How to clean leather – 6 easy steps

saddleback leather purse

Be sure to check out our entire series on taking care of your leather:

  1. Part 1: How to clean leather (current article)
  2. Part 2: How to condition leather with leather milk (coming soon)
  3. Part 3: How to protect leather from water (coming soon)

Anything made from good quality leather is an investment. If taken care of correctly, it can be an heirloom item that is passed on to your children and even grandchildren.

An old leather bag has a certain amount of beauty to it–the folds and colors tell a story of the adventures, both mundane and possibly exciting, that it went on.

Saddleback Leather tobacco brown purse

We wanted to give you a clear guide on how to best take care of your leather.

Breaking it down into three parts (clean, condition, protect from water) we’ll tackle the basics of leather care and how you can properly take care of the bags, purses, wallets, portfolios, and notebook covers that you own.

Let’s get started.

Step 1: Find out what kind of leather you have

tobacco brown saddleback leather purse
The beauty of full aniline leather allows for the natural color differences, scars, and brands, of the hide to come through, allowing the leather to breathe, flex, and just get better with age.

It is important to find out what kind of leather you are looking to clean, as the type will determine the cleaner and method you need to use.

From vegetable-tanned, chrome-tanned, napped, suede, vinyl, aniline-dyed, unfinished, or even leather you think is leather but it really isn’t … leather comes in many finishes and textures.

How to do this? 

  • Visit the product detail page of the leather you purchased. It should (hopefully) talk about the weight of the leather, the finish, and how it’s tanned
  • Call up the company you purchased from to get additional details on the leather type
  • Take an assessment of your leather
    • Can you see the natural color and characteristics of the leather? It’s probably a full aniline, which means it has been aniline-dyed and doesn’t have a top-pigmented finish coating applied to its surface. It is usually soft, cool to the touch, and flexible. The leather is porous and cleaning should be handled with care 
    • Is the leather full-grain but seems to have a coating on it? If it doesn’t change color when you lightly scratch it with your finger, it’s likely semi-aniline
    • If your leather has become softer over time, or if your leather is a pair of boots or leather clothes, and if the “look” of the leather is fairly consistent, you probably have corrected grain leather
    • If your leather could be described as having a “man-made” look, is on a handbag or belt, and is probably coated leather, which is a very economical way to manufacture leather goods. It can still be called “genuine leather” as long as the chemicals do not exceed 1/3 of the product 
    • If you have a very soft or suede finish that is very consistent in color, it is probably split leather, which is made from the lower layer of the hide

Step 2: Decide what type of cleaner you want to use

tobacco brown saddleback leather purse
Pen ink is just one of those stains that won’t come out with any leather cleaner, so embrace it as evidence of adventure.

Once you confirm the type of leather you have, next is deciding the type of cleaner you should use. There are three different types of leather cleaners on the market:

  1. Water-based: If the dirt or grime you need to clean is on the surface, a water-based cleaner/conditioner will usually work. Surface-level dirt can be cleaned off while the conditioner gets your leather back into shape. Water-based cleaners/conditioners will typically not darken your leather once the conditioner is absorbed by the leather
  2. Alcohol-based: If you have a stain that is set into the leather fiber or a more thorough cleaning, an alcohol-based cleaner, like Straight Cleaner No.2, is a good choice. Some folks like to use rubbing alcohol, but we always recommend a cleaner specifically for leather. Unlike a water-based cleaner, it will get into the pores of your leather, lifting a lot of dirt and stains that are more set. Because it’s made from natural ingredients, it will not harm your leather but can’t necessarily compete with the strength of chemical-based leather cleaners. It’s important to test an alcohol-based cleaner in an inconspicuous spot, as it’s not good for suede or other soft leathers. Unfinished or heavily dyed leather may be more harshly affected by alcohol than finished leather
  3. Chemical-based: These cleaners, such as solvents, saddle soaps, or synthetic chemical cleaners, can go after really set-in stains. The catch is that they tend to be much harsher on leather than an alcohol-based cleaner. It’s even more important to test a chemical-based cleaner on an inconspicuous spot and using a leather conditioner is required, as it will dry out your leather. Suede, nubuck, soft leather, or light-colored leather typically are not good candidates for chemical-based cleaners. Keep in mind, some of these cleaners will leave behind a visible soap residue, which you will want to avoid

Step 3: Get your stuff together

Gather what you need to get started:

  1. 30 minutes of uninterrupted time, you want to be able to clean your leather in one sitting, to make sure you know what you’ve done and so you can apply a consistent application of cleaner
  2. Soft cloth, such as the reusable terry cloth pad that comes with any Chamberlain’s Leather Milk products or you can use any other dry cloth designated for your cleaning
  3. Cleaner of your choice, such as Chamberlain’s Leather Milk Straight Cleaner No.2
  4. A flat table that you don’t mind getting any extra cleaning liquid on, just in case you drip it

Step 4: Start the cleaning process

cleaning a saddleback leather purse
Before cleaning, test in an inconspicuous spot. Then, start cleaning at the bottom or less-obvious place so you can get the hang of how to work with your leather cleaner.

For this tutorial, we’re using  Chamberlain’s Leather Milk Straight Cleaner No.2, which is an all-natural alcohol-based cleaner. This Saddleback Leather Women’s Leather Tote Bag has been carried for about three years, with no maintenance. (It definitely needs some cleaning and moisturizing!)

As you can see, there is some beautiful patina that has been developed. It started out as a medium tone to a fairly light “Tobacco” color and the natural oils and wear have created a beautiful color. We want to keep some of the patina but clean some of the actual dirt and grime off.

Make sure the leather is completely dry as we begin, apply the cleaner in thin layers, using as much cleaner as the leather naturally absorbs. If you use too much of any leather cleaner, you may find the dye rubbing off or causing significant dehydration of the leather.

Tip: Start at the bottom until you get the hang of it, so it’s not in a hugely obvious spot if you find yourself changing how you work with the cleaner.

Massage the leather in a circular motion until the surface has been fully treated, making sure to not saturate the leather. A little goes a long way. It’s easier to go back and do another thin layer then to realize you used way too much!

Step 5: Let your leather dry

saddleback leather purse after cleaning and drying
Cleaned leather after it has dried.

With an alcohol-based cleaner, the drying process should be fairly quick but will depend on the humidity of where you live.

Wait until the color of the leather returns to normal and assess if you need to repeat the cleaning process.

Step 6: Sit back and enjoy your work

before and after photos of cleaned leather purse

We could go back and give this another cleaning, but we want to keep some of the character of the patina. Using a natural cleaner allowed us to get the dirt and grime out without damaging the leather, and the result was pretty amazing.

Remember with any leather cleaner, you will need to moisturize the leather after cleaning it. We’ll cover how to do this in Part 2 of our series.

Tips on cleaning your leather

  • Straight Cleaner is for those times you want to give your leather a more thorough cleaning or when you need to lift a stain that has set into the leather fiber
  • You don’t need to use Straight Cleaner every time you condition your leather item. Most of the time a surface cleaning is all you need, which you can do with a Leather Care Liniment
  • Don’t use alcohol or chemical-based cleaner more than 2 times a year, or you could cause damage to your leather 
  • Always start with an alcohol-based cleaner first, then move on to a chemical-based cleaner. This way you give your leather the best chance at removing dirt and stains without the use of harsh chemicals 
  • Clean early, at the first signs of dirt. Just like your laundry, leather stains can set in the longer they are on your leather
  • If you get pen ink on your leather, embrace it as a mark of use. Once dried, the ink becomes almost impossible to get out

In Part 2 of our series on taking care of your leather, we’ll tackle how to condition your leather.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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