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The jaw hangs, eyebrows raise, heart beats fluctuate, and lungs gasp for air. There are only two places a customer can be found in this profound state of confusion:
A parent trying to pick a product in the cereal aisle with a small child, or…
A car enthusiast in the car detailing section of an automotive supply store trying to pick a leather cleaner.
I can hear you saying, “Come on, you’re exaggerating.” But consider this, you will find leather care products in various forms including:
- Combo: Cleaner/Conditioner
And that is just a partial list before we even mention the differences in ingredients…
Then you ask this question, “What is best for my leather (because there are different types and colors of leather, right)?”
You can see the problem, this gets complex, fast. So, let’s buckle up drive deep into turn one to find the best leather cleaning product for your car.
Top 6 Leather Cleaners
What to Do Before Using a Leather Cleaner On Your Interior
Before using any cleaning product on your leather:
Dust and clean your leather with a damp, clean, soft cloth or vacuum to remove all dirt and loose debris.
It feels like we are saying clean, before you use a cleaning product, we are. This is because you don’t want anything like grains of sand and other debris left on the leather when you start wiping it down or you risk scratching the surface.
At this point I would also recommend wiping down your leather with a warm damp cotton terry towel. Why? Because you might not even need a chemical cleaner to clean your leather. Because your leather is most likely coated it’s surprisingly resistant to staining and a lot of dirt can just be wiped away with warm water.
If that doesn’t give you the results you’re looking for, then it’s time to find a leather cleaner that works.
What to Look for in an Automotive Leather Cleaner
So warm water didn’t cut it and now you are ready for a deep cleaning with a dedicated leather cleaning product.
In general, you want your cleaner to:
- Be pH balanced to prevent harm to the leather coating (alkaline cleaners should be avoided)
- Leave no oily or slippery surfaces
- Leave no added gloss
- Be free from offensive odors
- Be free from harsh solvents
- Free from silicone
Wipes vs. Sprays vs. Lotions vs. Gels
For routine cleaning, wipes are convenient and get the job done. But they will not provide a deep cleaning of severely soiled areas. (e.g. Ever see an arm rest or steering wheel that gets touched a million times with those darkened areas form? The stains left by the oils in human skin will probably not come out with wipes!)
Many like the ease of use, and find wipes work for them as part of a strategy to prevent the buildup of heavy dirt and oil. In other words, they employ frequent cleaning with wipes to keep the leather pristine.
Personally, I feel most situations that are handled with a wipe could be handled with warm water and terry cloth.
This is popular choice, and for good reason. This type of product is easy to apply.
With regular use, a dedicated spray cleaner will likely be all you need to keep your leather looking like new, under normal wear and tear. The process is almost as easy as using a wipe, just slightly more involved and time consuming. The instructions for use can vary on how to scrub and dry/buff the leather, so read the label carefully.
Leather cleaning lotions are engineered for those areas that are exposed to more use, and therefore have worse buildup of dirt. The consistency allows you to work the cleaner into the leather longer without increasing the risk of damaging the leather which makes cutting through tough stains much easier.
You may want to think twice about using lotions on perforated leather seats or around stitching. Removing white residue from these is difficult, to say the least.
Gels are similar to lotion but are not milky like a lotion. This means they are safer to use on perforated seats or around stitching.
Most are “no rinse” formulas, making them easy to use. You simply apply the gel to a soft, clean cloth and wipe the leather. After cleaning, wipe off excess with clean, dry cloth.
Of the four groups, spray cleaners are my preferred leather cleaners and are what I recommend to people that don’t want to buy an assortment of cleaners or plan to take routine care of their leather and therefor won’t need anything else.
Leather Cleaner vs Cleaner & Conditioner
When it comes to deep cleaning I prefer a straight leather cleaner. Leather cleaners are typically stronger at cutting dirt and removing soil stains than the the 2-in-1 products.
A straight cleaner also lets you remove all residue buildup from other conditioners, especially the case of a used car or customer vehicle that may have been abused with too frequent conditioning or conditioning with crappy products.
2-in-1 products do have their place, but in this article I want to focus on just the cleaners.
Cleaning Denim Stains from Leather Seats
Before we get to the cleaners I’d like to stop and take a moment to talk about denim stains. This is one of those “let’s manage expectations” moments. I’ve had a lot of people fuss about a leather cleaner not cleaning the denim stains from their seats.
Denim stains are caused by the dye transfer from denim to your seats. Depending on the coating on your seat (some are more porous than other and some are tinted rather than clear), the stain can either be on top of the coating or have been absorbed into the coating.
The unfortunate reality is that denim stains that have permeated the coating on the leather will not be cleaned up by any leather cleaner, especially if it’s a tinted coating. This situation is exacerbated when the denim stains have been ground in over years of use and many summer heat cycles.
This is one of the few times I will say that an all-purpose cleaner (APC) might come in handy with leather. You have to be careful, though, because most all -purpose cleaners are very alkaline which isn’t good for the coating with extended use. Do a test spot first and be gentle when rubbing the denim stain.
If it’s not coming up easily, stop. You lost the coating chemistry lottery and you’re just going to have live with your slightly more bluish white or tan seats.
With that out of the way, lets look at a few leather cleaners worth considering.
TriNova Leather Cleaner (Spray)
- ☑️ Safe for many surfaces - Will also work on durablend,...
- ☑️ Easy to use - simply spray on and wipe off to...
- ☑️ Effective and Safe - Works to remove dirt, debris,...
- ☑️ Premium Formula - Developed by leather experts to...
