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Ultimate Guide to Leather Cleaning and Care

Leather car seats continue to be the epitome of luxury. I say “continue,” because this has been the case for a long time.

For example, back in 1974, the now famous hard drinking Mad Men of Madison Avenue coined a phrase for Chrysler. It was “rich Corinthian leather,” then they hired Ricardo Montalbán to do television commercials and tease the newly coined phrase with his exotic accent. (For those old enough to remember, stop screaming Khan! For those who don’t know, fire up the old Google engine.)

They did all this even though most of the leather came from a supplier just outside of Newark, NJ.

So why bring up a page from ancient history? Because this simple marketing trick cleverly hammered home two important points when talking about leather car seats:

  1. A well maintained leather interior screams luxury.
  2. There are different types of leather.

A well-maintained leather car interior is beautiful to behold, and it beckons to you enter and sit. And when you sink into the seat, you feel the somehow firm, but at the same time soft, leather conforming to your body. You hear that subtle sound of the leather creaking while the smell makes you inhale a little deeper. Leather stimulates our senses like no other material.

But notice I said a well-maintained seat. That is the third aspect of leather that most people appreciate, but often overlook:

  1. Leather interiors do require regular maintenance and cleaning.

It is a sad sight to climb into an older car and see the leather seats stained and cracked, or worse, flaking. This can be avoided with a little knowledge and some regular maintenance, so let’s dive into the world of cleaning and maintaining leather car interiors.

The Type of Leather Matters

First you need to know what type of leather you have. A quick internet search will show that this is easier said than done, but the table below should help cut through some of the clutter.

Leather Type (where used)          Leather SurfaceDye or PigmentedProtective Coating
Aniline (rarely used today)natural finishdyednone
Semi-aniline (high-end cars)natural finishdyedthin coating
Full Grain or “Napa” (luxury cars)natural finishpigmentedthick coating
Corrected Grain or Pigmented (budget cars)sanded or buffedpigmentedthick coating

(Please notice suede, while technically leather, is not included on this list. It is the underside of the animal hide, thinner and not as durable as the topside of the leather, and you can find information on how to care for suede in my article “Ultimate Guide to Cleaning & Maintaining Alcantara & Suede”)

In my table, the coating column is of interest. And you may ask why the leather’s coating is important. Well, if you have aniline leather, that means there is no coating. This type of leather stains easily and is not recommended if you have kids or pets. But take heart, chances are you don’t have this type of leather as it is rarely used today.

All other products are coated, and chances are a coated leather was used in your car.

So you say, “Great! A protective coating means better stain resistance!” and you are correct. But alas, there is an issue here, too. There is a coating on the surface of your leather that needs care.

Yes, that was a redundant statement, but intended to make a point. That’s because coatings are susceptible to abrasion, and small grains of dirt are a great abrasive. So the first thing you need to do with leather is keep it free from dirt, debris, and dust.

And do you remember that semi-aniline leather uses a thinner coating?

If you have semi-aniline leather, and many high-end cars do, you need to be even more diligent about keeping your leather clean. The thinner coating means this leather feels soft and supple, but it is also may damage more easily.

First rule of maintaining leather interiors:

Interior leather must be kept clean and free of dirt and debris for a long life.

Cleaning and Maintaining Leather Interiors

So, what is the best way to clean this nasty dirt and debris on a regular basis?

Well, let’s address that question.

To clean on a regular basis, use:

  • Vacuum with upholstery nozzle
  • A damp, soft cloth

The manufacturer’s recommended frequencies do vary, but in general they are in the range of three to five weeks, so:

 Routine cleaning once a month as a good rule of thumb.

1. Vacuum the Leather

Simply vacuum the leather upholstery to remove loose debris. You can use brushes like these to remove dirt stuck in the cracks, crevices, and stitching.

NOTE: When using a vacuum, make sure there are no burrs or imperfections that may scratch or dig into your leather.

If you find burrs or dings, sand them out of the upholstery nozzle with a high grit sandpaper.

2. Wipe the Leather

Wipe the leather down with a soft, white cloth that is damp with warm water. Do not soak the leather, especially perforated leather, as it can damage the foam beneath.

There is no need to break out the cleaners every time you clean the leather. Save that for longer intervals or when noticeable stains begin to develop.

NOTE: If using a cloth, use a soft, white one to prevent scratching or transferring color to your leather.

A clean, white cotton terry cloth is good for this purpose. Some like microfiber cloths which is OK as long as it’s a quality one (remember not all microfiber is created equal), especially for semi-aniline leather. Also, make sure the cloth is just damp, and that you do not soak the leather (especially when cleaning perforated leather).

Car Leather Stain Removal and Cleaning Procedures

So, you keep your car’s interior clean and never miss a monthly cleaning. But what about those areas you touch often?

You know those spots that start to get a little darker from the oils in your skin, like a steering wheel or an arm rest. Plus, there is grime that tracks in on your clothes. Or that pen you left in your pocket that marks a seat….

And what about the inevitable spills that leave stains? Oh, the horror! But of course, this where leather specific cleaning products, such as Leather Honey Leather Cleaner, become quite useful.

