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How to Safely Clean Leather: Furniture, Shoes, and Handbags

Preserve your leather goods for years to come.


Few materials combine luxury and durability like leather. Whether a leather sofa, vintage bag, or favorite pair of shoes, the look and feel of the fabric is timeless. This high-quality material’s only downside is the upkeep it requires. If you’re considering investing in some leather pieces (or you just spilled a drink all over your new leather couch), there are best practices for keeping your leather looking new and damage-free. Keep reading for everything you need to know about safely cleaning leather. 

How To Safely Clean Leather

There are plenty of ways to safely clean leather couches, shoes, clothing, and beyond. These are some of the most effective.

1. Assess

Before you get scrubbing, you’ll need to assess both the stain and/or damage and the type of leather you have. It’s important to ensure that the cleaning materials you use won’t cause further damage to the type of leather you’re cleaning. Finished leather, for example, is very different from suede and untreated leather. Once done, gather your cleaning supplies based on the severity of the stain. You should have all of the below on hand: 

  • Water
  • A soft cloth 
  • Saddle soap or a similar leather cleaning solution
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Leather cream
  • A cotton swab or dry cloth

2. Deep Cleaning With Mild Soap and Water

For relatively mild stains, start with simple soap and water. In this case, soap does not mean dish soap — rather, you’ll need saddle soap, a type of cleanser developed specifically for cleaning leather. Simply dip a soft cloth in equal parts warm water and saddle soap, and apply circular motions to gently wipe away the stain. If you’re dealing with an ink stain (say, a pen exploded on your favorite Coach bag), rubbing alcohol could do the trick. Dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol so that it’s damp but not dripping. Next, carefully apply the swab to the stain, ensuring you aren’t rubbing too aggressively and spreading the stain or pushing it deeper into the material. Rubbing alcohol is also useful for removing mildew from leather products. Simply mix one part alcohol with one part water and wipe it across the affected area.

3. Dry and Moisturize

After you’ve scrubbed out the surface stain, allow your leather item to dry completely. This will prevent mold and mildew from developing. Once dry, apply leather conditioner to restore moisture to the material. It might sound odd, but when leather gets dry, it can crack, instantly ruining the supple quality that first attracted you to it. Hydrating your leather is crucial to ensuring its longevity and keeping it looking good for years to come. To moisturize your leather, use a microfiber cloth or sponge to gently massage a quarter-sized dollop of leather conditioner into the material. 

4. Getting Tough Stains Out

Sometimes, all the saddle soap and rubbing alcohol in the world isn’t enough to get the tough stains out. In cases of makeup splatters, grease stains, or ink explosions that just won’t come out, consider taking your leather item to a professional dry cleaner. Of course, this won’t be possible for items like large leather furniture and leather home decor. Typically, these require you to wait for the stain to fade on its own. Leather is remarkably absorbent, and many stains will fade and become less noticeable over time, although this may take weeks or months. 

What if I don’t have saddle soap?

In a pinch, you can DIY a home leather cleaner (although I would not recommend doing this unless you have no other options). There are two methods you can try to make home leather cleaner: 

  • Vinegar and oil: Mix a fourth cup of vinegar with half a cup of olive oil in a spray bottle. Spray directly onto the stain, let sit five minutes, then wipe away. 
  • Toothpaste: Using a soft, clean cloth, dampen the stained area with warm water. Blot a dab of toothpaste on the stain, and then, using a dry toothbrush, lightly scrub it away. Be sure to wipe the area clean and dry when finished. This method is especially useful for getting rid of scuff marks. 

Although using a home remedy can be quick and convenient in a pinch, try not to use products that may adversely affect the leather. You should especially avoid cleaning products with ammonia. 

Getting Road Salt Out of Leather Shoes: Cleaning Methods To Try

Depending on where you live, road salt may pose a perennial threat to your favorite leather shoes. Fortunately, there’s a solution. Mix one part water with one part vinegar. Apply mixture to a clean cloth, and dab it over the salt-stained areas. Don’t be afraid to repeat this process a few times. It might take a little time, but eventually, your leather shoes will look brand new. 

You can help prevent road salt from staining your shoes in the first place by gently wiping them off every time you get home during the winter months. Just take a damp cloth and wipe them all over to clear off the salt stains. This practice helps to prevent road salt from seeping into the leather and causing permanent damage. 

Leather Care and Maintenance

One of my most prized possessions is a hand-me-down leather bag from my grandmother. This bag is several decades old, yet it’s still in great condition, thanks to consistent maintenance by both me and my grandmother. But just like cleaning leather, maintaining your leather furniture, shoes, and handbags requires safe and proper care. 

The easiest thing you can do to clean and maintain your leather items is to wipe them down regularly. Dampen a microfiber cloth or soft brush and simply wipe away dust, dirt, and grime as frequently as once a week to keep the leather looking like new. For some leather items, such as leather shoes, you may also want to consider using a waterproofing spray or wax specifically designed to improve the durability and lifespan of leather. (I used a waterproofing spray on my favorite leather jacket soon after I got it, and it has preserved the quality of the jacket despite wearing it in some pretty awful weather.) 

Finally, it’s important to store your leather items properly. Doing so will minimize the accumulation of dust and grime that can wreak havoc on leather over time. Try to keep your leather goods away from direct sunlight and in a dry place. In the case of shoes and bags, stuff them with newspaper or clean towels to help maintain your shape. Hang leather jackets with high-quality hangers. 

Don’t be afraid to add leather to your life.

From leather sofas to leather leggings, this high-quality material elevates any look. Durable, and stylish, it makes for great clothes, home decor, and more. And once you know how to properly clean and maintain your leather pieces, be prepared to hang onto them for years. In terms of beauty and quality, materials just don’t get much better than leather.

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