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How to Clean Leather

The renowned luxury of leather is undeniable. When it’s not clean, that luxury fades and the experience of using it is greatly diminished. Soiled leather becomes clogged with contaminants that damage the structure and compromise the coatings, eventually leading to dry, greasy, peeling and ripped leather. Leather care is something you want to get right. It’s a relatively expensive material when compared to man-made options and using the wrong approach can have swift or delayed and disastrous results.

First, What Not To Use

Skip the ’clever hacks’ and the ‘all-natural’ home-made recipes you find on the internet. They are ill-informed and the risks are real. We’ve seen beautiful Italian leather destroyed when toothpaste was used to remove mould – as suggested by an online blog. Also, give a wide birth to household cleaners. We’ve seen many sofas ruined – rips, flaking coatings and stripped colour – from the use of the wrong type of cleaner such as cream cleansers, cleaning wipes, oils and other unsuitable chemicals. Your leather deserves better than supermarket grade leather care and although the kit you purchased with the sofa from the furniture store may do no harm, it might not have much cleaning grunt.

Bring in the Professionals

If you clean and maintain your leather furniture once every 3 months or so using the right products and methods, you’ve got this. Put your feet up, it’s time to relax. If you don’t, you may need the help of a trained leather technician.

Companies that specialise in leather care and restoration are experts with unique skills and knowledge. They are best placed to provide the thorough, correct and results-driven services you need. All too often, we encounter customers who complain that they were disappointed with the results of their last service. When we ask if they used a dedicated leather care company, the answer is most typically ‘no’.

Our tip; stick with the people who can address colour and finish problems, identify the leather type and select the right cleaner and technique rather than the one-size-fits-all approach you might find elsewhere. The cost of a quick, cheap or incorrect service can prove expensive in the long run.

Customers also tell us that they weren’t sure what to do to maintain their leather lounge so they did nothing. There’s no doubt that DIY done wrong can be a source of regret. So, how do the pros clean leather?

Success lies in the use of the right products, accessories and method.

The Right Products

Good leather care involves 3 steps; cleaning, conditioning and a protective anti-soiling barrier often referred to as leather protection treatment

Cleaning

The ideal cleaner is strong enough to lift dirt yet mild enough to avoid damaging the coatings or the leather.

Leather cleaning needs to balance short term results against long term effects

A professional-grade pH neutral general maintenance leather cleaner is ideal for everyday cleaning. It should be formulated specifically for leather, water-based, non-sudsing, non-greasy, non-abrasive, non-toxic and easy to use. With regular use, a good cleaner controls soiling and makes light work of maintaining your leather.

There are a few products you’ll never see a professional use. Abrasive cleaners are close to the top of that list. Many people have turned to them in an emergency to make quick work of an ink or red wine stain – but with disastrous results. They not only cut through the stain but the manufacturer’s coatings as well. Harsh and drying, they inevitably lead to rips and tears. Oily cleaners can leave a greasy, dust-collecting finish and detergents require too much water to rinse. Essential oils and strong solvent cleaners can react with the coatings causing tackiness or can dissolve the finish completely.

For the structural health of your leather, a pH neutral solution is best. Other cleaners can leave leather dry or greasy leading to cracking, peeling, rips or rotting.

Pros Know Leather

As there are a few main types of leather in use today, there are leather care products tailored to their requirements. What works on a pigmented lounge may be unsuitable for a suede handbag so it’s important to consider the type of leather before selecting a cleaner and conditioner.

The wrong conditioner

Imagine the owner’s dismay to see these white marks appear as he applied a respected household name conditioner on a favourite leather jacket. The conditioner is perfect for boots but not appropriate for unfinished apparel leather. We extracted the wax and applied a conditioner designed for anilines.

The Right Accessories

To get a great result you may be surprised to learn that most professionals use a scrubbing brush and some microfibre cloths.

When it comes to leather cleaning, you want to strike a balance between using gear that makes light work of the job and not damaging your leather. Gentle is best.

Look for a bristle brush similar to a nail scrubbing brush or a standard domestic cleaning brush. The bristles should not be too hard or inflexible. A light circular motion is usually ideal for agitating the dirt from the grain.

