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Originally, leather was dyed, and no other coatings were applied. You had to condition this non-coated leather regularly to keep it from drying out and cracking. But 99% of today’s modern automotive leather is coated to protect it and prolong its’ life.
This resin coating is a lot like the clear coat on your paint, which isn’t a bad thing. It means taking care of your leather is a lot easier than it could be.
The application of this coating means the role of conditioners has changed over time and this topic has, therefore, become very confusing.
It also doesn’t help that the automotive industry itself has purposely kept consumers in the dark on this subject so that they can continue to push products that most people don’t need.
The “old-fashioned” products were designed to rehydrate uncoated leather with things like aloe oil, lanolin, cocoa butter or other “natural” conditioners. These types of conditioners simply don’t do much to help the coating on your leather outside of appearances, yet they are still marketed and sold that way.
Instead, consumers should be educated on keeping their leather clean and protecting it from heat and sun since that will do more to extend its’ life than traditional conditioners. I digress.
Do I really need a leather conditioner for my car seats then?
Given what I’ve said above you would think that I would be against conditioners. The truth is, some of them do have a purpose on modern car interiors.
After a good deep cleaning with a quality leather cleaner, leather can have a more matte appearance than some people prefer. The right leather conditioner can help restore that satin sheen to the coating.
Also, after cleaning leather, especially dark leather like blacks and charcoals, the leather can have an uneven or mottled appearance to it. Leather conditioners can help smooth out the leather to a uniform appearance again.
When it comes to the sun, leather conditioners can act as a mild sunscreen helping to protect the coating on the leather. Admittedly, this only comes into play when the windows or the top are down since modern automotive windows block the majority of UV in sunlight anyway.
There are also some people that like the texture of leather when it’s conditioned, which is more of a smooth feel versus the more soft and grabby feeling of straight up deep cleaned leather.
When detailing customer cars there are the things that I talk to the customer about before breaking out the conditioner. In the end, the customer gets what they prefer.
Finally, some leather conditioners like Leatherique really do work to restore the suppleness to coated leather upholstery. Some people will try to tell you that the coating on leather is impermeable but if that were the case things like Leatherique wouldn’t work yet I’ve seen it firsthand. I will admit, though, that the restoration process is a bit more involved than the typical leather conditioner advertisement of “wipe on, wipe off.”
Top 8 Best Leather Conditioners
What should I look for in a leather conditioner?
In general, what you would like your conditioner to do is:
- Soften and revive the leather coating suppleness
- Protect against future spills and other stains
- Provide UV resistance to protect against fading (this is not essential, but is helpful to prevent fading)
- Leave no oily residue
- Be silicone free (silicone-based products can be slippery or sticky and attract dirt)
Conditioners are often sold as sprays, lotions or balms and are easy to use. The choice is really preferential. The steps are typically:
- Apply to clean, cotton terry cloth or an applicator, or directly on the leather
- Wipe conditioner into the leather with the cloth or hands
- Allowed to soak in
- Wipe off excess and buff
The instructions vary a little depending on which product you use. So, read the label, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
I do have to caution you when using conditioner on perforated leather seats. If you apply the conditioner directly to the seat you could end up with discoloration around the holes from the conditioner soaking through to the bottom of the leather and the foam in the seat. I always apply the conditioner to a towel and wipe it onto the seat to prevent this. Using a balm instead of a liquid helps as well.
If you are one of the 1% that have uncoated leather in your car, please note conditioner products may darken the color, so a practice on a test spot in an out of view area ahead of time.
What to Do Before Using a Leather Conditioner On Your Interior?
Clean the leather!
It should go without saying, but a lot of people like to skip right to the conditioner and this is a mistake. To keep your leather in proper shape and appearance you must clean the leather well beforehand.
Start with vacuuming the leather and brushing out the stitching and embroider (if any). Then wipe the seat down with a warm, damp terry cloth. If the seats still show visible staining then use a proper leather cleaner to strip away all the dirt, oils, and previous conditioners so you have a clean slate to work with.
