The techniques for how to clean leather items are important skills you need to learn. Leather is an expensive and delicate material, so it’s basically an investment you need to handle with utmost care. Whether you have an item made of pure leather or only have areas made of leather, the correct method will prevent damage and prolong its lifespan.
How To Clean Leather - Important Considerations
The right technique for how to clean leather isn’t enough to ensure you maintain its quality. There are things that you need to keep in mind, according to experts. Some of the most important ones are:
- Check the Care Instruction Tag
- Test for Colorfastness
- Separate Finished From Unfinished Leather
- Test the Right Detergent or Cleaning Product
- Use Cold Water Only
- Refrain From Using Anything Abrasive
- Keep It Away From the Sun
Check the Care Instruction Tag
You should never forget to check the manufacturer's care instructions before you try to work out how to clean leather. Most leather-made items and those with many details and delicate seams require dry cleaning only, so you can’t wash and even spot-treat them. If the care tag specifies dry clean only, then go straight to your local dry cleaner. Don't attempt to clean the leather item at home.
If the care instructions say that cleaning or washing is possible, keep reading below!
IMPORTANT - For items with no care labels, it is best to assume that your leather item can NOT be washed.
Test for Colorfastness
Although uncommon, there may be times when you might have leather-made items without care labels. Testing for colorfastness can help you determine if you can or cannot wash or clean it.
All you have to do is dampen a clean, white cloth. Then, find an inconspicuous, small area where you can dab the damp cloth. If it absorbs a bit of the leather color or if the leather changes color even when dry, let a professional take care of your leather.
Separate Finished From Unfinished Leather
The techniques on how to wash leather are different for finished and unfinished leather, so sort them out before washing. Items made of unfinished leather are those with visible tears and wear or rough-like surfaces.
How to Clean Leather that Can't Be Washed
Many leather items like bags, shoes, and chairs can't be washed or wet as the leather will damage. In these situations, a leather cleaner is your best option.
Start by spot cleaning an inconspicious area to make sure that any technicque you use will not cause damage or discoloration.
How to Clean Leather - General Dirt
Using a soft damp cloth or washcloth dipped in warm water with a small amount of gentle detergent, gently wipe away any dirt or grime. You can purchase specialized leather soap which is called saddle soap. Don't use too much water or let the leather item get too wet. It should just be damp.
Commercial leather cleaners are also available.
After wiping, use another clean cloth to dry the leather thoroughly. Damp leather can go moldy and you don't want to swap one problem for another.
Use a leather conditioner after you are finished to keep your leather soft and supple.
How to Clean Leather - Ink and Pen Marks
Ink is one of the hardest stains to get out of leather. Always use a cotton swab instead of a larger cloth to minimize spreading the ink.
WARNING - Just proceed with caution and test a small area first that is in an inconspicuous spot. Rubbing alcohol and hairspray will lift some leather colors so be careful and super gentle. You have to ask yourself if a lighter patch is better or worse than the ink mark. Shiny leathers normally have a better outcome with trying to remove ink marks. If you have a suede or unfinished leather then I recommend you just leave the ink.
Proceed with caution - Dip the swap in rubbing alcohol and gently swipe over the ink stain. Be conscious of not spreading the ink out. Have a clean swab to mop up any excess.
Proceed with caution - If you don't have rubbing alcohol, try hairspray. Years ago, I had a leather bag business, and this was recommended to me by my leather supplier. Handbags, in particular, are prone to getting ink stains as most of us have a pen or two in our bag, and accidents happen. Spray the hairspray on a swab rather than on the leather item directly. This method worked on quite a few shiny leathers from experience, but occasionally some of the colors of the background leather were lightened.
How to Clean Leather - that Can be Washed
Believe it or not, some leathers can be washed. As always, check the label for full instructions first and proceed with caution.
WARNING - Double check the label to make sure you can definitely wash your leather item. Leather is expensive, and mistakes can be costly. Leather that can be washed is the exception rather than the norm.
Choose the Right Detergent
If you’ve washable leather, keep in mind that not all detergents would be gentle on the fabric. The best choice is a leather cleaner or detergent that you can buy in craft, retail, and hardware stores. If you don’t have one, castile soap is among the most recommended since it’s gentle enough; some people even use it to wash their faces. You can also opt for other mild, bleach-free detergents.
Whichever you use, test the product on the leather before use. To do so, place a small amount of the detergent on a clean, white cloth. Dab it on a hidden area on your leather. If the cloth absorbs even the tiniest amount of color, choose and test another detergent until you find the right one.
Use Cold Water
Experts on how to wash leather recommend using cold water since heat can make leather hard or stiff. Also, when exposed to hot water, leather can shrink as soon as it dries. Thus, warm water isn’t the best choice wither unless you’re sure of the water’s specific temperature level.
Refrain From Using Anything Abrasive
Leather is a fabric material that can easily get scratched and damaged when exposed to any items made of abrasive material. These materials can also make finished leather appear cloudy.
Keep It Away From the Sun
In relation to the previous point, you must not expose your leather to the sun since it can dry out the natural oils responsible for keeping it supple. Air drying it in an open area but away from direct sunlight is ideal.
How To Clean Leather - Washing Techniques
When washing finished leather, you have two options: using your washing machine or washing by hand. Let's discuss the tried-and-tested steps for each technique.
