Charcoal shoe deodorizers have been popular for a few years as a way to control odors in running shoes, gym shoes etc. The problem with commercial charcoal charcoal shoe deodorizers is that they’re expensive, heavy, and can’t be refilled with fresh charcoal once the carbon particles have bonded to odors (more on that later).
Making your own disposable charcoal shoe deodorizers is just as effective as the commercially produced sachets, much less expensive, and much lighter weight – making them perfect for carrying with you in your gym bag, travel suitcase, or backpack.
The Science behind Activated Charcoal Deodorizers
Charcoal removes odors through a process called adsorption (yes, with a D”). While absorption involves a substance moving into another material (like a sponge absorbing water), absorption refers to a sticking-to or a bonding between substance and material.
In the case of Activated Charcoal and odors, something called a Van der Waals Force holds stinky molecules in the area to the surface of the charcoal, which is microscopically highly porous and can adsorb many times its weight. According to one chemist, Sunlight can help charcoal release the smells and reactivate, but this process can only be repeated a limited number of times before the effectiveness of the charcoal at creating those bonds is decreased.
My First Experiment with Charcoal for Odor Removal
I first discovered activated charcoal as a shoe deodorizer when I was backpacking in South America. With my trusty blundstones as my primary shoe for walking, hiking, and exploring, it didn’t take long into my three-month trip before my boots started smelling very very funky. The odor emanating from my boots made me self-conscious and worried about keeping the odor from affecting my fellow travelers. That’s when I started experimenting with making my own charcoal shoe deodorizers.
Travel Essential: Charcoal capsules
Charcoal capsules are always (and I mean always) packed in my luggage. For both short and longer trips, this is my number one first aid supply on the road. For decades, activated charcoal has been the first line of treatment in most ERs for most kinds of poisoning.
Studies have also demonstrated that it is effective binding the toxins produced by bacteria such as E. coli – making it an effective and inexpensive treatment for travelers’ diarrhea (Source: a journal article on PubMed for reference). Activated charcoal has saved my travel plans on more than a few occasions, but when I was in South America with super stinky boots, I decided to use my stash of activated charcoal capsules for a novel use: DIY shoe deodorizers.
My First DIY Attempt
This first attempt at making DIY shoe deodorizers started like this: Opening charcoal capsules and emptying them into little pockets made from tissue paper. Although I really wasn’t optimistic that they would do an effective job, I let the activated charcoal packets sit in my boots overnight and, to my astonishment, the next morning the odor emanating from my boots was almost completely gone. I couldn’t believe it- it worked!
Overnight, as the charcoal packets sat in my boots, the pores in the charcoal captured and bound odor molecules and prevented them from replicating or spreading, leading to a much much-reduced odor by morning. While most shoe deodorizers work by using chemicals to kill odor-causing bacteria or by using artificial scents to cover up the odor, activated charcoal works differently – neutralizing odors through basic chemistry.
Improving on my first attempt
The problem with this initial attempt at DIY charcoal shoe deodorizers was the messiness of the folded packet. Getting a packet of tissue paper in and out of my shoes without spilling charcoal was a feat. And as I repeated this procedure the following nights, I found it almost impossible to consistently get capsules broken apart and into my shoe without spilling charcoal.
While activated charcoal powder doesn’t, technically, stain, the jet-black ultrafine powder tends to be difficult to remove from any porous surface including textiles, paper, etc. When I got back from my South American trip, I developed and tested the tutorial below to create DIY charcoal shoe deodorizers that were easy to get in and out of my shoes and would not stain, spill, or be messy to use. By using the method below you can create your own shoe deodorizers that are easy to use (even for kids!). Make a batch of a dozen or so, place them in a zip-top bag, and you’ll have activated charcoal deodorizers ready to use!
How to Make your own Charcoal Shoe Deodorizers
Supplies You’ll Need:
How to make your own charcoal shoe deodorizers
Total Time: 5 minutes
Acquire & open small envelopes
open envelopes and place them on an easy to clean nonporous surface. I’m using coin envelopes which are the perfect size for shoes. The paper allows for air to circulation without letting charcoal leak.
