How To Clean Leather: A Step-By-Step Guide

Take a careful approach to keep your favorite leather perfectly hydrated, crack-free, and (of course) clean.

Wiping down leather sofa

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No matter the latest design trends, leather is a staple in so many Southern homes. Its stylish presence goes beyond the home, filling our closets and more with leather apparel, accessories, and other functional pieces. We can practically feel the word when reading it: sinking deep into a grandparent’s armchair; the buttery leather of a beautiful handbag; the perfectly broken-in feeling of a great old pair of leather boots. 

When it comes to caring for these often beloved pieces, the trick is to approach things carefully. Sarah McAllister, founder of the popular cleaning-based Instagram account @gocleanco, gives us the keys to keeping our leather products perfectly hydrated, crack-free, and (of course) clean. 

Determine What You’ve Got

Much like cleaning metals, it’s important to know whether your leather is raw or treated. An easy trick to figuring out which you’re looking at? Raw leather is usually not shiny. That’s the beautiful, natural looking sort that only gets better with time. “With raw leather, we just get to let it be and watch it age. Actually, you can’t clean raw leather, because without a protective barrier in place, any moisture will begin to ruin it,” says Sarah. 

She’s right—wetting raw leather causes the natural oils present in the material to bind to the water molecules, which ultimately evaporate and cause the leather to lose its soft, supple quality. The reason raw leather is so dreamy is because it’s full of natural oils—and, just like the saying goes, oil and water don’t mix. For stains on raw leather, Sarah recommends taking your item to a professional rather than attempting to treat it at home.

If your leather product has a sheen to it, though, it’s likely treated, and you’re safe to begin your cleaning process.

Avoid Ammonia and Bleach

Though it might seem like treated leather can be easily wiped off with any old household cleaner, using any product with ammonia or bleach can strip the color straight off your leather. Repeated cleanings with products like Windex, for example, can leave your leather goods stained, cracked, and damaged. Keep the Windex on glass surfaces and save yourself the trouble of replacing a perfectly good piece.

How To Clean Treated Leather

What You’ll Need: 

Step 1: Remove Excess Dirt and Grime 

Most leather cleaners are not actually cleaners, but conditioners designed to be used after your leather has already been freed of dirt and residue. “Going straight to a leather cleaner will just rub in the dirt that’s already there,” Sarah says. By wiping your items down with a cloth and a little soap, you allow the conditioner to do its job even better as it can better penetrate the material. “My team has tried it both ways, and we noticed that wiping down a couch before we use conditioner lifts off so much dirt and grime from those smaller, hard-to-reach crevices.” If you’re feeling extra conservative about a product, warm water and a damp cloth is fine, but if you’re ready to get a little more aggressive, adding a few drops of Dawn dish soap to your mix will help quickly remove buildup. 

Step 2: Dry

Not a complicated step, but, as always, it’s vital to wait until your leather is completely dry before moving on to conditioning. A dry surface allows the conditioner to do its best work, and if you’re working with a larger piece like a sofa or armchair, it might be best to let it dry overnight. 

Step 3: Condition And Hydrate—But Don’t Overdo It 

Once your leather has been properly cleaned, it’s time for the fun part: treating it with a little extra TLC.

Sarah recommends using Weiman’s Leather Cleaner and Conditioner to restore that beautiful shiny finish. This particular product is helpful in moisturizing your leather, protecting it from sun damage, and restoring the shine it may have lost with normal wear. It’s safe to use on leather couches, bags, shoes, and even car interiors—but be careful not to get carried away, Sarah says: “Condition your leather when it’s looking dry or cracked, but try not to do it too often. Too much conditioning will actually build up a film on your products.” Start with a once-a-quarter wipe down, and determine from there if you could go even less often.  

Step 4: Remove Excess Conditioner

After you’ve finished, give your product a once-over to check for any pesky spots that conditioner might have built up. Wiping those away will give your item its best chance at shining and lasting for as long as possible, as any chemical buildup will work against you by breaking down the seal that protects leather from the elements. 

“Having a system in place that allows you to clean one room at a time, or one item at a time, can really help people tackle cleaning in a way that’s not overwhelming,” Sarah says. We love this advice—giving yourself time to pour care and tenderness into your belongings makes them even more special over time. This is particularly true with leather goods that could turn into heirlooms. Caring for them well on the front end can help them last for generations to come. 

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