WARNING - Double check the label to make sure you can definitely wash your leather item. Leather is expensive, and mistakes can be costly.
How To Clean Leather in the Washer
You can safely wash durable types of leather in the washing machine, as long as it says so in the care tag. You must also follow the steps below, as recommended by most experts.
- If possible, turn your leather items inside out, close the buttons, and zip the zippers.
- Place your leather item in a mesh laundry bag.
- Pour the right amount of detergent, usually indicated in the product label, into the detergent dispenser.
- Set your washer to cold and gentle cycles.
- Add your leather items, ensuring you don’t load your washer with a lot of items so that they can move freely in the washer.
- Run your washer and make sure you keep an eye on your leather items until the cycle is finished.
- Once done, remove your leather from the washer and lay it out or hang it. Smoothen out the creases, folds, and wrinkles. You may also want to pull the leather gently to stretch it out.
- Hang your washed leather items or place them on a clean, dry surface where there’s sufficient airflow. If you will let them air dry indoors, make sure you open the windows.
- Once completely dry, apply a leather conditioner or olive oil for surface protection and texture restoration. To do so, get an abrasive-free paper towel or a piece of lint-free, soft, microfiber, white cloth. Apply a little amount of conditioner or oil and wipe it throughout your leather.
How To Clean Leather by Hand Washing
From best to worst, washing your leather-made items by hand comes second to dry cleaning. You would notice, though, that handwashing isn’t the typical laundering technique you’re used to, but rather more of spot cleaning. That said, the technique below on how to wash leather by hand can deep clean your items and can be used for spot treating marks or stains.
- Dilute a small amount of detergent in a bowl of cold distilled water.
- Using your hands or fingers, agitate the solution until bubbly or foamy.
- Dip a piece of clean, lint-free, microfiber, white cloth in the solution. Squeeze to remove excess water.
- Look for an area with visible dirt or stain, and gently rub them with your wet cloth using a circular motion.
- Dip your clean, lint-free, microfiber, white cloth in the solution and wash it a little to remove the dirt. Squeeze to remove excess water.
- Look for another area with visible dirt or stain, and gently rub it with your wet cloth using a circular motion.
- Repeat from steps #4 to #6 until there are no longer visible stains or dirt on your leather. Make sure you change the solution once it gets dirty. You may also change the cloth you’re using if it becomes too dirty.
- Using a new solution, dip a new piece of clean, lint-free, microfiber, white cloth. Squeeze to remove excess water.
- Following your leather’s grain, wipe it with your wet cloth, making sure you wash the cloth every time it gets dirty.
- Fill a clean bowl with distilled water and dip a new, clean, lint-free, microfiber, white cloth. Squeeze to remove excess water.
- Wipe your leather to remove soap, making sure you wash the cloth and change the water once they get soapy. If you’re washing leather boots, shoes, or saddles, you can flush it with water instead. Make sure you don’t saturate it.
- Get a new, clean, lint-free, microfiber, dry, white cloth and wipe the leather, ensuring you remove all water.
- Let your leather air dry as above.
- Once dry, apply a leather conditioner or olive oil as above.
How To Clean Leather - Washing Unfinished Leather
Unlike finished leather, you can only wash unfinished leather by hand. Since unfinished leather also usually has crevices, you might need to use a brush. Ensure you choose one with soft bristles and test the brush in a hidden, small area of the leather before using it.
- Inspect the leather if crevices have dirt stocked in them. If so, proceed to step #2. If not, proceed to step #8.
- Dilute a tiny amount of detergent in a bowl of distilled water and fill another bowl with clean distilled water.
- Dip your tested brush in the solution and gently brush on the dirty crevices.
- Take a piece of lint-free, microfiber, clean, white cloth in the bowl of fresh distilled water. Squeeze to remove excess water.
- Use the wet cloth to wipe the area you just brushed. If you’re washing leather boots, shoes, or saddles, you can flush it with water. Make sure you don’t saturate it.
- Repeat on other dirty crevices and then proceed to the next steps.
- Wet another piece of lint-free, microfiber, clean, white cloth in another bowl of clean distilled water. Squeeze excess water.
- Pour a little amount of detergent into the damp cloth.
- Gently wipe it on the leather until it lathers. Start with the dirtiest part, making sure you wash the cloth and then repeat from steps #7 to #8 before proceeding to the next area.
- Take another lint-free, microfiber, clean white cloth and wet it with clean distilled water. Squeeze excess water.
- Use the wet cloth to wipe the soapy leather. If you’re washing leather boots, shoes, or saddles, you can flush it with water. Make sure you don’t saturate it.
- Once all the detergent has been removed, take a lint-free, clean, white cloth, and wipe the leather dry.
- Let your leather air dry as above.
- Once dry, apply a leather preservative, like mink oil. Just place enough product on a lint-free, microfiber, clean, white cloth, then wipe it throughout the leather’s surface. Pay attention to the cracks, wear, tears, or crevices.
How To Clean Leather - In Conclusion
As one of the most delicate and expensive materials, having your leather washed or dry cleaned by a professional is the top option. If you prefer to clean it at home, choosing and testing the products, from the detergent to the cloth, that you’ll use is critical.
Another secret on how to clean leather-made items is to ensure you don’t expose them to too much water and high temperature, leave any detergent, and use abrasive objects. Lastly, always let them dry properly before applying finishing or preservative products. Leaving them to air dry overnight is recommended.