The Chemistry of Sneakers


I chose to do the chemistry of one of my favorite things in the world, sneakers. Sneakers are more than just any old shoe, they are a way to show who you are. Sneakers have been popular for many years, with the Jordan brand being one of the most recognizable companies. I chose to use the Air Jordan 1 as an example. Shoes affect everyone’s life because everyone wears them, so I thought it would be cool to see the chemistry behind them.

Composition of Sneakers

Sneakers are made up of many different parts including the outsole, midsole, and upper. Each part of the shoe contains different materials with different chemical compounds.

  • Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA)-C2H4

  • Synthetic leather (Polyurethane)-C3H7NO2  

  • Vulcanized Rubber (Isoprene)-C5H8

  • Plastic (Polyethylene)-C2H4

  • Cloth

  • Foam-Polyurethane with chemicals added to change its viscosity

Main Chemicals, Compounds, or Components

Polyurethane is a main component in synthetic leather. Its chemical formula is C3H7NO2. The reason it is used over regular leather is because it is cheaper and more durable. This is because polyurethane is the perfect balance between density and quality.

The second main component is Vulcanized Rubber. This material can be used in place of polyurethane in some shoes. Its chemical formula is C5H8. It starts off as normal rubber, but goes through a process called vulcanization to make it more durable.

Chemistry’s Role

Basically all of a sneaker’s materials are man made and created using chemistry. Synthetic leather, which is polyurethane, is produced by reacting an isocyanate with a polyol in the presence of a catalyst. Vulcanized rubber is also achieved by using chemistry. Vulcanized rubber is made by creating cross-links by adding sulfur.  The area that is targeted are hydrogen atoms. C-H bonds are adjacent to carbon-carbon double bonds. During vulcanization, some of these C-H bonds are replaced by chains of sulfur atoms. Different cross-links affect the properties of the rubber. This shows how important the chemistry behind shoes truly is. It helps create better or more specific materials for many different kinds of shoes.

Background Research

Sneakers are made by making each different part and putting it all together for a final product. The upper is made by using a certain material like the synthetic leather, and cutting it to a desired shape. Later an insole is added and the upper goes through a process that is called lasting. The outsole is made by vulcanizing the rubber. The midsole is also made and attached between the upper and the outsole. Different companies have different materials used in shoes. They can create a new material and patent it, so you will only find a certain material in a certain shoe brand.


Catherine Kolecki. “How Products are Made.” N.P. N.D. Web. April 6, 2016.

  • Materials of a shoe

  • How a shoe is made

“What is vulcanized rubber.” Conjecture Corporation. N. D. Web. April 3, 2016.

  • What vulcanized rubber is

  • How vulcanized rubber is made

“Plastics and Foams in Running Shoe Midsoles.” Fleet Feet Sports. N.D. Web. April 2, 2016.

  • What midsoles are made up of

“Anatomy of the Shoe.” ShoeGuide. N.D. Web. April 6, 2016.

  • What different parts of the shoe are called

“How to Select Footwear Material.” The Shoe Dog. May 1, 2016. Web. April 6, 2016.

  • What parts are used in different shoes

  • What certain parts of a shoe were called

“Shoe making-How shoes are made.” Textile Exchange. N.D. Web. April 6, 2016.

  • How different parts of the shoe are made

  • How they assemble a shoe

About the Author

Drew McCormick is a junior at McCook Central High School. He enjoys learning about science such as physics and chemistry. He also likes to do other things outside of school like sports and hanging out with friends. In the future he hopes to attend college and get a career in the science field.