If you ask for help regarding leather cleaning and care in any car care forum or Facebook group, you’ll get three different types of answers:
- There will be people who tell you that you can use pretty much any type of (interior) cleaner or APC in conjunction with any type of tool – be it a brush or a magic sponge – because it’s all about the results, meaning they just want their leather to be clean, no matter what it takes to get there.
- You’ll then hear from people who play it safe and advise you use dedicated leather cleaning and care products from any brand and you’ll be safe.
- And finally, you’ll face “extremists” who will give you the impression that you’ll pretty much destroy your leather as soon as you touch it with anything less than an unicorn’s tears and a towel made of fairy dust.
And the truth is: they are all right because you can look at leather as pedantic and scientific as some (including myself) look at paint and how to take care of it, but you can also just treat it like something that has to be clean - by any means necessary.
What's important to know in this respect is that leather in cars, today, doesn’t have too much in common with an animal's skin anymore. In fact, leather consists of several layers of different stuff and the actual leather (animal skin) is rather thin. On top of it, there are - much like with paint - a primer layer, a colour layer, and the so-called "top coat". And when it comes to leather cleaning, the top coat is the important part as this is the one that actually can be severely damaged by improper cleaning techniques. However, as much as with paint, not all leather is equal so you‘ll still find leather which really is animal skin, mainly in classic cars.
The above mentioned top coat is a rather sensitive layer. It is much, much softer than e.g. the clear coat of your car's paint. Yes, leather in general and total is a rather durable material that can take some beating, but the top coat is, as said, rather sensitive. And this is exactly why some people recommend cleaning leather as gentle as possible. Because we all understand that using a stiff brush to clean our car’s paint is stupid as it will scratch and mess up the paint. So if you now know that the top coat of your car’s leather is much, much softer than clear coat, why the hell would you use aggressive tools and techniques to clean it?
So, how are you supposed to clean leather as gentle as possible? Here are some tips for you:
- Use dedicated leather cleaners which are as close to pH neutral as possible: Before we start, it’s important to note that there’s no such thing as a bottle of “pH 14” that you can buy and make products more or less alkaline. The pH value of products is and will always be a by-product of its ingredients. Yes, there’s a link between what those ingredients do and what pH value they normally create, but products with a very high or low pH value don’t necessarily have to be unsafe for paint or leather and pH neutral products don’t necessarily have to be safe. So keep that in mind. However, when it comes to leather, and in general, products with a high pH value (read: which are alkaline) contain ingredients which can cause a chemical reaction with the leather’s top coat which can permanently and irreversibly damage it. That is why you will generally be safer the more pH neutral the cleaner is you use. This doesn‘t mean that (slightly) alkaline but dedicated leather cleaners are unsafe to use as the pH value is just one variable in a product‘s ability to be safe to certain surfaces. But you will definitely be better off and safer using a dedicated leather cleaner than you are when you use strong and aggressive APCs (all purpose cleaners), i.e. if they are solvent-based.
- Use cotton towels instead of microfibres: Yes, microfibre is gentle and soft and that’s the reason why we use it on our cars. However, microfibre towels and tools are also comparably aggressive and abrasive when you use them to “scrub” something. As I explained above, the leather’ top coat is much, much softer than clear coat. So whereas microfibre doesn’t really damage your car’s paint’s clear coat (as long as you use it properly and without a lot of pressure), it can actually damage leather’s top coat. Yes, not all microfibres are (made) equal so there will be ones which are „safer“ than others. But microfibre, at the end of the day, is an abrasive material. This is why, on leather, it is often recommended to use cotton towels instead of microfibre. And let me be clear about it: something like the currently very popular “scrubber dubber” in my opinion is far too aggressive to clean leather!
- Use sponges to gently spread and agitate your chosen leather cleaner instead of brushes: Again, not all brushes are equal and not all of them are equally bad, plus leather damage most likely occurs because you use a brush too aggressively. But, a soft non-abrasive foam applicator will generally be more gentle to leather than a brush.
Full disclosure: all of these tips mainly stem from a "campaign" by LMX (Ledermax) in 2019/2020, which is an Austrian expert in leather making and leather cleaning / care products, mainly in the German speaking car care scene. What I took away from that campaign it is that by being extremely aggressive to leather whilst cleaning it, you can actually damage it right away. Irreversibly so.
But, most of the times, when we talk about leather damage that stems from improper cleaning techniques, tools and chemicals, we talk about slowly occurring damages that build up over time. And this brings us back to what I said in the beginning that all of the tips you’ll usually get from others when you ask about leather cleaning being right.
Because if all you care about is making the leather you are working on looking clean, then you really can use anything. You can use a comparably stiff brush or something like a “scrubber dubber” as well as an APC and you will actually end up with clean leather. However, you will damage and/or remove more and more top coat to the point where there isn't any. If you e.g. clean red or brown leather and you end up with red or brown "stuff" in the towels or tools you use, then you already went through the top coat and removed it all-together. It’s the equivalent of polishing paint and having coloured residue in your polishing pads: clear coat is clear, base coat is coloured. So, if you see colour in your polishing pads on modern cars, then you’ve burnt through the clear coat. That’s irreversible!
This is why so many people claim that their (aggressive) cleaning techniques and products for leather work. Yes, they do, but they actually not only clean the leather, they also damage it. But this damage will only become visible over time and since so many people today only keep cars for a few years (because of leasing and financing), they never actually live to see the consequences of that damage.
By damage, I mean scratches and "cracks" within the surface structure of the leather's top coat. The issue with this top coat now is that, unlike your car's paint, you can't simply "remove" those damages (scratches) by polishing it. And you can't really see those damages with the bare eye. However, they are there and what they will do is let your leather get dirtier a lot quicker, because dirt and especially aggressive dirt can accumulate within those cracks and then work its way into the leather.
If you don't trust any of this information, if you don't care about any of this and just want to get your leather as clean as possible as fast as possible, then go ahead and clean your leather with (aggressive) cleaners and APCs, a brush, scrub the living hell out of it and get it clean again.
If you do actually care about the lifetime of your leather, then the most important thing is that you try to clean your leather as gently as possible. This means using the right chemicals, tools and methods and taking time, as it will take more time to get your leather cleaner with those methods compared to operating with aggressive methods.
So, if you are facing stubborn discolourations and/or dirt on your car's leather, I personally would recommend that you use a dedicated, but strong leather cleaner and apply and spread it, maybe several times, with a soft and non-abrasive foam applicator. Only if you absolutely don't get any results from this, I would use a soft leather cleaning brush - but only then – and lightly (!) scrub and use the cleaner with this brush but don’t use any pressure.
I personally would not and never use a (highly alkaline) APC and I would never use something like a magic sponge / magic eraser or scrubber dubber. I personally still use microfibre towels to remove cleaner residue, but I make sure that they are of high quality, soft ones and not the thin cheap Amazon basics ones. And once again, I use them without a lot of pressure.
When it comes to leather care or “protection”, it is once again important to understand that leather is not animal skin anymore. So, using something like skin cream or skin lotion, wax or fat does not make any sense. It will mostly just sit on the top coat and make it greasy, smeary, patchy and glossy. What also doesn’t make sense from everything I know is that “ceramic coatings” for leather also don’t make any sense as they either rob the leather of its breathability or they don’t really work in the same way as ceramic coatings on paint. So, once again, your safest bet is to go with dedicated leather care or leather protection products by reputable companies.
What I think is the most important aspect to take away from this article is that leather indeed is a special material that needs special care and therefore dedicated leather products do actually make a lot of sense.