What is Shoe Polish?

C. Ausbrooks

Shoe polish is a product used to shine, polish, and protect leather footwear. Polishing shoes will increase their life span, and lead to a more attractive appearance. It comes in various forms, including wax, paste, cream, and liquid, and can be applied in many different ways. Shoe polish has been in use for centuries, but the modern version has only been available since the early 1900s.

Gum arabic powder, which is used to thicken shoe polish.
Gum arabic powder, which is used to thicken shoe polish.

Prior to the 20th century, shoe polish was made of only natural ingredients, including tallow and wax, but this formula has changed in recent history. Today, most polishes still contain wax, but also include various chemicals including turpentine, naptha, and dye, and natural substances such as lanolin and gum arabic. Lanolin is a byproduct of wool obtained during the shearing process, and is added to waterproof the shoes and bond other ingredients together. Gum arabic, obtained from the acacia tree, is used to increase the thickness of the polish.

Shoe polish is used to shine and polish footwear.
Shoe polish is used to shine and polish footwear.

Shoe polish is applied to leather footwear using a cloth or brush, and is then rubbed in vigorously to ensure an even coat. Buffing is also necessary, and sometimes several coats will be needed to achieve the desired shine. A common method of polishing shoes is known as the “spit shine,” and involves rubbing the polish into the shoe with a drop of water, or in some cases, actual saliva. This technique is typically associated with military organizations, and creates a very high-gloss finish.

Some manufacturers make a form of shoe polish that is soaked into an applicator, similar to a wet sponge. Some of these polishes come in squeeze bottles with an applicator attached to the end. These types are usually liquid, and much thinner than traditional wax-based polishes. Their main benefit is convenience, although many would argue that they can’t deliver the same level of shine for which wax polish is known.

Black shoe polish may be the most popular color, but it can also be found in many different shades. Brown, white, tan, and even clear polish is available, and it is recommended that the color of the polish match the color of the leather for the best end result. Although it is typically designed for use on leather, some manufacturers have created polish that is safe for use on vinyl.

Shoe polish is most often found in small, round, tin containers, which hold around two ounces (60 grams). Only a very small amount of polish is needed for any one application, and it takes a long time to empty the tin. Larger containers are impractical, as the polish would dry out before it could be used.

Shoe polish comes in different colors for various shades of leather.
Shoe polish comes in different colors for various shades of leather.

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Discussion Comments


@yournamehere -- You may want to try either Meltonian or Angelus shoe polish. I have a friend who worked as a valet for a while, and those were the two brands that he always used.

One thing you might consider though -- have you thought that maybe your shoe polish brush is to blame? I know you said you had been using the Kiwi applicators, but I know a lot of people who get better results with Kiwi when they apply it with a brush instead of the little foam applicator.

So if you still like that brand, maybe you should just try getting a nicer quality of brush. That might give you the type of shine that you're looking for.

Best of luck!


Can anybody recommend me a good cream oxblood shoe polish? I've been using Kiwi shoe polish applicators for a while, but they just don't seem to give me the kind of shine that I'm looking for anymore -- and I really do like to keep my loafers shiny.

Can you recommend me a good natural leather shoe polish for oxblood leather shoes? I'm not entirely against a synthetic polish if you know of one that works, but I do prefer a natural polish if I can get it.

Do you have any recommendations?


This may be a silly question, but how exactly does a spit shine give you a better shine than a regular shoe shine polish?

I have never understood that -- it would seem like all spitting would do is to remove the dust, there would be no shine given to the shoe from the spit, unless I am really missing some critical information about the content of saliva.

So how exactly does that work -- why is a spit shine shiny?

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