Leather Conditioners vs Cleaner & Conditioner 2-in-1 Products
Some products are sold as a cleaner and conditioner all in one. And for a quick touch-up, they will do a decent job. But a good rule of thumb is combo products trying to do everything will do an OK job on the multiple tasks, but not as good a job as a product dedicated to a specific function. That is especially true of cleaning.
I personally stick with separate cleaners and conditioners.
Leather Honey Leather Conditioner
- POWERFUL LEATHER CONDITIONER: Leather Honey penetrates deep...
- RESTORE ALL TYPES/COLORS OF LEATHER: Soften leather...
- FAMILY-OWNED, AMERICAN-MADE, SPECIALLY FORMULATED: For over...
- A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY: To apply, put a quarter-size drop...
- UNLIMITED 100% SATISFACTION GUARANTEE: Our small family...
- Leaves a light sheen after buffing that last a long time
- Quiets the leather when moving around on it
- Remains sticky for a while after applying and thus needs vigorous buffing to remove excess
This conditioner is thicker than most. I’d describe it as beyond a gel and more like a jelly (or Honey…). It doesn’t soak into the applicator like thinner conditioners do so a little goes a long way.
The downside is this conditioner remains tacky after applying so buffing the excess is a challenge. The upside to that is that this conditioner stays put longer than most and leaves a nice satin sheen.
This is a conditioner for people who like a long-lasting satin sheen.
TriNova Leather Conditioner and Restorer
- PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENT - Leather dries out and eventually...
- SAFE FOR ANY SURFACE - automotive, bags, shoes, furniture,...
- RESTORE WORN OUT LEATHER - Soften, strengthen, and...
- APPLICATOR INCLUDED - no need to scrounge for a clean rag or...
- USA MADE - proudly developed and manufactured in the USA
- Thick consistency so it’s easy to control the spread and doesn’t soak into the applicator.
- Leaves the surface with a soft and slick feel
- Leaves behind a glossy sheen
- Has a fragrance while using that some people don’t care for but it goes away after drying.
- Not the easiest to buff away the excess due to the oily consistency
Trinova Leather Conditioner is another conditioner that has a thicker consistency that makes it easy to spread in a controlled manner. Unlike Leather Honey, which is mostly made from animal biproducts and has a tacky feel, Trinova is synthetic with a somewhat oily feel during application. When buffed away it leaves a glossy surface that’s soft to the touch.
On the downside, buffing away the excess can take a while. On the upside it’s non-toxic (though the label doesn’t list ingredients).
Basically, this is a conditioner for people who like their leather to be glossy and slick.
Lexol Leather Conditioner
- Easy to spread
- Easy to buff off excess
- Smooths leather appearance without making it glossy
- Has a fragrance that some people might not care for
I have a soft spot for Lexol leather conditioner (pun not intended but perfectly fitting). It was the first conditioner I ever used as a teenager before I had half a clue what I was doing when it came to car care. My girlfriend, now wife, bought it for me along with their cleaner. For years it was the only conditioner I used so I got to know it quite well.
Lexol is on the thin side so it spreads easy. It does absorb into your into your applicator pretty readily so it’s easy to use more of it than you would the Leather Honey or Trinova.
Because it’s thin, Lexol leather conditioner is easy to buff away the excess. It leaves behind a nice matte moisturized looking finish. It’s not glossy or slick.
This is a great conditioner for people who don’t want to alter the look of their leather and just want it to look healthy after cleaning.
Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Conditioner
- Leather conditioner: combines aloe and moisturizing oils in...
- Uv protection: provides uv protection to help prevent aging...
- No residue: moisturizes and protects without leaving behind...
- Easy to find in store
- Low scent so it shouldn’t bother people with sensitive noses
- Leaves a slightly greasy feel that takes a while to go away
Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Conditioner is an affordable conditioner that’s easy to find in most stores. It’s goes on thin and is easy to wipe away leaving behind a low gloss sheen. If you spend some extra time buffing you can knock the gloss down to a more matte finish but it does take effort.
