When it comes to gear, apparel, and everyday carry, leather is one of the most natural and versatile materials in the world. It’s got the potential to last for years, looks great when done right, and offers a wealth of benefits – from protection, to style, to comfort, and more. But, it doesn’t come without its downsides. Namely, leather – as it is animal hide – is a living material and, therefore, requires a measure of care to keep looking good and remaining functional.
For some folks, especially those with deep pockets and little interest in heirloom-quality gear, caring for leather is as simple as replacing old gear when it starts to get haggard. But, if you want, say, a leather jacket to last for years to come, there are a few things you have to do to keep it in good condition. We’ve outlined those things in the following article – our complete guide to leather care.
The Basics of Cleaning
Dirt, Dust, Debris, Etc.
There’s no stopping it; leather is going to age.Like anything you wear or use, leather items are going to get dirty over time. But worry not – most filth can be cleaned off without any extensive process. Just keep in mind that leather is, essentially, a living material – meaning it will change over time. There’s no stopping it; leather is going to age. How that happens and over what span of time, however, is much more under your control. The following processes should allow you to extend the life of your leather items much longer than they would last on their own.
Cleaning The Filth
Basic leather care is actually a lot simpler than you might think. In fact, all you really need is access to some cleaning rags (or paper towels if you’re in a pinch), water, a non-abrasive unscented gentle bar of soap, and a brush – you can, in theory, use a toothbrush, but we prefer using a proper leather cleaning brush. The steps for basic cleaning are as follows:
Begin by wiping away as much dirt and grime as you can with a dry towel. Sometimes, the dirt isn’t clinging to your leather and will brush away with ease. If there’s still more, repeat this step with a damp cloth, as the moisture can loosen up the grime and make cleaning as simple as following just this first step.
If you find that there is still dirt or grime stuck to your leather, the next step would be taking a bar of soap to it. Work up a bit of a lather with the soap and water, then rub it directly onto the leather in the spots where you find the dirt. You should be able to see the filth break up and start to come off the surface of your leather.
With a damp cloth, wipe away the soap and the grime. If you need to repeat step 2, do so now. You should not need to soak the leather to get the soap and filth off, and it’s best to avoid getting the leather too wet – if that can be avoided, of course.
Once your leather is clean, lay it out to dry on a flat, dry, cool surface. Do not apply heat and do not leave it out in the sun, as this can shrink and crack the leather in the process. It may take a while, but your leather should dry on its own.
Colourlock Leather Brush
Designed specifically for aiding in the cleaning of all types of leather – from the softest of car interiors to the most durable hiking boots – this brush is the perfect addition to your leather care kit. ($10)
In the off chance that your leather is exposed to a large amount of water – like if you get caught in the rain, accidentally drop your jacket in a puddle, or fall into a body of water – you’ll want to take extra care to get that leather dry again. Do not, under any circumstances, use a direct heat source or the sun to dry out your leather. Like human skin, exposure to a great amount of heat can cause leather to dry out, shrink, and potentially crack. If you take a hair dryer to your favorite pair of leather pants, best case scenario you’ll have a hard time getting back into them next time, as they will have shrank. Worst case, they will dry out, crack, and tear – becoming essentially unwearable. If your leather gets soaked, lay it out on a flat dry surface in a cool room and wait. Letting the leather dry naturally will ensure it will shrink as little as possible and, hopefully, will not suffer any other ill-effects.
While water-logging is mostly reversible, there is one type of damage that cannot be undone: that which happens as the result of prolonged exposure to sunlight. Sunlight is probably leather’s number one worst enemy. As leather (and all animal hides) are, essentially, skin, UV rays and heat will do them no good (with the exception of the heat used in the tanning process). If you’re fond of your leather and you want it to last for a long time, keep it out of the sun as much as possible. If this is impossible, you must be prepared to replace your leather items after some time. No, there is not a sunscreen for leather. The drying out and cracking of your jackets, shoes, pants, or whatever else is something that cannot be undone.
Make Your Leather Last
There are plenty of other things you can do to extend the life of your leatherWhile your best bet for leather care starts with the short term cleaning solutions listed above, there are plenty of other things you can do to extend the life of your leather as far as possible. There are also a few things you might think are a good idea, but will inevitably have little to no effect or even a negative impact on your animal hide gear. We’ve listed these longer-term solutions below, as well as some information on their purpose, benefits, and what to avoid.
Think of these kind of like skincare products, except that, instead of using them on your own skin, you use them on the animal hide that makes up your leather apparel or gear. Much like lotions, these products are designed to keep up the appearance and feel of your leather – making it supple and (sometimes) softer to the touch than it would be naturally. This stuff also staves off some of the negative effects your environment might have on your leather, like drying it out to the point that it cracks and/or shrinks. One thing to watch for in many conditioner creams, however, is lanolin. Lanolin is a fatty substance found in sheep’s wool that is a common ingredient in leather conditioners. While it isn’t dangerous, it will soften and moisturize your leather – which is great if that’s what you’re looking for. If you want your leather to remain a bit rigid and tough looking and feeling, try to avoid lanolin conditioners.