Lets explore the steps:

1. Use Caution

It is always a good idea to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on any cleaners you use, but let’s review the general procedures for using cleaners on those more heavily soiled areas, or for removing spots.

Your leather is valuable, treat it accordingly. That means if you have not used a particular cleaner before, test it on an inconspicuous spot first. The last thing you want to do is clean the middle of your gorgeous seat only to find that this new cleaner leaves a halo or leaches the color from your particular leather.

2. Do Your Regular Cleaning First

You must do your routine cleaning before using a cleaning product or spot remover.

We don’t want any of that nasty, abrasive dirt getting scrubbed into you precious leather and abrading your protective coating.

3. Apply Leather Cleaner

So, you have done a thorough vacuuming and cloth wipe, and are now ready to use an auto leather cleaner. The deeper cleaning can commence, and you should make note to:

  • Apply a small amount of cleaner at a time
  • Avoid soaking the leather so you don’t damage the foam beneath
  • Never, ever let the cleaning agent dry on the leather
  • Work in small sections

Working in small sections will minimize the amount of time the cleaner is in contact with the leather, thereby minimizing the risk of leaching color or staining the leather. And small areas make it easier to complete the process before the cleaner dries.

If you find your leather is sensitive to staining, you may find spraying the cleaner on your cloth or cleaning brush a better option to keep the leather from getting too wet.

With the caution against wetting the leather, it is a good time to mention:

  • Perforated leather
  • Heated seats

With both above options, it is imperative to keep the leather dry. The foam under your perforated leather can become saturated, taking a long, long time to dry, if it ever does. Some seats use a soy based foam that will break down with water and leach out a nasty brown discoloration.

Also, electricity and water should never come together. If you have perforated leather and heated seats, it is recommended to spray the cleaner on your cloth or brush, not directly on the seat, so you don’t wet the heated seats electronics.

Related: Best Leather Cleaners for Cars

4. Agitate

Use a clean, soft cloth, sponge, or leather brush to scrub the area with cleaner. Work it into a lather with a cloth or brush, but avoid being too aggressive, especially if you are using a stiffer brush or scrub pads (these should be avoided and used as a last resort).

Don’t scrub aggressively. The coating on leather is thin and fragile. Keep in mind that some leather is tinted with a pigmented coating and you can scrub through the coating, which means you will scrub the color off your leather. Be careful.

Special leather cleaning brushes, such as this one from Trinova, are available and work best for foaming the cleaner. These are stiff enough to scrub effectively, but not too stiff as to harm the leather.

If you see visible cracks, lines, or scuffing in your leather do not attempt to scrub these away. They are physical damage and will never go away. Scrubbing vigorously will just make matters worse. The best you can do is agitate these areas with your cleaner before wiping which will clean dirt out of the crevices and make them less visible.

5. Wipe Clean

Before the leather cleaner can dry use a dry, clean cloth to lightly wipe away the foam/moisture and dirt.

A dry microfiber cloth works well for this step.

If your leather is perforated blot the seat dry instead of wiping. Wiping can push waves of water into the holes much like a squeegee. Once the majority of the moisture has been blotted up you can do a light wipe to smooth it out and prevent spotting as it dries.

6. Let It Dry

Once you are done, let the leather surfaces dry before using again. Wet surfaces are far more prone to staining and damage.

If you did not soak the leather, and you should not have, it does not take that long for it to dry.

Steam Cleaning Leather

There are varying experiences with steam cleaning leather, and as already pointed out, the type of leather in your car varies and this has a lot to do with it will work or make a mess. Do a test if you consider steam cleaning for the first time.

The cleaner with this method is vaporized water, better known as steam. The heat and moisture are effective at releasing dirt. But heat and water can stain or damage leather. Because of that it is considered a last resort, but there are some things you can do minimize the risk.

Pick an attachment for the steamer that spreads out the steam. This is usually the triangular or diamond shaped attachment for your steam machine.

Wrap a clean cloth over the steamer attachment.

Many steam cleaners have a brush attachment that is good choice, especially if it has multiple holes on the head.  This will allow the steam to do its work and the cloth wrapped over the brush will lift the dirt away from the leather as you steam it. This also means you need to watch the cloth and rotate it as it becomes dirty.

Leather Conditioning

When I read forums and threads about car leather conditioner I feel like I am a member in one of those old light beer commercials, you know the one where one side yells “taste great” and the other side yells “less filling.” Only this time the chants alternated between “use conditioner” and “don’t use conditioner.”

But leather can dry out and become brittle as it ages. Conditioner helps to keep you leather soft and crack free. So why all the debate?

We get back to that coating on leather again. Some people feel conditioners do not get to the leather because of the coating, so they say they don’t do anything.

But let’s consider this closer.

Does Leather Conditioner Work?

First, even if all you do is condition the coating on the leather, you have achieved something. The word conditioner in this context can really be replaced with moisturizer and appearance enhancer. When you use a conditioner on coated leather you’re moisturizing the coating which keeps it flexible. The coating is there to protect the leather, and if you condition and preserve the leather’s protective coating, that is a good thing (do we owe Martha Stewart for saying that?). It’s similar to your paint. You take measures to preserve the clear coat so the base paint never needs treatment.