Insert Charcoal into Envelope
Place the contents of one capsule of activated charcoal powder in each envelope. If using bulk charcoal, place one teaspoon of powder in each envelope.
Dampen the glue on the seal and seal each envelope fully. You may need to use a clothespin or paperclip to hold them closed until the glue dries. Alternately, tape closed.
Place a DIY deodorizer in each shoe
Place one packet in each shoe that you would like to deodorize. Reduction in smell should be noticeable within 12 hours, with increasing benefits the longer the activated charcoal deodorizer stays in the shoe.
Estimated Cost: 1 USD
- small paper envelopes
- activated charcoal capsules or activated charcoal in bulk
- optional: disposable gloves to keep hands clean
Alternate uses for activated charcoal deodorizers
Although I most commonly use these deodorizers for shoes (especially when I’m off on a months-long international trip and wearing the same two pairs of shoes for weeks) these deodorizers have a number of uses. I have also used them effectively for deodorizing vintage luggage, keeping my dresser drawers fresh smelling, and other spaces that needed to be deodorized.
Can you reuse DIY charcoal and fresheners?
You can reuse these deodorizers a few times before they lose their deodorizing strength- just place them in the sun for a few hours to rejuvenate and reverse the chemical absorption process by which charcoal neutralizes odors.
When I’m traveling, and need to wear my shoes daily, I usually throw a packet away after about five days. With handling every morning and night, the charcoal sometimes begin leaking through the creases of the envelope after 4-5 days- although these tiny manilla coin envelope tends to significantly reduce the escape of charcoal. The envelope has to be very agitated before it begins to show signs of leaking, and the leak is very slow– making it easy to dispose of before it makes a mess.
If you’re using these on shoes that are in storage, in drawers, or on luggage, you can keep the packets in place for weeks or months. Replace about every three months- or sooner if the environment is very odorous.
Despite what the manufacturers of “reusable” charcoal shoe deodorizers claim, charcoal has a limited capacity for binding and neutralizing odors. Although placing it in the sunlight may improve the charcoal shoe deodorizer’s ability to absorb odors – even commercially produced charcoal shoe deodorizers have a limited capacity. For this reason, I prefer to make my own using the sustainable materials in this tutorial.
What kind of charcoal is best for deodorizing?
All charcoal has some deodorizing benefit. Modern charcoal produced for health and home applications is generally made by burning bamboo or coconut fibers in a setting designed to maintain purity. While some of the same benefits can be gained by using raw charcoal attained through, for example, the remnants of the campfire, the purity of naturally acquired charcoal may be lower. For use as a deodorizer, homemade charcoal may be sufficient.
Making your own charcoal deodorizers cost a fraction of the cost of new charcoal shoe deodorizers, is more environmentally friendly, and more efficient- since fresh charcoal packets can be available every time you need a shoe deodorizer.
Prep and Cleanup for this DIY
If you work carefully and on top of a protected surface such as a newspaper covered table, this DIY project should have no notable cleanup. However, if you get charcoal on your hands you may find that it’s a bit difficult to remove. Here are some tips to clean charcoal off of skin:
- Using a kitchen tap so you don’t have to touch the faucet, run your hands under warm water and rub them vigorously.
- After the water has washed most of the charcoal off, your hands may still be discolored. Add soap and rub vigorously.
- If charcoal has stained your hands or settled under your nails, use a nail brush and Dawn dish soap to remove any lingering charcoal powder.
If you gave this tutorial for DIY shoe deodorizers try, drop me a line below and let me know how it went. This has been a lifesaver for me both at home and when I’m traveling, I hope sharing this tutorial helps you control the odors in your boots, shoes, or sneakers.
Lindsayanne is a professional artist, writer, and serial-DIY-er with a knack for solving problems creatively at home, in the studio, out in the garden, and even online. Learn more about Lindsay, her training, and her background here.