Red Wing Heritage Leather Cream
Made by the brand responsible for some of the world’s best heritage leather boots, this conditioning cream is a superb substance for taking care of all your leather products. The special formula also won’t discolor your gear or apparel and works for all types of cow leather. ($10)
Oils are another leather conditioning option. And while you might think that a cream and an oil are two very different products, those with a focus on leather care are essentially one and the same. In fact, you’ll often see leather oils with the word “conditioner” on their label and no mention of the fact that an oil is in the bottle whatsoever. When it really comes down to it, the difference between a cream and an oil conditioner is your personal preference. Some folks like using conditioning creams, others prefer oils. Pick whichever one suits you, purchase the appropriate product, and run with it.
Chamberlain's Leather Milk
Don’t let the name fool you – this did not actually come out of a cow. It is, however, excellent for rejuvenating cowhide leather. All-natural and made in the USA, this chemical-free formula is an excellent leather conditioning oil. ($17)
While shining your shoes is certainly a way to quickly make them look sharp, technically speaking, polishing leather doesn’t actually qualify as care. You see, putting a sheen on your favorite jacket might spiff it up a bit, but the overall effect doesn’t actually protect or condition the leather at all. So, while we certainly don’t suggest against a good polish every now and again, it’s important to realize that the act of polishing doesn’t really qualify as care. That being said, some leather polishes have a moisturizing agent in them. While this is not standard, it is definitely something to look out for, especially if you don’t want to soften up your leather.
Meltonian Boot & Shoe Cream Polish
This leather polish will give your boots (or accessories) a brilliant sheen. Just make sure you carefully match the color of the polish to the thing you intend to apply it to – or else you could end up with discolored leather. ($4+)
As a natural side-effect of the material itself and the tanning process that keeps leather from putrefying, leather is naturally extremely water-resistant. It is not, however, completely waterproof. With prolonged or excessive exposure, leather will absorb water. This might make you want to take some Scotch Guard to your combat boots in order to make them more waterproof. We strongly suggest against this, however. As a living material, leather need to breathe in order to maintain its pliability, flexibility, and so that it can age over time (aged leather is one of the most beautiful materials in the world).Spraying a waterproof layer onto your apparel or gear can suffocate your leather and can give it a cheaper look. Spraying a waterproof layer onto your apparel or gear can suffocate your leather and can give it a cheaper look.
There are, however, alternatives to spray waterproofing. Creams and waxes are a viable option if you absolutely want to be able to wear your leather during the wetter months. You will likely have to reapply them several times over the course of the season, but they are better for your leather than a spray waterproof and are relatively easy to clean off once you’re out of the wet time of year. Still, if you can avoid it, we suggest staying away from waterproofing altogether as there’s no way around the fact that it will inhibit beneficial aging processes and can have a negative long-term affect on the material.
Other Animal Hides
Most alternative leathers are near enough that they basically require the same care stepsAs you may or may not know, cow hide is not the only option when it comes to leather – whether that’s in the creation of jackets, cash and card carriers, apparel, cowboy boots, or whatever else. And while most alternative leathers are near enough that they basically require the same care steps, there are some notable differences between standard cow leather care and the care of, say, reptile, sheep, or even calfskin. The following is some information on different types of animal hides and how to care for them.
Technically, suede is a type of leather. Though, apart from the fact that it is animal hide, the steps for caring for suede are quite different from that of regular leather. You see, suede is much more delicate than standard leather, as its finish is soft and – for lack of a better term – fragile. When it comes to caring for suede gear, you’ll want to do away with just about all the types of care listed above. This is especially true for all exposure to water. H2O will ruin the finish of suede, matting it and making it unpleasant looking. So, avoid exposing suede to water at all costs. As far as cleaning goes, you can purchase a brush specifically designed for taking care of suede and simple brush away any dirt, dust, or otherwise. As a final note, there are suede-specific conditioners, but if you’re going to go this route, make absolutely sure the product you are using is intended for this material.
You may own a type of leather that doesn’t come from a fully-grown cow. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to treat it differently. In fact, most alternative leathers (though there may be exceptions) can go through pretty much the same care processes as cowhide. The one thing you’ll want to be sure of, however, is that – when using product like conditioners or oils – you should make sure the product you use is appropriate for the type of leather. For instance, a snakeskin conditioner can be chemically different from a regular leather conditioner. Make sure you consult a leatherworker, cobbler, or similar expert if you are unsure.
Whether you’re a vegan, aren’t interested in spending a ton of money on a leather jacket, or you don’t like the investment associated with actual cowhide, there are a number of different types of non-animal leather alternatives. While they share many properties with leather – like a tendency to dry out in heat and sun – they do not benefit from the same types of care as actual animal hide. There are a number of different types of non-animal leather alternatives.In fact, anything outside of basic cleaning will only make a mess and potentially shorten the life of your non-leather apparel or gear.
Your best bet for maintaining non-leather substitutes is as follows: limit the sun exposure of your clothing or gear; gently brush off any dirt, dust, or debris as needed; and follow a similar cleaning regiment to the one listed above for leather. Namely, you’ll want to wipe it down with a wet sponge, use a gentle bar of soap (preferably unscented) to get off tougher grime, wipe the soap away with a damp cloth, and let the article sit to dry – do not use direct heat or sunlight to dry it off. Follow these steps, and your faux leather should last for a good amount of time.
Chrome vs. Vegetable Tanned Leather
If you’re going to start taking care of your leather goods, it’s probably worth it to learn the difference between animal hide types. We tackle the difference between two of the most common in our chrome versus vegetable tanned leather article.