How to clean natural and coated leather

Leather means any skin or hide that has been tanned, but after that the similarities end and the differences begin. Two main categories of leather — natural and coated — require different cleaning techniques.

How to clean natural and coated leather

1. Natural leather

  • With little surface protection, natural leather is highly susceptible to staining. It is not dyed with pigments, has no finish coat of polyurethane and is recognizable by its rustic, natural appearance.
  • Even water or treatments suitable for other kinds of leather, such as saddle soap, may ruin its surface.
  • To clean natural leather, rely on frequent dusting with a soft cloth.
  • You could try removing dirt with an art gum eraser, available from art supply stores, but even that might leave a smudge.
  • There is little more you can do without making a problem worse.

2. Coated leather

  • This leather has a pigment-dyed surface treated with a polyurethane coating. Most — but not all — leather garments, upholstery, purses and shoes are made of coated leather.
  • To clean coated leathers, dust regularly with a cloth, occasionally with a dampened cloth.
  • Wash every six months or so with saddle soap, which is available from saddleries, sporting goods stores, some shoestoresandhardware stores.
  • Remove loose dirt with a stiff brush or damp cloth.
  • Rub a damp cloth on saddle soap and work up a lather.
  • Rub the soapy cloth on the leather article using a circular motion. Wipe away the excess soap and moisture with another damp cloth. Then allow to air-dry.
  • Buff with a clean, soft cloth.
  • Finish off the cleaning with a coat of protective leather cream recommended by the manufacturer or a general-purpose one sold by leather retailers and shoe shops.

3. Treat spots on coated leathers

  • Try these methods — but don't forget to test on an inconspicuous area first:
  • Apply cornstarch to greasy spots and let it absorb the grease. Wipe off the excess with a dry cloth.
  • Rub with a cotton swab dipped in methylated spirits.
  • Make a paste of equal parts lemon juice and cream of tartar, work it into the spot (including scuff marks) with a cloth, let it sit for an hour or so and then wipe clean.
  • Treat those ugly white stains on shoes and boots caused by the mineral salts in water with a 50:50 mixture of water and white vinegar. Dip a cloth into the solution and blot.
  • On mildew, use a 50:50 solution of methylated spirits and water on a cloth. Saddle soap also may work.

4. General guidelines for natural and coated leathers

  • If you have instructions from the manufacturer, follow them.
  • Test any cleaning product on an inconspicuous area before using it.
  • For any valuable leather article or serious cleaning problem, consult a professional, such as a dry cleaner who specializes in cleaning leather.
  • Avoid harsh cleaners and even excessive water, which can leave stains and remove dye and lubricants.
  • Never dry wet leather near a heat source.
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