An absorbent microfibre cloth is perfect for wiping away the dirt. After cleaning, especially if the leather was very soiled, your technician may rinse the cloth or use a fresh damp cloth to wipe over the surface to ‘rinse’ before applying the conditioner.

Some accessories are in the toolbox but it’s important to use them with discretion. For the most part, we avoid magic erazers as they are deceivingly abrasive. They can quickly cut through the clear topcoat which can rapidly advance the normal aging process. If recolouring, however, and there’s an ink stain to remove first, a magic erazer can help. For most pros, these effective white sponges would not be the go-to solution for marks unless they intend to replace the abraided coatings with new ones.

Similarly, when it comes to cleaning leather, kitchen scourers can be overkill – unless refinishing (recolouring) is in the plan. They are usually less abrasive than magic sponges and when new, tend to be more abrasive than a scrubbing brush. Using steam to clean a leather sofa can be risky. To much heat and water can cause irreversible damage. Whilst steam kills germs and can dislodge some soiling, nothing does as good or safe a job as hand detailing.

Nothing does as good or safe a job as hand detailing

Leather Care Accessory Pack 4 Piece - Leather Hero
Simple accessories get the job done

Technique: Scrubbing ‘v’ Rubbing

The leather care industry is unanimous in its advice: Do Not Rub! A standard bristle brush helps to gently agitate soiling from the grain of the leather. We start gently, watching for any unwanted change in the finish. Extra care is needed when working on vintage sofas such as Chesterfields. The coatings may be unstable and simple cleaning can remove colour and finish. On most leathers, moderate scrubbing is safe and effective. In contrast, rubbing with firm force using a cloth clad finger or fist can be far more abrasive.

A few seconds of determined rubbing to remove a mark can result in the finish being stripped and an unwanted ‘bald patch’

The mark is gone and so is the finish. This was done using a cream cleanser and rubbing

Conditioning

After cleaning, to prevent drying and stiffening the professionals apply a non-greasy, non-shiny, non-darkening breathable leather conditioner. A good conditioner is penetrating so that it can be absorbed into the fibrous structure where it lubricates and moisturises. With regular use, this helps to promote suppleness and softness.

For most apparel, furniture and car applications, conditioners that are heavy in beeswax or oil are less appropriate as they may clog the pores, attract vermin or rot the fibres. Rich, waxy products can be ideal for achieving a high shine on a pair of boots or for a waxed leather lounge but care is needed before applying them to anilines or pigmented leather. Nubuck, suede and aniline leathers are highly porous. A conditioner that is rich in waxes or oils may cause darkening or leave white waxy marks. Your leather professional carries a range of conditioners and can identify the right one for your leather.

Protecting

The last step towards beautiful leather is an invisible, anti-soiling, breathable shield to help keep your leather clean for longer. Helping to protect the leather from the uptake of spills, grease, transferred dye and stains, it’s a smart inclusion if you want to make light work of maintaining your upholstery.

Do It Yourself

A professional service every couple of years ensures your furniture has the best chance of looking great over many years. In between those services, you can clean and maintain the look and feel using Leather Hero’s professional-grade Leather Care Kit. It has the gear you need to clean, condition and protect your car, boat, office and home furnishings. Best suited to pigmented or ‘painted’ leather, you can trust that it will get the job safely and beautifully.

The essential combo that makes leather look amazing and last longer

There are many leather finishes and qualities so regardless of the instructions on the pack, it’s important to test and observe how your leather responds before proceeding with a full service. With wear and tear, topcoats can wear very thin. If you think the original topcoat has eroded because the colour is wearing away, it’s time to replace it. Leather Hero Topcoat (No.7) is quick and easy to apply and is best used in conjunction with the rest of the refinishing system.

If you have unfinished leather, the Leather Hero Nubuck, Suede and Aniline Kit will take care of it. Designed to gently clean and nourish without changing the natural appearance of this special type of leather. Unfinished leathers stain easily. Keep this kit on hand to quickly address new spills before stains are formed.

