Poison ivy is one of the most proliferous weeds in North America. It comes in both eastern and western varieties and hikers in the western U.S. and Canada are also more likely to run into related plants like poison oak or poison sumac. Poison ivy isn’t really an ivy at all but rather a member of the cashew plant family and exposure causes an allergic reaction in about 85% of people.
This is because of a chemical compound in the plant sap called urushiol oil. Urushiol exposure can happen through contact with the leaves, stem, or berries of poison ivy and poison oak. If you are exposed, you can expect an allergic reaction called dermatitis which is not only painful and itchy but also causes inflammation and pus-filled blisters depending on the severity.
Hikers and frequent backcountry trekkers are likely to have faced the issue of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac before, especially those who tend toward intermediate or hard hiking trails that involve lots of off-trail hiking. It’s less likely in popular spots and well-maintained hiking trails will have hopefully been cleared of all the sumac plants that cause allergic reactions, but the plants can be surprisingly resilient and spread mostly underground, meaning methods like mowing and cutting aren’t always effective.
The only thing worse than exposure to poison ivy and plants of that ilk is re-exposing yourself to urushiol oil that remains on your shoes and other hiking gear after a hike.
Luckily, if you’re prepared with knowledge of the proper steps to take, you can avoid a second exposure to poison ivy and may be able to identify the plant and avoid exposure altogether. The beauty of the great outdoors can be a distraction, though, and it won’t always cross your mind to look out for poisonous sumac plants. The steps to clean poison ivy off your shoes are simple and straightforward. One rule to keep in mind during the whole process is that you don’t want to spread the urushiol oil around any more than it already has been, so keep your shoes and other exposed gear away from untainted clothes and materials.
Cleaning your gear of urushiol is definitely something you can do at a campsite or out on a hiking trail if you bring the right gear along to do the job. That being said, it’s unwise to go through a full cleansing if you’re still outside and at risk of exposure. If you have an allergic reaction to one of these plants, it’s advisable to wash the urushiol oil off your skin as soon as possible, but not before you’re away from the plant. Your skin naturally produces some oil that can protect it somewhat from an allergic reaction to urushiol and washing it can reduce this ability.
Shoes are the most likely piece of your gear to be contaminated since the vines or shrubs of poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak tend to grow close to the ground and blend in well with other greenery. Read on to the end of this guide for a full step-by-step guide to cleaning poison ivy off your shoes to prevent multiple allergic reactions or developing an itchy rash long after you’ve come in off the hiking trail.
Treat your skin first
If you are exposed to poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, make sure you wash the affected area thoroughly to remove any urushiol remaining from the plant. Once urushiol has bonded with your skin, it changes chemical characteristics and won’t cause an allergic reaction again. Unbonded urushiol, especially that found on gear and clothes like hiking shoes, can still provoke an allergic reaction although it’s not as common since incidental brushing against poison ivy is unlikely to leave a large enough deposit to cause a serious allergic reaction.
Before you can clean your shoes and other gear, though, it’s really important to wash your skin to prevent the urushiol from spreading and causing a larger rash. There are many products on the market to treat skin that has touched poison ivy and other sumac plants. Fels-Naptha is a great product that’s specifically designed to remove urushiol from the skin. Naptha used to be a main ingredient in the product but had some health risks associated with it and has since been removed, but the soap is still ideal for removing urushiol.
Scrubbing the affected area with soap in tepid water and a tailored product like Fels-Naptha is the best way to get the urushiol oil off your skin. Hot water will open up your pores and allow the oil to possibly move deeper. Once the oil is removed from your skin, taking a really hot shower can assuage the itchy rash caused by urushiol, but at the very beginning, it’s best not to use very hot water to rinse the oil off your skin. Try a topical cream or antihistamine to lessen swelling. If it’s a severe reaction or spreads to sensitive areas like the genitals, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Keep your shoes away from other gear
Once you’ve adequately rinsed the urushiol from your skin, you can move on to your shoes. When you first take off your shoes, make sure you don’t leave them on a shoe rack or trail them through your house. This can leave residual urushiol on different surfaces and leave you scratching your head if you pick up an allergic reaction to it later on.
Remove your shoes outside and leave them far away from other items and out of the way of other people. The first impulse might be to stow them away in a laundry basket or similar container, but that will only create one more thing for you to clean urushiol from, so it’s best to just leave the shoes outside until you can return to them with the proper gear for cleaning.
Tools for cleaning poison ivy off of shoes
There are only a few things you’ll need to effectively remove urushiol from your shoes. Some are optional and you may find that certain storebought products are more convenient to use than others. However, the basics are these:
Heavy rubber gloves: Latex gloves are too thin and permeable to prevent exposure to urushiol. Make sure you have sturdy gloves that you don’t mind disposing of once you finish the process. The longer the gloves the better. If your forearms aren’t affected by poison ivy already at this point, then having some rubber gloves to protect them can be really helpful.
Soft-bristled brush: There’s no need to have a hard brush that will cause damage to some kinds of shoes. Any brush that can work up a lather and have enough resistance to remove the urushiol oil will work out just fine. Try to find a brush with a handle rather than a typical brush like you might find in a standard shoeshine kit. It will help keep your hands a little further away from urushiol deposits on the shoe.
Laundry detergent: Manufacturers have developed some products that target urushiol specifically such as Tecnu and Zanfel, but for cleaning urushiol from shoes and clothing, regular old laundry detergent will work just fine. You’re going to make a solution with the detergent and hot water so find some kind of bucket as well.
