Leather care advice from our Chemists
A couple of years ago we sat down with some specialised industrial chemists who have worked in the leather manufacture and care industry for over 35+ years. They were a lot smarter than us (not that hard really) in understanding what the ideal product is for maintaining the leather surface in cars. When researching what was being used currently, we sadly found a variety of products that simply were not suitable for the current auto leather.
For the reason of dollars rather than sense, nearly all the array of products contained oils, silicones, paraffins, waxes, petroleum distillates, or a lethal concoction of these. All of which ARE NOT AT ALL SUITABLE FOR POLY URETHANE (PU) COATED LEATHER, as used in nearly every-car since the mid 1980's. If used on a regular basis they can damage the PU top coat of the leather. Most actually do the opposite of what they claim, by damaging the coating, and making it vulnerable to accelerated wear and even de-laminating. So it initially feels nice and soft on the outside, but it is being killed by the products permeating into the coating and disrupting the structure. So, let’s explain the dramas, you can face with these “leather care” products.
Oil’s not well in the car.
Before the 80’s most leathers used in cars were a nice top grain, reasonable quality product. They were not sealed with a protective coating and required a lot of work to look after them correctly. We have a few cars in our collection with this type of leather, but most notably a 1955 300SL Gullwing Benz and my personal favourite, the 1964 AC/Shelby competition Cobra. Both have the original trim from the factory and have a marvellous patina to them that only happens with leather that has aged well.
Nicole and our custom blend for real leather care, the Leather Love.
In these vehicles is a non sealed, ‘Aniline’ type dyed leather, which requires old world skills and products to look after them. You can tell if your car has this type of leather quite easily, put a drop of water on the surface of the seat, if it gets absorbed into the seat and leaves a mark, it is certainly an uncovered type (don’t worry, the drop mark will disappear and not damage the seat), if water beads on the surface, you’ve most likely got the pigmented PU coated leather. Another test is scratching it with your finger nail, if it changes colour to a darker or lighter shade it is not protected and would be an Aniline type. Some super expensive exotics and luxury transports still use this leather. But due to its hard to care for nature it has been slowly phased out of the cockpit. With nothing on the surface protecting them, the use of special cleansers, protectants, oils, balms and even some waxes can be used to clean and maintain them.
However, for the vast majority of vehicles, in this day and age of “better” designed leather, this is not the case. Neatsfoot, Lanolin, Mink Oil, Beeswax (or any natural wax), Tea Tree Oil, oil based conditioners, even the falsely named Banana Oil (we always have a laugh at this one, as it is impossible to get any oil derived from a banana, no matter how hard their marketing departments have their hand working away at it… It's real name is isoamyl acetate, nothing at all that comes from an actual banana, and not certianly not a suitable ingredient for leather care) - are all damaging to PU coated leather, regardless of what they say on the products label.
Why can’t I come in?
The reason why oils do not work is pretty simple chemistry; Pigmented PU coated leather is still after all its processes and protective coverings, hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb moisture. The cross-linked polymer coating is damaged by oils which cannot penetrate into the coated leather surface and bring the much needed moisture to the leather hide (even parking the car out in the sun to expand the surface “pores” with heat does not work). In fact they do the opposite to what you need, sealing the surface so no moisture can get in at all. This in effect is bringing on the opposite of what you’re after, leather dehydration. They also attract dust and grime, trapping it in the surface, helping further damage the top coat. To their benefit, they can leave the Leather looking nice and supple, but it is all skin deep. They cannot do the job required and in our experience, should not be used.
Slip sliding away.
Silicones are the basis for many car care items and the interior is not an exception. In fact the biggest seller of interior care uses it as the major ingredient in their interior care system, why you ask? Think $$$$...it’s bloody cheap.
Again, not ideal for leather in the same way oils aren’t, they seal the surface, drying the leather out and even worse, they make it slippery, something I personally don’t enjoy in any car. Silicone also helps attract dust, make it artificially shiny (losing that beautiful, natural leather sheen) and can help bring on cracks in polyurethane coated surfaces as it builds up with each coat applied….
A lot of the ones that use this in them say they are good for “all interior surfaces”. Be wary of ANY product that says it can be used on both leather and vinyl, as vinyl is a different covering material and needs an entirely different product formula to effectivley clean and protect it from the elements.
Most cheap leather care products tend to use silicones or our next beauty of an ingredients....
A good tip to remember, vaccum the loose dirt from your leather before cleaning.
Sadly, it is no fun for leather that has been affected by alcohol consumption. Alcohol and petroleum distillates/ solvents work away to erode the water based, leather PU protective surface, sometimes it can even mark permanently. It was designed for solvent based urethane topcoats used in some leathers before 1988. It accelerates leather age by removing the soft surface and may make it harder and brittle with prolonged use. Any stitching it comes in contact with can lose its colour as well. One huge American company uses this as an ingredient as it cleans and dries very quickly, however its cleaning power is not that smart when the leather loses its protective top coat and penetrates into the leather to cleave the strong dye bonds and allow colour migration, so you frighteningly get the colour of your leather into your cleaning cloths as the top coat is gone! As you can imagine, it’s all downhill from there…The only way to fix this is by a professional reapplying the dye and polyurethane surface back to it, or just replacing the leather, not a cheap exercise…
Wool over your eyes
Lanolin (sourced from sheep fleece) is mentioned above as another no go ingredient. We are faced with two drama’s using it; one, it again cannot penetrate the polyurethane top coat, stopping the moisture from getting to the hide, and two; the greasy, smelly film it leaves beds into the clothes of those unfortunate enough to sit in the seat after a treatment, which could be seen as a good kiwi attractant when walking through Bondi, but not really what most of us are after as a bi-product. Most greasy leather “conditioners” use Lanolin.
