Leather offers many benefits over artificially manufactured fabrics. It is functional and can be used for apparel, boots, shoes, handbags and even jewelry. It’s a classic material that is durable and hardwearing. It works for men and women and for various layers and clothing styles.
But over time, leather can dry out from normal wear and tear, heat, and sunlight. Excessive dryness is the single biggest threat to leather products and can lead to unsightly cracks and creases. Leather requires more maintenance than normal apparel – but with the leather cleaning tips below, it doesn’t have to be a nightmarish affair.
A quick warning about leatherBefore leather apparel is worn, in addition to cleaning, it must be weatherproofed. Weatherproofing helps guard against stains. Leather must also be conditioned, polished, and stored correctly to maintain a healthy shine, proper shape, and long life. Note: before applying any type of cleaner, conditioner, polish, or protectant on leather, it should be tested on a small, unnoticeable section of the piece to make sure it does not discolor the leather.
Cleaning leather – Normal, routine cleaning of leather
Dirt and dust can cause leather to prematurely age and wear. Leather apparel should always be kept clean. Contrary to popular misconception, leather cannot be dry cleaned. Dry cleaning a leather piece removes its natural oils, damages its color, and causes cracking in the material. Most dry cleaners will accept a leather piece for cleaning but outsource the job to a professional leather cleaning service.
Be forewarned, there are some risks when cleaning leather yourself. In many cases, a professional leather cleaning service may be your best bet.
If you decide to clean the leather piece yourself, follow these easy guidelines. You can clean leather with a mixture of lukewarm water and a tablespoon of gentle laundry detergent. If possible, use bottled or distilled water to avoid embedding tap water particles in the leather’s grain.
To clean the piece, dip a soft, clean cloth or sponge in the solution or use a spray bottle to spray even coverage on the cloth. Microfiber cloth is preferred. Never use paper towels which can disintegrate and work paper particles into the grain of the leather, and never spray the solution directly onto the leather or it could become oversaturated. Gently rub the leather to clean it. Rub with the grain of the leather, not against. The grain will be apparent on close inspection. It looks like tiny stripes on the leather surface.
Don’t use regular soap or detergent. Over time, detergent can leave soap residue which could cause drying and cracking. There are also specialized commercial leather cleaning solutions that work even better. Use a damp cloth to apply the cleaner and allow the leather to dry. Be sure to check the cleaning solution’s label for any further instructions.
Cleaning leather – The steam cleaning methodSome leather, particularly large leather pieces such as furniture, can be steam cleaned. Steam cleaning does not penetrate the leather and has the advantage of killing germs (the primary reason it is used for cleaning leather furniture). Professional steam cleaning services are best since they know how to steam clean the leather without saturating the material.
Cleaning leather – How to spot clean leatherLeather jackets are exposed and often hung in open spaces (i.e. over the back of a restaurant chair). Leather purses and handbags are placed on dirty floors. And leather shoes will run through all sorts of muck. Given the way it is used, leather frequently attains spots and stains.
Cleaning water-based stains from leatherFor a water-based stain, simply blot away excess with a clean, dry cloth and let the piece air dry naturally. Do not attempt to accelerate drying using heat (e.g., blow-dryer). Application of excessive heat causes cracking in leather.
Cleaning ink stains from leatherTo clean an ink stain from leather, dab a clean cloth in alcohol and gently rub the stain. After the cloth pulls ink from the leather, dab a different (clean) section of the cloth in alcohol and repeat.
Cleaning salt stains from leatherSalt stains, such as road salt, are especially common stains on leather footwear. To clean salt stains from leather, use a clean cloth to rub the spot with saddle soap. As with any leather protectant, first test the application of saddle soap on a small piece first.
Cleaning other stains from leatherOther stains can be removed from leather using a variety of methods. Lemon juice mixed with cream of tartar works well. Vinegar can be used for general cleaning and helps keep the leather material healthy. Of course, natural oils can be used to clean leather and have the advantage of helping the leather maintain its shine and suppleness. To remove chewing gum from leather, place ice cubes in a plastic baggie and hold the baggie to the gum. After several minutes, remove the ice bag and gently scrape the hardened gum from the leather.
How to clean a tough leather stain (e.g., oil stains)Oil stains such as butter, makeup, or grease, are difficult to remove without damaging the leather. To clean tough stains such as these, first blot away excess with a clean, dry cloth. Do not rub or wipe the stain – this will only spread the spot. Then send the piece to a professional cleaning service. Most dry cleaners will send it to a specialized leather cleaning service.
How to condition leather
Conditioning leather on a periodic basis is required to preserve the finish, prevent cracking, and extend the life of the leather apparel. Boot oil or mink oil is commonly used to condition leather boots (it keeps the leather soft). General leather oil or cream conditioners are common for conditioning other leather apparel products. The conditioning product will have detailed usage instructions on the label but in general, use a soft cloth or sponge to apply the conditioner.
While you are at it, go ahead and condition leather apparel you have in storage too. Leather that lies in storage should be conditioned about once every three months – more frequently if you live in a dry environment.
How to polish leather
Leather, especially shoes, can be waxed and polished. This is typically done after the leather has been cleaned and conditioned. Polishing leather does not extend the material’s lifespan – it is simply the means to make the leather surface shine. Use shoe polish designed for leather, a polish brush, and a clean, soft cloth.
When polishing leather shoes, remove the laces first. Apply a thin layer of polish with the brush. Let the polish dry (usually takes several minutes) and then buff with a clean, soft cloth until the surface of the leather shines. To shine even more, apply a second thin layer of polish and drop a few drops of water on the shoe. Buff immediately with a soft cloth (don’t wait for the polish to dry). For shoes, a final touch can be added – replace the shoelaces and the shoes will look brand new.
Leather protectantLeather protectant products can be used to further shield leather from stains. Most leather protectant products are sold in spray form. To apply, spray in a well-ventilated environment using a sweeping back and forth motion. Let the leather dry for 24 hours before wearing.
Storage and drying of leather apparel
Before storing leather apparel, first clean and condition the leather. Hang the item on wooden or padded hangers in a cool, dry area. Don’t use wire hangers. Wire hangers can stretch leather and cause creases. Padded hangers help the leather apparel maintain its shape.
For leather shoes, store them on a shoe tree or stuff the shoes with acid-free paper and store in a shoe box. Never hang leather in direct sunlight. You can cover leather apparel with a garment bag if needed but don’t cover it with a plastic bag. Leather needs to breathe to remain soft. Never fold leather apparel. Folding leather creates creases and makes the piece prone to stretching.
Leather maintenance Do’s and Don’tsHere are a few leather dos and don’ts.
- Never use intense heat or artificial heat on leather to facilitate drying. It will cause cracks in the leather.
- Never leave printed items (i.e. newspapers, magazines) on leather. Ink will bleed onto the material.
- Never use adhesive tape on leather. The adhesive damages and discolors the material.
- Never spray household fragrance or perfumes near leather. Both contain chemicals that can damage leather.
- Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for any leather-related product.