Cloth: You’re going to use this to rinse the shoes after you apply a solution with the brush. Make sure it can handle enough water without getting completely soaked through, and it’s advisable to go ahead and select a cloth that you won’t mind throwing out after you finish using it to rinse your shoes. If you’re treating shoes made of a sensitive material like leather, get a cloth that won’t damage them.
Prepare your shoes for cleaning: Once you have your tools assembled and your rubber gloves on, you can set your shoes up for cleaning by removing any extra insoles, unlacing them, and pulling out the tongue as much as possible. Try to do this outdoors, not only because there is less risk of urushiol spreading but also because the open air will help prevent irritation and give you more space to maneuver while you’re cleaning your shoes.
Mix your cleaning solution: Fill a receptacle with two cups of hot water and then add two tablespoons of laundry detergent. Mix the two together evenly and try not to overfill your container of choice with too many suds. You can always skim some of the soap suds off the top of the solution if you find that your chosen laundry detergent creates too much or your proportions weren’t quite right.
Apply the solution with a soft-bristled brush: Use a dunking method like you would with a common paintbrush. There’s no need to put your shoes directly in the solution since completely soaking them won’t really help to get rid of the urushiol oil at all. Get your brush nice and soapy and then set in scrubbing the surface of your shoes. Move on to the insides and don’t forget to take extra care with more detailed areas near the tongue and the shoelace holes. If there was a removable insole, scrub that too.
Everything that may have been exposed to the poison ivy has to be scrubbed with the brush and the solution. You can decide whether you want to wash the shoelaces this way or replace them. If you are going to toss them in the washing machine, make sure not to mix them with items that haven’t been exposed to urushiol. Run the washing machine on an empty cycle afterward to make sure no residue is left in the machine from the poison ivy.
Rinsing your shoes: Dampen the cloth with a little bit of fresh water. Don’t use the soapy solution you used for scrubbing your shoes since that could overwhelm the cloth and make drying off your shoes take that much longer. Rinsing your shoes will take as much attention as scrubbing them did. Get into all the nooks and crannies of the shoes with the cloth and remove all traces of the soap. If you applied the solution correctly, then the shoes shouldn’t be completely soaked through. Make sure the surfaces of your shoes are clear of suds and do as best as you can to make sure there is no residue from the detergent on the surfaces. Leave your gloves on!
Drying your shoes
While it may make more sense to leave your shoes out in direct sunlight after you finish rinsing them, it’s actually better to leave them in a place where it’s warm enough but not super warm and out of the direct sunlight. It can take several days for shoes to air dry at this point, so just check on them once or twice a day.
Once the shoes have dried, they should hopefully be completely free of all traces of urushiol and ready to use again. If you want to use leather conditioner or a similar product on the shoes after the rinsing, wait until after the drying is finished.
Tips for washing poison ivy off of shoes
Like you would with your skin, you should clean the poison ivy off your shoes as soon as you possibly can. Urushiol oil will not automatically fade away from your shoes for a year or possibly even two without a good scrubbing. If the shoes are old or worn out anyway, don’t beat yourself up for throwing them away.
However, since most hiking shoes are often constructed to last for years and years, you’ll probably want to give them a cleaning so you can keep wearing them. Watch around the seams and the tongue area when you’re cleaning your shoes to make absolutely sure that you have gotten to all the urushiol that has been left there from contact with poison ivy.
Poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak can be bothersome enough if you happen to get some on your skin. Itchy rashes and blisters begin to form quite soon and pus can often be seen under the skin after some time. There is no shortage of antihistamines, calamine lotions, and brand names like Technu and Zanfel that have been specifically designed to counteract the negative effects of the poison ivy plant.
Some people have even found some success battling poison ivy with bleach and rubbing alcohol. In addition to long pants and long sleeves, knowing how to recognize a poison ivy plant and its sumac cousins can go a long way in avoiding it and the painful symptoms it causes.
Of course, it isn’t always possible to avoid poison ivy since it blends in with other plants and doesn’t often have particularly vibrant colors that make it stand out against the forest background. For these cases, washing the urushiol oil off your shoes and other hiking gear can be just as important as washing the urushiol oil off your skin. If you are exposed to poison ivy in the backcountry, limiting that exposure is the best you can do.
Catching an allergic reaction to poison ivy soon enough can seriously limit the damage it does. Luckily, it’s a fairly simple process that you can probably do with materials you already have sitting around your house. Laundry detergent can even be replaced with dishwashing soap in your solution if you happen to be short of laundry detergent when you find you’ve come into contact with poison ivy.
In just a few short steps you can clean all traces of urushiol from your shoes. This can rescue a new pair of shoes and keep a good old trusty pair in service. The only stage that takes a significant amount of time is letting the shoes air dry, but there isn’t much to do about that.
If you don’t mind lots of loud noise, you can theoretically throw your shoes in the dryer. Bear in mind, though, that this can cause additional wear and tear to the shoes and you’d also be risking spreading some urushiol oil into your dryer if you use this method. It’s best to just let the shoes air dry.
Now that you know how to clean your shoes, you can head out into the backcountry without fear that a simple exposure to poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac doesn’t blow up into a severe reaction or spread to other parts of your body. Experiencing poison ivy again days or weeks later is extra annoying, which is why cleaning urushiol off your gear as soon as possible is so important.
Bonus tip: Anxious you’ll be exposed to poison ivy? Check out this helpful guide to outsmart poison ivy, oak, and other sumac plants!