How to Clean Leather Goods

How to Care for Leather

Leather is one of nature’s most enduring and endearing products. It’s natural, elegant, versatile and becomes more beautiful over time. If properly cared for, it will last a lifetime. So how do you care for leather? Although there is no simple answer, we have created a guide to help you navigate all the options to ensure your prized leather item will age gracefully, whether it’s a totebag, shoulder bag, wallet, laptop sleeve or camera case.

The Basics

There are many different types of leather, although cowhide is the one most commonly used for accessories. There are also different ways to tan and finish leather, resulting in a wide variety of choices in functionality and aesthetics. As a result, not all leathers should be treated equally. So let’s start with a few suggestions for your leather item’s basic care, regardless of how it is made or what it is. It has been said that the best maintenance for leather is use, but a little preventative action goes a long way in extending the life of your leather products.

How to Protect Leather Accessories

Keep Leather Out of Direct Sunlight, Particularly When Storing  

Sunlight is leather’s worst enemy because UV rays and heat will cause damage. Direct sunlight will dry leather out and cause cracking, as well as accelerate the fading of its color. Once the damage is done, there’s not much you can do to reverse it.

Let Your Leather Breathe and Store it When Not Being Used  

Proper storage in an important practice for leather care. All leather products should be stored away from heat, humidity, dust and direct sunlight. Leather needs some ventilation to prevent mildew and rot. Do not store it in a plastic bag - we recommend a bag or box made from breathable fabric. If your item came in its own cloth bag when you purchased it, that is what you should use for storage. If your leather is left in storage for a long time, air it out every few weeks.

Clean Your Leather Regularly

The best way to maintain your leather product is to clean it regularly with both a dry and a damp cloth. We recommend dusting with a dry cloth or towel every few days and wiping it down with a damp cloth weekly. Do not use soap and make sure not to over-saturate the cloth.

Every few months, or for specific instances when there is dirt or grim on your leather, you can use a mild, non-detergent soap such as Ivory or Castile soap. Create a lather using a damp cloth and rub it directly onto the leather with soft pressure a circular motion. You should then use a clean damp cloth to wipe away any excess soap and dirt. Always let the leather dry on its own – do not put it on a radiator, leave it in the sun or use a blow dryer.

A few times a year you can remove the buildup of dirt by cleaning your item with a cleaner that is made specifically for the type of leather it is made from. When purchasing a cleaning product, make sure it is appropriate for your item. For example, saddle soap and mink oil are not the right choice for chromium-tanned leathers and can cause damage to your leather. Don’t try common household cleaners or “home remedies,” since they can dry out or discolor your leather.

When you find a product that appears right, you must exercise some caution: before applying it, test a small area first, just like you would with a new skin or hair product, preferably in an inconspicuous area.  Cleaners should be applied in a gentle circular motion and then wiped off with a damp rag.

The Complete Guide on How to Care for Leather

Conditioning

Your leather should be conditioned every 3 to 6 months. It’s a good cure for leather that has dried out and a great preventative technique to keep it healthy and supple. There are many excellent products on the market specific to your particular item. Most of these are massaged into leather with a dry cloth, with the excess then gently wiped off. Conditioners are supplied as lotion, creams or oils and will be soaked up by the leather.

The use of lanolin, a fatty substance found in sheep’s wool, is controversial. Be careful if your leather is rigid, since lanolin might maker it softer than you would like.

Polishing

Polishing is more about aesthetics than anything else; in general, it is not considered part of leather care.  Some people welcome a bright, shiny look. While polish may have some moisturizing elements, it doesn’t necessarily protect the leather.  

Waterproofing

Leather is inherently water-resistant and most leather used for accessories is treated with a waterproofing agent. If you’re not sure about the waterproof or water-resistant quality of your item, ask its manufacturer about what treatment it has and whether it needs additional treatment or special care based on use. We recommend that you stay away from commercial leather waterproofing products since they may give your leather an unnatural, plasticky look.

Brushing

Suede and nubuck (brushed leather) are in a category of their own since they both feature an open nap. You should not use cleaning or conditioning products on either suede or nubuck, and should also avoid water, since all of these can cause staining. We recommend using a small wire brush to wipe away dirt, especially one made specifically for use on leather.

A Few More Tips

Here is our recommended list of things you should NOT do:

  • Do not leave printed material such as newspapers or magazines on your leather.
  • Do not expose your leather to denim jeans that have never been washed.
  • If your leather gets wet, let it dry naturally. Do not use artificial heat such as a blow dyer to accelerate drying.
  • Do not use tape or adhesives on the leather.
  • Do not try regular household cleaners or home remedies on your leather.
  • Keep hair sprays, perfumes and household fragrances away from your leather.