- ☑️ Extend the Life of Your Leather - Routine cleaning...
- Works on most soil stains
- Weak odor of “new leather”
- Won’t affect leather color
- Doesn’t work great on denim stains
For those that aren’t familiar, TriNova is owned by Gold Eagle, the same company that owns 303, as in 303 Aerospace Cleaner (a very good interior cleaner) so they know a thing or two about cleaning chemicals.
I like this cleaner because it applies easy, works very well on most soil stains (stains from body oils, sunscreens, etc…), and doesn’t affect the color of the leather.
TriNova even makes a nice brush for lathering the cleaner and really digging the dirt out of the grain.
The only debatable quality about this cleaner is the odor. Some will find it reminds them of the faint smell of new leather while others may think it just smells weird.
Past that I think this is a great cleaner.
Leather Honey (Lotion)
- NON-TOXIC, GENTLE LEATHER CLEANER: Our leather cleaner...
- CLEAN ALL YOUR LEATHER - EVEN FAUX/VINYL: Quickly and gently...
- A POWERFUL CLEANER IN AN EASY SOLUTION: Dilute the...
- FAMILY OWNED, AMERICAN MADE, SPECIALLY FORMULATED: For over...
- UNLIMITED 100% SATISFACTION GUARANTEE: If you're not happy...
- Concentrated formula
- Good value for the money
- Cleans well
- Has an odor while using that most people don’t like. Goes away after drying.
- Darkens leather after cleaned
I love Leather Honey for cleaning most leathers including sofas, boots, and saddles. I also love it for cleaning car leather, even though car leather is coated, provided the leather is dark like a black or charcoal. This is because Leather Honey has a tendency to darken leather.
Leather Honey is also concentrated in the bottle. In the bottle it’s a lotion. You can thin it out to get a to a more mild cleaner for routine/maintenance cleaning and stretch your dollars quite a bit.
The biggest complaint with Leather Honey is the odor. It’s just weird and a little over powering. Fortunately, the smell goes away shortly after drying.
Zymol Z507 Leather Cleaner (Spray)
- Naturally Derived Product that is 100% Satisfaction...
- Produced with Castile (Olive Oil) soaps and Lanolin, this pH...
- Ingredients: Spun castile soaps, Glycerin, Cetyl Cocamide...
- Gently removes heavy soiling.
- Follow with Zymol Leather Conditioner for perfect results,...
- Has nice clean smell
- Won’t affect leather color
- Contains a mild amount of conditioning agents to keep leather soft after drying
- Active ingredients are biodegradable
- Will not remove really tough stains
Zymol is a good leather cleaner option for really sensitive leather. It contains a small amount of conditioning chemicals to keep from drying out the leather too much after cleaning. It does so without sacrificing the cleaning power like most combo cleaner/conditioner products do, which is great.
That said, it’s still not quite as strong as a pure leather cleaner. I’d put it in between a pure cleaner and the cleaner/conditioner hybrids.
Like TriNova, Zymol won’t change the color of your light-colored leathers.
Zymol also contains active ingredients that are biodegradable which is never a bad thing. Plus, it doesn’t smell half bad.
Chemical Guys Leather Cleaner (Spray)
- Easily wipe away contaminants without harming leather
- pH-balanced to leather for the most efficient cleaning
- Preserves the leather's strength, durability and appearance
- Leaves no residue like soaps and will not contribute to...
- Water-based surfactants and non-alkaline cleaning agents...
- Relatively inexpensive
- Leaves no residue
- Won’t affect leather color
- Very mild odor
- Will not remove tough stains, but considered a good “mild” cleaner
- Some complaints that the trigger cracked
Chemical Guys Leather Cleaner is another solid option. I don’t rate the cleaning power as good as Trinova or Leather Honey. It’s more of a mild cleaner for more routine use.
The biggest positives are that it’s a clear formula so it won’t affect the color of your leather and will leave behind no residue (important on perforated seats).
The odor is something I went back and forth on . On one hand it’s advertised as odorless. On the other it has an odor. I ended up putting it a pro because it is a very mild odor, like a mild kitchen cleaner smell.
Sonax Premium Class Leather Cleaner (Foam)
- CLEANS new leather and rejuvenates old leather, including...
- EFFECTIVELY REMOVES stubborn dirt, grease and staining of...
- FOAMING FORMULA penetrates deeply and cleans the leather...
- PREMIUM CLASS leather cleaner is the perfect mix of gentle...
- HELPS MAINTAIN your leather - Routine cleaning with Sonax...
- Foam dispersion for easy application
- Cleans dirt and moderate stains well
- Will not affect leather color
- Comparatively expensive
I like most Sonax products. They are made well. They are just usually a little pricy for us US folks. Sonax is a German brand imported into the US.
It’s quite popular across the pond but hasn’t seemed to get much traction outside of the enthusiast circles (probably because of the price).
As for this particular cleaner from Sonax, I like the foam dispersion. It makes it really easy to work the cleaner into the grains of leather with a brush.
Meguiars D181 (Spray)
- Citrus scent
- Colorless so it wont affect leather color
- Great value for professional detailers
- Cleans most dirt and soil stains from leather
- Only sold by the gallon
I have to mention the good ol’ Meguiar’s Detailer series. Meguiars D181 is a pure leather cleaner meant for detailers and moonlighting enthusiasts. It has a very light citrus scent so it won’t bother customers with sensitive noses. It is colorless so there is no risk to affecting the color of customers’ leather. And it comes in a large 1 gallon jug for a great price.
There isn’t much to say other than it just works. It just might be a bit much for the casual car owner to commit to.