After applying it has a slightly oily feel to the leather that most wont care for but it goes away after drying for a day. Dries residue free.
This isn’t my first pick, or what I keep on hand, but it’s easy to find locally and does work to help smooth out the appearance of deep cleaned leather.
Chemical Guys Vintage Series Leather Conditioner
- Conditions and restores leather surfaces
- Great for seats, door panels and dashboards
- Formulated with Vitamin E
- Fresh leather scent
- Nice scent
- Non-greasy, soft feel
- Matte finish
- Pricier than other options
This is one of the few leather conditioners that has a scent that isn’t off putting when first applying. It’s easy to apply and remove and leaves a non-oily matte finish that’s soft to the touch. The only real drawbacks are that you’re not likely going to find it locally so you’re stuck ordering it online and it’s a little pricier than others.
Leatherique 16oz. Kit
- 16 oz. Bottle of Rejuvenator Oil
- 16 oz. Bottle of Prestine Clean
- A Cobra Microfiber Towel
- A Leather Hand Brush
- 2 Cobra Microfiber Applicator Pads
- One of the few products than actually can bring back the suppleness to dried out leather
Leatherique is a bit of a unique product. Rather than be a wipe on, wipe off product, you leave it sit to do it’s work preserving your leather’s coating.
You apply Leatherique Rejuvinator to your leather and leave it sit, preferably in a warm area, for several hours to soak into the coating. I’ve even gone so far as to put a trash bag over the seats after applying to allow the product longer time to soak.
If your leather isn’t too far gone (so dry it’s literally cracking and flaking) then Leatherique, with proper application, should bring back some of its’ former suppleness and help maintain it. I’ve seen this first hand on several cars interior with coated leather.
The downsides are that the application process is messy and the kit isn’t cheap (though it’s far cry from the expense of reupholstering your seats).
Combination Cleaner Conditioners
I know I said I prefer to keep my cleaners and conditioners separate but that’s me and not everyone is like me. For those of you that prefer to keep a 2-in-1 on hand for touchups and maintenance here are a few that I actually really do like.
Meguiar’s Ultimate Leather Balm
- ALL-IN-ONE LEATHER BALM: Gently and safely cleans,...
- CLEAN AND CONDITION: Gentle cleaners help remove dirt and...
- UV PROTECTION: UV sunscreen helps protect against harmful UV...
- PREMIUM FORMULA: Premium, natural ingredients pamper leather...
- EASY TO APPLY: Comes with soft foam applicator pad for...
- Paste-like consistency is very easy to spread and doesn’t soak through perforated leather
- Pleasant smell
- Darkens and adds nice sheen
- Doesn’t last very long
This is a great option for a 2-in-1. Like all of Meguiar’s Ultimate line of products this one is very user friendly. It will leave behind a glossy sheen for those that like that.
On the downside, that sheen doesn’t last as long as it with some of the conditioners I mentioned above, especially on seats that are sat in, so you’ll have to use it fairly often (every couple to few weeks). Also, the cleaning qualities of this leave a lot to be desired.
- Mothers VLR quickly and easily cleans, conditions and...
- This pro-strength, pH balanced formula safely cleans even...
- Infused with neat's-foot oil and lanolin, this all-in-one...
- Easy to find
- Doesn’t have a pleasant smell
If you’re looking for something easy to find and affordable that cleans ok, and leaves a matte, hydrated looking finish, then Mother’s VLR is a solid option. The big downside is it doesn’t smell very good.
For the best results, use a separate cleaner and conditioner. It takes a little longer, but you will get better results.
Use leather conditioners when you’re trying to smooth out the appearance of newly cleaned leather or are looking for a more hydrated, satin, or glossy finish (depends on the conditioner as to what you’ll end up with). I personally prefer Trinova Leather Conditioner.
For those touch-ups or quick cleans, a combination cleaner may do the job for you but set your expectations accordingly.
If you really want your leather to last a long time keep it clean and purchase a quality heat-rejecting window tint. Extreme temperatures are the enemy of leather.