Nubuck, Suede & Aniline Care Kit with accessories- Leather Hero
The right solution for Nubuck, Suede and Aniline leathers

Waxed pull-up style leathers are very popular. They offer relaxed sophistication and age gracefully, especially when maintained with a gentle leather cleaner and rich waxy conditioner such as Leather Hero’s Waxy Care Kit.

You can restore a luxurious vintage glow to waxed leather with this buffable conditioner

When It’s Time To Recolour

If you have decided to recolour your leather, a stronger cleaner is needed. Spot & Prep (No.4) by Leather Hero has the power to remove waxes, silicones, heavy soiling, marks and surface grease. A thoroughly clean and prepared surface is key to a lasting leather finish.

Leather Spot Remover & Surface Prep 1L - Leather Hero
Before colouring it’s important to prepare the surface correctly using Leather Hero’s Spot & Prep (No.4)

Out Damned Spot

Before selecting leather care products, it’s a good idea to know your leather type and the issue you want to resolve.

Dirty

Pigmented leather
Surface soiling can be cleaned as shown in this half and half pic.

If the soiling and marks are on the surface of the leather or leather coatings, it’s dirty. This type of soiling cleans up well with a good leather cleaner such as Cleanse (No.1) or Spot & Prep (No.4) if you are recolouring.

Mouldy

Mould can be cleaned and it’s best to catch it early

If mould has grown on your leather, it is both on the surface and in the structure. Leather Hero’s Mould Remover (No.21) kills mould and mould spores and helps to prevent them from reforming. Free of bleach, chlorine, triclosan and peroxide, it is non-caustic and kills 99.9% of germs, including staphylococcus, e-coli and pseudomonas. If mould inhabits leather long enough, it can ‘eat’ into the coatings causing cloudy marks. This can also be corrected via recolouring.

Stained

Aniline leather
These stains are permanent. The lounge was recoloured to hide them.

If the mark has penetrated the structure of the leather or leather coatings, it’s stained. Most stains are permanent and can usually only be minimised with cleaning rather than completely removed. Stained areas can be restored via recolouring using a Leather Repair Kit.

Greasy

Body and hair oil sinks into leather. It’s difficult to remove so prevention is key

If the leather has darkened with an oily appearance, it may be greasy with hair and body oil that has penetrated through the structure. This compromises both the strength and aesthetics of leather. Cleaning with Spot & Prep (No.4) by Leather Hero may remove grease from the surface but cannot fully reach the oils that are within the fibres. Recolouring is possible but the oils tend to resurface in time.

The Method

Test

  1. Test each product in an inconspicuous place to test for compatibility. If the finish changes or transfers onto a cloth it is not stable and may be removed by cleaning. Unless recolouring is intended, it may be best not to proceed

Clean

  1. Vacuum any dust and particles
  2. Spray the cleaner directly onto the leather one small section at a time
  3. Working quickly and gently, agitate the cleaner into the grain using a scrubbing brush
  4. Wipe clean with a microfibre cloth. During cleaning, if the cloth becomes very wet or heavily soiled change to a fresh one
  5. Repeat until clean
  6. Wipe over the area with a dampened clean or rinsed microfibre cloth

Condition

  1. Apply a tablespoon-sized amount of conditioner to a just dampened microfibre cloth and squeeze to incorporate
  2. Wipe over the surface evenly and repeat until all areas have been treated

Protect

  1. Apply by spray to one section at a time
  2. Wipe over the surface evenly and repeat until all areas have been treated
  3. Buff if desired
Leather upholstery is an investment worthy care

How Often To Clean

Consider how often we wipe down our kitchen benches and wash our clothes… Imagine going a month without doing either. Lounges and car seats in regular use gather soiling, spills and ‘human grime’ at the same pace as everything else we use daily.

A 1-3 monthly maintenance clean is recommended or more often in high traffic environments.  The more regularly you wipe over your leather, the quicker the job. Light and regular is infinitely better for leather than harsh spring cleaning or worse still, the one in 5 or 10 years clean. It ensures your furniture is always a joy to use and looks good too.