Leather Upholstery Care Tips
This article was written by Barb Carney, owner of Leather Care and Color in Chicago. Barb brings good insight into dispelling the myths so often spouted across the internet. This is valuable information for anyone who wants to prolong the life of their leather furniture or automotive leather.
Clean w/ hairspray? Condition w/ coconut oil? Moisturize w/ Vaseline? Stop the madness!
Bad advice can lead you to permanently harm upholstery leather. Wrong info is everywhere - even Martha Stewart Magazine or Unilever’s Cleanipedia website. But THIS is straight from leather care professionals.
Good care is simple:
Three easy steps will prolong the life of your leather. 1. Dust, 2. Clean, 3 Moisturize
· Dust: Vacuum or dry dust as needed. Do this the same frequency you dust other items in your home, like wood furniture.
· Clean: TEST first: Apply a drop of water to an out-of-sight area. Wait about 1 minute.
Absorbent (unprotected): Droplet soaks right in or leaves a dark mark after a minute. Typically, cannot be cleaned.Contact a leather professional for best advice. This leather is classified as unfinished.
Protected: Droplet stays beaded up, and no dark mark appears. Can be cleaned if issues are on the surface. This leather is classified as finished.
Clean only w/ leather cleaners labeled for leather upholstery(NOT shoes, saddles, etc).
Issues that run deeper than the surface can be:
- Dye or ink stain – Not usually removeable. New color coating or new leather will be needed.
- Body oil stain – Deeply absorbed. Removal is a repair process with recoloring needed.
- Vomit, urine – Requires special treatment. Contact a leather professional for advice. New leather and padding may necessary.
· Moisturize / condition 3 to 4 x / year. Can add years, even a decade or more, to leather life!
- Only use products labeled for leather upholstery.
- Leather fibrils can be dry /brittle and still feel flexible. Don’t wait for deterioration to appear!
- Other products usually have wrong pH (acidity), and/orharsh chemicals.
- Some chemistries start harmless, but break down into harmful chemicals later.
- See also: How to Care for Leather Upholstery. Contact a leather repair pro for advice early.
Bad choices most commonly believed to be harmless / helpful(explanations below):
- Saddle soap
- Traditional dressings (mink oil, neatsfoot oil, lanolin, etc)
- Other oils / waxes/ fats / lubricants
- ALL household cleaners / cleaning wipes / “natural” cleaners / baking soda / vinegar, etc
- Alcohol, acetone
- Products for imitation leather (vinyl, leatherette, synthetic floors)
These can seem harmless when damaging effect is gradual, delayed, mis-perceived. For example:
- Glass cleaners have alcohol in it which dissolves protective coating. Also causes pH damage.
- Household cleaners may clean surface, but soaks into seams/cracks, accelerating aging / deterioration, ongoing forever. These are overly alkaline and will cause pH damage.
- Oil adds shine, but attracts dust, seals in dryness, locks out needed moisture, which speeds aging.
Saddle Soap – Traditionally used to soften stiff, thick leathers. It is not intended for upholstery.
· Not a cleaner: the "soap" part emulsifies it in water, has little cleaning power.
· Saddle soap WEAKENS leather by gently rotting,which is how it softens – causing pH damage.
· Leaves destructive residues, like lye. Once absorbed, causes irreversible damage.
· Not even recommended for most saddles anymore.
Do not use traditional dressings: Neatsfoot Oil / Mink Oil / Lanolin: Used on saddles, heavy boots, and machine belts.
· Neatsfoot oil is from fat in cattle shin bones; mink oil is from fat in mink pelts; lanolin is from wool.
· Non-drying oils that soften dense, tough leathers. BUT oxidize, darken, harden = stiff, brittle, weaker.
· May leave an oily residue which can stain and attract dirt.
· Modern leather moisturizing products use longer-lasting, safe, stable, non-darkening synthetic oils.
NEVER use Oils, Waxes, Lubricants, Fats, Conditioners: Such as HAND or BODY moisturizers / creams / lotions / oils, cocoa butter, tea tree oil, essential oils, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, hair conditioner, baby oil / baby wipes, WOOD polish, sealers, oil soaps, lemon oil, beeswax, paraffin, SHOE polish / oils / conditioners, HORSE tack or saddle conditioners / cleaners, MACHINE / METAL greases / oils / silicone or dry lubricants / sprays like WD-40, FOODS: mayonnaise, olive oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil, cooking spray oils, Crisco, shortening, etc.
· Lacks crucial moisture (leather is 25% water + conditioners); blocks moisture / locks in dryness.
· On protected leather, adds shine, may soften feel; onabsorbent leather, makes a dark stain.
· But, even if used sparingly to restore sheen, remains oily and attracts dirt.
· Residue comes off on clothes; shoe polish also stains clothing with dye.
· People often try to remove oils with household cleaners which cause more serious problems.
· Some oils are removable by a leather repair pro, but removal lightens color, so recoloring needed.
· Food fats / oils have all these problems, plus attract bugs, darken and smell rancid with age.
ALL Household Cleaners / Cleaning Wipes / Natural Cleaners can damage leather:
· Harsh chemistries can bleach, stain, make permanently sticky, cause protective color to peel, burn or rot leather – instantly or very slowly. Once absorbed it can NEVER be removed, so damage continues.
· If a leather upholstery cleaner, does not remove all soil, call a leather repair pro, don’t guess.
Alcohol / Acetone = solvents for leather color: Rubbing alcohol, denatured alcohol, window cleaners, waterless hand cleaner, hairspray, nail polish remover, grain alcohol, wine, beer, cocktails, etc.
· Removes stains only by removing a protective coating the stain has entered.
· Does not dissolve or lift the stain off. Dissolves the protective clear top coating and color coating below.
· Even if used lightly, the stripped area will soil more easily, and wear through sooner.
· If used too aggressively or too often, can remove all color and expose raw leather.
· On absorbent leather, creates a larger permanent stain as a dark ring.
Products for Vinyl / Imitation Leather / Synthetic Flooring
· Lacks crucial moisture, blocks moisture entry, locks in dryness.
· Chemicals in some can cause stiffness, stickiness, color loss and cracking, speed aging; may make recoloring impossible in the future. Absorbent leather, may be stained.
Also Avoid Direct Contact With:
· Flea collars, drops (let soak in a few hours), spray or powdered treatments– can bleach color.
· Perfumes, cologne, spray air freshener – can stain / bleach color
· Dyes: paint, ink (permanent marker, ballpoint), dye (hair or clothes) – permanent stain that enlarges with time.
· Chlorinated swimming pool water – bleaches color
· Skin lotions, creams, exfoliating products, tanning products, sunscreen – alter color, cause peeling
· Pesticides, insecticide “bombs”, moth balls, moth repellents – alter color, cause peeling
· Pet repellents: bitter apple or other scents can stain, bleach (safe to apply to fabric under cushions, or dust cover under furniture), sticky paws anti-cat scratch strips can cause peeling.