Second, I will admit there is no scientific evidence that I know of that proves a conditioner penetrates through the coating. However, leather that has been conditioned regularly does feel more soft and supple and appears to resist normal wear and tear better. I’ve personally rejuvenated leather with a hard, dry coating using the product Leatherique. If the coating wasn’t at least semi-permeable then the Leatherique would never have worked, but it did!

Based on personal experience, use leather conditioner.

Another benefit is that on dark leather, particularly black, the conditioner will help even out the color that can look slightly mottled after cleaning. Especially in areas that you may have scrubbed a little more to remove a stain. You can also use conditioner to change level of sheen or gloss that your leather has if you prefer more of that. Freshly cleaned leather often has a very matte, almost dry, appearance to it.

Also, some leather conditioners claim to contain UV inhibitors, a suncreen for your seats if you will. What you may not know, though, is that modern automotive glass already blocks most UV transmission, even without tint. It’s not UV that usually kills your leather (unless you leave your windows or top down all the time) it’s the heat. You’d be better off getting a quality heat-rejecting window tint put on than relying solely on the conditioner.

Related: My Take on the 8 Best Leather Conditioners

How to Use Leather Conditioner

That brings us to how to use conditioner, which is easy to use. Some guidelines on the procedure:

  • You MUST thoroughly clean the leather first.
  • Apply conditioner per the manufacturer’s instructions, usually with a damp cloth.
  • Allow conditioner to soak, per the instructions.
  • Remove excess conditioner and buff with clean, dry cloth.

How Often Should You Use Leather Conditioner?

And finally, how often should you use conditioner?

Well, that does depend on the climate you live in.

Humid air will slow the leather drying process, and dry air (both cold and hot) will speed the drying. Lot of sun and heat will also dry out leather.

Some rules of thumb:

  • In dry climates condition every one or two months.
  • In humid climates, condition every three or four months.

Of course, you can condition more frequently, if it makes your leather look and feel better. Just be careful to not apply it so often that it builds up on the surface and makes your leather sticky and greasy.

There is another benefit of conditioner that you might also like, and therefore make you use it more frequently. Some conditioner products restore that new car or new leather smell to your interior.

Protecting Leather from the Elements

As I briefly mentioned earlier, your leather is very susceptible to heat. A hot car is the number one killer of leather seats.

Regular cleaning and conditioning can help extend the life of your leather but there are other ways you can help extend its’ life as well.

Getting a quality heat rejecting window tint will do wonders for your leather, especially leather that is directly visible through the windows such as headrests in the rear window.

Putting up sun shades in the front window will help as well since it will block the sun and lower the overall max temperature of the interior.

Parking in the shade helps as well. Opt for the parking garage over the curb at work.

To Summarize

Leather needs regular cleaning and maintenance, but as you can see, it is doable and not that hard. To boil it down to bullet points:

  • Use an abundance of caution to avoid damage, including test spots ahead of cleaning with a new product in an out of view place.
  • Keep your leather free from dirt, dust, and debris by wiping with a damp cloth or vacuuming, once a month.
  • Clean heavily soiled spots and stains using a cleaner.
  • Apply cleaner sparingly, do not soak leather.
  • Do not soak heated or perforated seats. Spray your cloth or brush only.
  • Agitate, but do not get aggressive or you risk damaging the leather’s coating.
  • Wipe clean with dry, microfiber cloth.
  • Let the leather dry completely.
  • Try steam cleaning as last resort and use the right attachment, wrapped in a cloth.
  • Apply conditioner regularly.
  • Take measures to keep your leather out of the heat such as applying tint, using sun shades, and parking in the shade.

Thanks for reading and happy detailing!

Noel Borg

Thursday 18th of October 2018

(perforated leather can become saturated, taking a long, long time to dry, if it ever does. Some seats use a soy based foam that will break down with water and leach out a nasty brown discoloration.)

I have this problem after using a high quality brand conditioner, but i notice the holes after few weeks have bits stuck in them and if i hit the seat with my hand it brings lots of dusty bits, it looks like the foam is now ruined and have no idea how to stop this. thankfully it's just my driver seat and not all as i used just for my seat. any idea how to stop the foam from braking further?

Terry Hill

Thursday 18th of October 2018

If the foam has dried out then it shouldn't continue to break down. You'll just have to deal with the top layer that became fragile and is disintegrating.

Before we jump to that conclusion, it could also be excess conditioner that has dried in the holes. What was the conditioner that you used?

You might try wiping the seats down with a plush microfiber towel that is damp but not dripping wet. The nap in the towel should get into the perforation without wetting the foam underneath. You can also try gently scrubbing the holes with a soft detailing brush lightly spritzed with water or a gentle leather cleaner (the brush not the leather).

If that doesn't help, and it truly is the foam underneath that's causing the issue, you can try carefully vacuuming your leather while patting it down to pull out the free foam particles. Make sure you use a vacuum attachment that's free of nicks and burs so you don't scratch the leather.

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