated, bleached, refined or deodorized. It can be used as face cream, lip balm, spread for toast, or shoe polish. It doesn't, however, provide color for badly scuffed heels.
Other tips to heed pre and post polish: take good care of your shoes. If fixing color isn't an issue, homespun ways to get shine include polishing with vegetable, olive, or walnut oil, or petroleum jelly. (I have very clear memories of polishing my patent leather mary janes with Vaseline as a kid.) On the Sierra Club website, they even suggest rubbing the inside of a banana peel on leather shoes, then buffing them with a clean cloth. That sounds a little too sticky and scented for me, probably because I live in roach-infested New York City. Having a closet full of banana-flavored shoes is more of an invitation than I'd wish to extend.
If you're using conventional shoe polish and have no plans to switch to a greener version, use it outdoors only. And avoid shoe sprays at all costs, especially when there are kids around. Toxic ingredients turned into mist can be inhaled more readily than ever. Grim.
Of course, I know I'll get comments saying the easiest way to polish shoes is to not polish them at all. Agreed. There are many solid environmental reasons to avoid (new) leather that go way beyond using a little shoe polish. Bonus: natural fabrics like wool, cotton canvas, hemp and the like don't require polishing.
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