Specific Leather Types

What if your prized leather item is made from suede or nubuck? What do you do if it is distressed or unfinished leather?  These leathers are more challenging to maintain and clean because they have little or no surface protection. Semi-aniline leathers – those with pigments in the topcoat – are more resistant to stains and spills and are easier to care for.

Suede and Nubuck

Suede is the horizontal center split of the hide, while nubuck is a full-grain leather produced by brushing its unfinished top surface. While it is possible to add water-resistant chemicals to the hides during the drum-dyeing process, typically these types of leather are fragile and will not easily withstand water, grease or even body oils. Therefore, you should avoid using liquids, including cleaners, conditioners, polishes, on suede and nubuck. Your best bet is to use a suede brush. A great tip for removing a stain is to lightly abrade the area with lightweight sandpaper or an emery board. Suede and nubucks can also be wiped with a dry cloth. Furniture made from these types of leathers can be vacuum-cleaned.

Distressed and Naked Leathers

Just like suede and nubuck, distressed leathers, which are technically made to look worn and aged as soon as they are put into service, often have little or no protections. Because they are meant to appear used-looking, they are intentionally free from any chemical protections and will stain, scuff and scratch easily. If your taste veers towards a pristine look, these are not the right leathers for you. Otherwise, you should welcome this type of leather’s rugged individuality.

Vegetable Tanned Leather

Vegetable tanning is the oldest type of leather-making in the world, dating back over four thousand years. This type of leather, typically used for more rigid items such as belts and desk accessories, is produced by soaking the hides for a minimum of two months in a solution comprised of water mixed with the natural tannins found in various barks and woods. The absorption of the tannins is what preserves the hides, preventing putrefaction and decay. The material also takes on the color of the solution, ranging from light tan to dark brown, which is why vegetable tanned leather is always a natural color, unless it has been surface-dyed. Over time, vegetable tanned leather will acquire a beautiful patina, darkening in color and deepening in tone with normal use and exposure to sunlight. It will also absorb oils and may appear dappled over time.

However, vegetable-tanned leather is rarely pre-treated with protective agents and is sensitive to extreme temperatures as well as moisture. We recommend cleaning it with a damp but not oversaturated cloth. Saddle soap can also be used on. You can condition it with a leather balm or cream made specifically for this type of leather, which will nourish the leather and replace essential oils and waxes.

Like other leathers, veg tanned products should never be stored in plastic bags, which prevent the leather from breathing. Items should always be stored flat or rolled: if the leather is bent over on itself, an indelible crease will occur.

Stain Removal

Some leather types are more resistant to spills and stains than others. Semi-anilines – leather with pigment in its topcoat – are more resistant, so most spills can easily be wiped off. Full aniline and naked leathers present more of a problem. Regardless of whatever type your leather is, for starters you should blot up stains immediately with a dry cloth. Wiping can spread the stain. Hopefully there is nothing more you need to do, since leather has a way of correcting itself over time; even if the spill is absorbed, it should dry out and dissipate over time.

If you are not successful, the next step is to wipe the entire item with a clean cloth that is dampened, but not soaked, with cool water.  If the leather darkens after cleaning, it should return to its original color within a few days after it has completely dried.

If the stain persists, we recommend mixing water with a mild, non-detergent soap such as Ivory or Castile, in a ratio of one to three. You should apply the solution to the affected area by gently wiping it in a circular motion, gradually making larger circles around the stain. Then blot with a dry cloth and allow it to air dry – do not use a blow dryer or heat gun.

If the stain has set or hasn’t dried in an acceptable way, you may try using a leather conditioner. In that case, apply the conditioner to the entire piece, not just the stain, to even things out and retain consistency. Make sure to wipe off any excess.

For ink and lipstick stains, we recommend purchasing a professional ink or stain remover made specifically for use on leather. Don’t try a home remedy such as hair spray, since it could erode the finish and create discoloration. Here is another hot tip, not widely known in the industry – try a little of your own saliva using your fingertip.

For chewing gun, put some ice cubes in a plastic bag and apply it to the area, wait a few minutes, then scrape the gum from the surface of the leather.

Finally, for stains that won’t come out, consult the manufacturer of your item or a leather care professional.

Conclusion

Now that you understand more about the different types of leather and the best methods for leather cleaning, conditioning and storage, go out and enjoy your prized item. You should always remember that leather is a natural product and will continue to develop and react to use and to its environment. You should cherish your leather’s individuality and unique characteristics. After all, leather only gets better with age.

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