how to clean leather

We all have luxurious leather and suede in our closets: skirts, vests, jackets, even shoes, belts and handbags.

While we love the leather items that keep us warm and toasty, sometimes the mere thought of a spill, drip or drop on our leather duds can send such a chill through us that that hot new jacket or handbag never makes it out of the closet.

After all, you're probably thinking, what if Victoria's klutzy boyfriend bumps a red wine glass all over your lap again? If Jennifer's kids get out of control and it's Twinkie meets Andrew Marc (your black leather jacket)? Or worse still - if Kimberli's son sloshes Kool-Aid all over your suede skirt? 

Face it - even without klutzy boyfriends and kids being kids, it's a risky thing to take our leather duds out for a day (or night).

Now the good news: We can clean leather without dropping a bundle. Here's a guide that will help you keep your rawhide looking tough, and you looking clean and polished (as always).

Types of Leather

  • Protected: These are the toughest and most practical leathers. The leather is finished with pigments on the surface. You can restore the color on scratches.
  • Aniline: This type of leather (also called natural, naked, or unprotected) is colored with a transparent dye so that the grain shows through. It has no protective coating though you can spray it with water repellant.
  • Nubuck: This is an aniline leather (also called distressed or bomber leather) that has been brushed to create a soft velvety surface. It's very absorbent, will stain easily, although some Nubucks, such as distressed or bomber, have waxed surfaces that offer some protection.
  • Suede: Suede is actually the flesh side of a piece of leather. But it looks like Nubuck and needs similar care. You can also protect suedes and Nubucks with a water repellant spray, but it may darken the color.

Cleaning Leather by Type

Always follow the cleaning instructions on the leather garment itself.

Finished Leather:

Remove surface dirt and stains by rubbing with a damp sponge. If that doesn't work, apply a little saddle soap or liquid detergent and rub again.

Unfinished Leather:

Unfinished leather garments and shoes will quickly spot if you get them wet. If that happens, rub off the stain with a suede brush or ultra-fine sandpaper.

Final note: Leather rarely needs to be professionally cleaned. That's good because professional leather cleaning is expensive and it may fade the color.

If you must send a leather garment to the dry cleaner, find a dry cleaner specializing in leather. And if you have a two-piece outfit, send both pieces so the color stays consistent.

Leather Care and Storage Tips

If the wrinkles in your leather garment don't hang out, try steaming them out. Hang the garment in the bathroom while you shower. If you still have wrinkles, you can iron the garment with the iron on the lowest setting (no steam). Place brown paper between the iron and the leather garment to protect it.

How to Dry Leather

Avoid getting leather garments wet. If a leather garment does get wet, blot the excess and gently roll with a towel. Then dry it flat away from direct heat. Heat will dry out its natural oils and will make the leather hard and cracked.

Leather and Suede Cleaning No-Nos

  • Use hair sprays or perfumes near leather clothes.
  • Wear a leather collar against your skin (protect it with a scarf).
  • Put an adhesive sticker (such as a name badge) on leather. 

Get more tips on cleaning and storing your leather garments at the Dry Cleaning & Laundry Institute International.

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