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How To Clean Leather

Read this comprehensive guide on how to properly clean and care for your leather furniture to have it looking great for years to come.

Brown leather couch with pillows iStock

Whether in the form of a chair, recliner, or a sectional sofa, leather furniture is a durable yet luxurious addition to any home. It isn’t, however, maintenance-free. Thanks to body oils, dirt, dust, and environmental factors, leather is susceptible to irreversible stains and damage if it’s not taken care of properly. It’s imperative to clean your leather pieces regularly to mitigate any long-term damage to your investment.

Follow this guide on how to clean leather couches and more so that you can ensure they’ll last a lifetime.

Grades of Leather

Different grades of leather will affect your cleaning choices.

  • Aniline leather is the best quality leather you can buy. It’s the softest, the most natural, and ages beautifully, but it is also the most expensive. And unlike less expensive leathers, it doesn’t come with a protective coating, making it more vulnerable to spills, stains, sun damage, and harsh cleaners.
  • Semi-Aniline leather has a thin protective coating on the surface to help protect it from spills and stains, making it easier to clean.
  • Pigmented Leather: This type of leather is the least expensive. Typically lacking the natural imperfections of genuine leather, it isn’t as soft and has a heavier topcoat applied to the surface, making it the least susceptible to stains and able to withstand more stringent cleaning agents.

How to Care for Leather Furniture: General Rules and Caveats

Genuine leather, unlike upholstery, looks better with age, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need a little care and maintenance to keep it looking its best. Keep the following tips and guidelines in mind when cleaning your leather furniture.

  • Keep leather furniture out of direct sunlight.
  • To minimize stains or discoloration, wipe up spills as soon as they occur.
  • Use a microfiber cloth or soft cloth to dust and wipe down furniture weekly. You can also use a vacuum but only use the dust brush attachment to avoid scratching the surface.
  • Before cleaning any area of your leather, always test an inconspicuous spot to make sure your cleaning solution doesn’t do more harm than good.
  • When executing a deeper clean, always use a damp cloth with a mild soap solution to clean the surface. Follow up with another damp cloth to wipe away any residue left behind by the soap and then buff dry. Avoid using too much water as it can cause water stains, marring the material.
  • Use a manufacturer-approved leather protector and conditioner every 6 to 12 months to maintain your leather pieces.
  • If the damage is extensive or bigger than you can tackle, and the piece is worth it, call in the professionals to clean, repair, or restore your furniture.

How to Clean a Leather Couch

If you’ve wiped down the dust and removed debris from your leather sofa but you see your piece requires a deeper clean, use a tannery-approved soap like Chamberlain’s Leather Milk. If you are in a pinch, you can also mix up a 1:1 homemade solution of vinegar and water, or a mild, non-alkaline soap with water. Alkaline-based soaps will, over time, deteriorate the fibers in the leather.

Spot Test

Whichever cleaning solution you choose, test an inconspicuous spot first. When you are ready, make sure the cloth is damp, not soaking wet, and gently rub the surface, beginning at the top of the furniture piece and working your way down to the bottom. Follow up with a dry cloth to absorb any damp areas to prevent water stains. Let the piece air dry before resuming use. Never use a hairdryer or a heat gun to dry the leather.

Common Problems

Because leather furniture is so soft and comfortable, it will inevitably draw everyone in the house to sit and relax—including pets. And while it’s durable (some say it’s three times more durable than regular upholstery), here are some common problems that may arise with use, along with their custom solutions.

Scratches: Whether from the nails of pets or the edge of a zipper, the material can easily scratch. Apply a mild oil found in your pantry, like flaxseed or coconut oil, or if you already have a specialty manufacturer-approved oil, to a cotton ball. In a circular motion, rub the scratch with the cotton ball until it disappears. Note: It’s always easier to add more oil than take away—you don’t want to risk causing an oil stain while trying to fix your scratch. Gently wipe the area with a dry cloth and allow to air dry.

Cracks: Much like our own skin when it becomes dry and cracks, leather that cracks indicates that it is dried out and needs to be moisturized and conditioned. The best way to tackle a crack in the leather is to clean it first (using the same methods outlined above) and then, following the instructions on a leather filler kit, fill in the crack and smooth. Finish off by applying a specialty conditioner to the entire piece to prevent future damage.

Tears and Cuts: To repair a cut or tear on a genuine piece of leather, purchase a leather repair kit and follow these detailed instructions on how to prepare the site, seamlessly bond a new piece of material to the cut, smooth, and fill the area so that the damage is unnoticeable.

Discoloration: Fading is typically caused by overexposure to sunlight, a strong heat source, or chemicals that were used that were too harsh. To restore the original color of a faded piece, clean it, and then follow up with a color-restoration kit or a leather dye kit. Areas that appear darker than they should are caused by body oils that have accumulated over time, such as headrests and armrests. See below for how to treat grease stains.

Grease Stains: In addition to our natural body oils, lotions applied to our body like sunscreen contributes to grease stains found on leather sofas and chairs. Not to mention, spills from food can also wreak havoc on leather surfaces. To remove grease stains, sprinkle baking soda onto the stain and leave it for a couple of hours to overnight for the powder to absorb the grease. Wipe it away with a dry cloth. Use the normal cleaning process outlined above using a damp cloth, mild cleaning solution, and buff dry.

Red Wine: Blot immediately, soaking up any excess wine that hasn’t penetrated the leather surface. Mix up a mild soap and warm water solution, making it into a lather with a bunch of soap bubbles. Once the solution is foamy, apply just the suds to the stained area with a sponge. Let it sit for a few minutes, then wipe and dry. Repeat until the stain is no longer noticeable.

Ink Stains: Apply nail polish remover or rubbing alcohol to a cotton swab or cotton ball and then gently dab the stain. Repeat the process with a clean swab or cotton ball until the ink disappears. Dry the area with a soft, dry cloth.