Leather Care

Leather Care Advice From a Pro.

Leather Care - Does and Don'ts

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 / yearCan 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.

Myths exposed:

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.

Darwin Awards for Leather Repair

I receive lots of e-mails from people all over the country and beyond. Some of them are seeking solutions for some pretty dumb actions that have caused serious damage to their leather furniture. I’ve also been in people’s homes to inspect or repair their leather as well as people bringing projects to our shop. Some of their abuses and comments prove the concept that idiocy is not an unusual human phenomenon. Here is a list of my top ten dumbest in no specific order as any one can grab the top spot. Names have been removed to protect their reputation.

1. I used my ottoman as an ironing board. The leather is totally shrunken and distorted. Can you help me?

2. I saw an article on the internet that said to use bleach to clean leather. It didn’t work so great. The leather is clean I guess, but it’s disintegrating on me. What can I do?

3. I steam cleaned my leather sofa with the upholstery attachment to my steam cleaner. The leather turned dark and seemed to have shrunk. Please help!!

4. I was practicing my golf swing and punched a hole in the back of my beautiful leather sofa. It was a 6 iron. Is this something you can fix?

5. I had a party and moved my love seat into my back yard. I had it too close to the barbeque. The whole back of my love seat got fried. What can I do?

6. A client called exasperated, exclaiming; ”My 3 year old son got ink on my new leather cushion. After I disciplined him severely I tried to remove the ink with rubbing alcohol like it said to do on some web-site. The ink is still there but the leather color is gone.’” The client brought the cushion in my shop. In this case, there was a hide scar on the leather and as is often the case, the scar tissue absorbed higher concentration of color making it darker than the surrounding leather, appearing to the client as an ink stripe. The client concluded the hide scar was ink when it was natrual marking. We restored the color to the alcohol afflicted area. The innocent child is still in therapy.)

7. Upon arrival to the client’s home to inspect for claimed defects in the leather of a huge new sectional, I noted a few dozen post-it notes scattered here and there on the leather. The client applied them to identify all the “defects.” Upon examination of the first problem area, I pointed out that it was not a defect, rather a natural characteristic in the leather. She seemed confused. So I explained that the cow may have rubbed against barb wire, causing the wound, and that it is fully healed hide scar and therefore not a defect. She said; “What do you mean a cow?” I waved my arm toward the sectional and replied, “Ma’am you have a whole herd of cows here.” At which point she dropped to the floor, sobbing, “What have I done? What have I done?” Turns out she’s vegan and had no idea leather came from a cow. Opppps.

8. Asked to do a repair for transit damage in a client’s home, I arrived on site with my senior technician. The client is a prominent physician and was present upon arrival. He and his designer went off to another part of his house to discuss décor. When the assignment was completed, I called him in and as he examined the repaired area, with a look of amazement exclaimed, “It’s gone. How did you do that?” Lightheartedly I said, “We use lasers.” He called out to his designer to see the repair. When she arrived, he said to her, “Look, the damage is gone. They use lasers to fix it.” I had to explain to the sheepish doctor that I was joking.

9. After carefully restoring a beautiful chair and ottoman in our Hayward shop, the client arrived in a pick-up truck to bring the pieces back to his home. He inspected the furniture and was delighted with the results. To prepare it for transit, we covered it in plastic and shrink wrap as is our standard practice. The client and I loaded it into the back of his pick up I asked if he had rope to secure it. He assured me that he did. At which point my office phone rang. I turned back into my office to take the call. The client promptly left. On his way home, at 70 or so miles an hour, the unsecured furniture pretended to be a kite and silently lifted out of the bed of the truck, tumbling through the air like a wounded duck. Gravity took over. It flipped and turned and smashed and crashed. Road kill. 45 minutes later he was back in our shop with a severely damage piece including a broken frame. Cost to repair the damage exceeded the value of the piece. It remains in my shop as a relic and testament to the frailty of the human brain.

10. A client owns an auto detailing shop. His customer has a BMW with leather interior. The auto detailer assigned the interior cleaning task to one of his grease monkey techs. Thinking it would be a fast and easy way to clean leather he grabbed his trusty engine degreaser and vigorously applied it to all leather components. Of course it pulled the color coat off, exposing the raw leather. (As an aside, here is a list of other chemicals that our clients were told by supposed experts would be appropriate for the cleaning of their leather --- mayonnaise, acetone, bleach, alcohol, vinager, milk, honey, baby oil, detergents of all types, and worst of all — saddle soap. )

Bonus award: Client called to say that he’s cleaned his sofa with 409. Upon full completion of the project he realized that 409 is far too aggressive and has severely distorted the color coating. He was shocked and was preparing to sue 409’s manufacturer. His reasoning for the suit was that there was no warning on the label not to use it on leather. When I pointed out to him that there was also no warning about using it on your face, he didn’t get the connection. Asked why he didn’t stop after he completed a section and noticed the damage, he explained that he thought when it fully dried it would return to normal. Duh!!

From time to time I would enjoy entering posts about the experiences of others who may have encountered similarly brain challenged people. It’s all good for a laugh.