When it comes to shoe polishes, a wax polish that brings a glossy shine to your shoes is likely what first comes to mind. When it comes to fine leather, however, you’ll need more than that to keep them in tip-top shape. You may have heard of another type of polish – the cream polish. What is the difference between a wax and cream polish? Which should you use? Can one stand in for the other?
What is a shoe polish?
A shoe polish is an agent that, as its name suggests, primarily keeps your shoe looking refined or ‘polished’, among various other benefits. Shoe polishes do this by adding superficial layers above the shoe leather and can be almost completely removed if the effect is undesirable, unlike dyes that penetrate and bond permanently to leather. Think of shoe polishes as cosmetics for preserved animal skin!
Why do leather shoes need polishing?
Brand new shoes look sharp and new because of its finish, which is primarily leather dye and wax applied to the superficial layer of the leather upper. Just like your skin, leather sheds a little of this superficial layer everyday, though this can be drastically reduced with a good leather conditioner. Apart from scuff marks, these are usually microscopic flakes that are unnoticeable to you on a daily basis. Over time, however, your shoes will appear faded and old when enough of the treated surface layer has shedded. This is especially so due to uneven shedding at places where there is more wear e.g toecaps, insides of heels.
Even when they look old and unpresentable, these shoes still have a lot of life in them from a durability standpoint – it would be a waste throw them away when shoe polishes can restore the sharp look that the finish of a new shoe provides, nor is there any point in wearing quality-crafted shoes when they look like something molded from your dog’s dinner.
Cream shoe polishes restore colour vibrancy to your leather shoes
Cream polishes are usually made of a thick, pigment-rich cream base, and a small amount of waxes. When used regularly, they maintain the colour vibrancy of the leather, mask uneven fading, and provide a very slight shine – like the surface of a leaf. Unlike leather dyes, cream polishes form a pigment-rich layer over the leather that can be removed if the effect is undesirable. A cream polish plays a larger role in keeping a shoe looking brand new than a wax polish does.
Cream polishes are applied evenly all over the shoe leather (to ensure even colouration) with a horsehair dauber brush, allowed to dry, then buffed with a horsehair shoe buffing brush to bring out colour and a slight shine. Because cream polishes simply ‘add’ to the existing colour of your shoes, a close match in colour will do when purchasing a cream polish.
In addition to restoring colour vibrancy, Saphir’s Pommadier Cream Shoe Polish also provides a good amount of nourishment to leather, thanks to its natural shea butter base.
Specialty cream polishes
Some specialty leathers like shell cordovan should not be treated with a standard cream polish. Shell cordovan has a tight fiber structure that is responsible for its natural shine, and most cream polishes actually loosen the fiber density. Instead, specialty cream polishes for shell cordovan should be used.
Wax shoe polishes provide a refined gloss and shine
On the other hand, wax polishes have lower pigment concentrations but a high concentration of hard waxes, which allows them to form a smoother layer over the pitted surface of a leather grain. This creates a glossy look, which is essentially clearer reflections from the shoe surface. As more hard wax is added, the surface of the shoe becomes smoother and the reflections clearer, creating an impression of ‘shininess’. Coloured wax shoe polishes can be used to fill in and hide minor scratch marks in your shoes, commonly on toe caps. Just like cream polishes, this wax layer is superficial and can be removed easily with a leather cleaner. Waxes are hydrophobic, so wax polishes do provide a considerable amount of water resistance to your shoe leather – vital for its durability.
Wax polishes can be applied with a dauber brush, allowed to dry, then buffed to a glossy shine using a horsehair buffing brush. Just like the cream polish, an exact match in colour is not required. In fact, some shoe owners add black wax to the edges of their lighter colour shoes to create a patina-like effect, since the low pigment concetration of wax polishes make them easy to control.
How do I get a mirror shine?
A mirror shine is created when enough wax has been added to fill up all the pits in the leather grain to create a perfectly smooth surface layer of wax on top. In addition, the wax will have to be worked into a smooth layer using a soft cotton rag rather than the stiff bristles of a brush. This takes a lot of time and effort – if you are willing to put them in, check out our guide to mirror shining!
There are specialty waxes such as the Saphir Mirror Gloss that reduce the time and effort required. The Saphir Mirror Gloss, for example, has an extremely high concentration of hard waxes compared to regular wax shoe polishes. Unlike regular wax polishes, some force and rubbing is required to get it onto your rag. However, the same properties also help you build smoother, longer-lasting layers of wax faster to achieve the mirror finish you want!
Which shoe polish should I use?
Both cream and wax polishes take care of different areas in making your shoes look great, and we recommend using both concurrently on fine leather shoes. You should always apply a cream shoe polish before a wax shoe polish. Applying them the other way around will prevent the nourishing base of cream polishes from reaching the leather due to the wax layer, and also ruin the shine that the wax layer provides.
If you have to pick one – if you don’t want a shine and already have another waterproofing product, for example – go for the cream polish over the wax polish. Cream polishes help much more with preventing that old, battered look of faded leather while providing some nourishing benefits as well. A shiny but faded pair of shoes will still look out of place at formal events.