Saddle soap… Where to start with this beauty. When I got my SS Holden ute, I was interested to read the leather care page in the owner’s manual. Saddle soap was to be used, said Holden back then...Now after countless trims have been replaced or damaged it is no longer in their new car manuals, why is this? It shows how strong the myth is, that even a big manufacturer like Holden got dragged into believing in this product. I still see it recommended by many people who obviously have no idea on the evil it releases into their trim. It’s formulated for an entirely different type of leather, namely those used in equestrian activities. Saddles, bridles are nothing like your car’s leather for good reason; they are exposed to the elements and need more weatherproofing than any car (even convertibles) should see. It was used in the late 1800’s as a leather softening conditioner, but no longer, as better, more modern emulsions have been formulated that soften, penetrate and condition a lot easier
Saddle Soap has an alkaline pH (of about pH 9 to 10). It is important that any leather product is pH neutral, any level of alkalinity can damage the PU top coat, not to mention help shrink and crack it over time. It is supposed to be a good cleaner, but it’s effectiveness at even this is also on the block. Its alkaline detergents first need to dissolve its own fat and oils before it can even begin to work on the leathers dirt and body oils. Plus, they recommend when cleaning to really lather it up, which means any dirt suspended in the lather gets pushed back into the top coats pores, helping bury it in there for a lot longer than we want it.
Finally, while it works away damaging the leathers polyurethane surface, you get more great bonuses; Wax and solvents, to firstly seal the leather coating (it’s going to be getting a bit dry in there) and then degrade it away at the same time. Like Santa being the one who actually ate the milk and cookies, this product is urban folklore and in our opinion, should not be used anywhere near cars.
Leather care products should be applied via an applicator, for best effect.
Feed me, Feed me?
Leather is already a dead material and the processes it is tanned with ensure that the fibres in it cannot be “fed”, sorry. “Hide foods” are something again that can be used in the horse and saddle business or with the older Aniline type dyed leathers. Again, they cannot get past the top polyurethane coat and has no place in cars with this top coated leather.
Water me down?
Plain water is not an ideal cleaner; it has nothing in it to help clean and cannot remove oils, dirt, bacteria or grime from the leather surface. When using with a cloth, it can make the matter worse, making any dirt into a mud paste that can begin to block the leathers pores over time.
Keep it in the home
Household cleaners, often used for leather cleaning are another evil. Most have a very high alkaline content, all hell bent on hurting your leather surface. With prolonged use over time, you again destroy what you’re trying to look after. Keep them all in the home, where they belong.
What the hell can be used then?
Well, after long and drawn our discussions with our chemists we began looking into another avenue of care, two different products were needed, one for cleaning, maintaining and another to offer protection. It took two years and we almost sent those poor chemist’s into a brain induced meltdown, making this gear that addressed our biggest needs and concerns, as listed below;
•Safe, but effective cleaning properties, cannot ever damage the top coat, but be an effective cleaner with dirt, dust, salt, light stains and body oils.
•pH neutral, again to save the top coat and help maintain leathers neutral pH value, so it stay’s like new, longer. A bonus is it is won’t irritate or harm our own skin.
•Non toxic, it is touching our own skin, quite a lot, when applying and later sitting in the seats. Seriously don’t need anything bad for us in anyway.
•Biodegradable, we don’t like things that can damage the environment, especially our great countries land or ocean.
•Non greasy or slippery, so it does not attract dust, it can be used on steering wheels and we won’t slide in the seats.
•Something to neutralise harmful bacteria and microbes. These create mildew and mould which distress the top coat and hide fibres and damage the leather if not treated.
•UV protectants, to help slow up UV-B rays hurting the top coat and further minimising colour loss.
•Neutral sheen, we buy leather for the beautiful natural look it gives, any over the top shine just makes it look cheap and artificial. A nice, clean natural sheen is what we needed.
•Need to restore that nice, new leather smell. Not over-powering in a way that you or your passengers are entering or leaving with the smell of a leather tannery.
No white annoying white residue left in the perforated holes, just another requirement that is important for a leather care product.
•No solvents, alcohol, oils or silicones, for reasons all stated quite strongly above.
•Does not build up on the surface with extra applications, has to be a diminishing, sacrificial product. Any new coats can work to protect and care for the surface of the leather.
•Protectant, for abrasion resistance, for preventing wear and tear as you slide over the set bolsters, seams and stitching, also helping stop any liquids from affecting or staining the coated surface. But still allowing it to breathe and rehydrate, so it keeps feeing like new.
•Non hazing, we hated the haze interior products give on the inside of windows, so asked for something that would give minimal residue, so not to end up caking windows after every time we used it, should have seen their faces when asked for that one… Or ours when they did it a full year later!
•Re-hydration, the most important thing in being able to get needed moisture and nutrients into the hide, but getting it through the polyurethane top coat was the drama.. And we worked out how to do it.
A perfect solution.
A water based formulation; water molecules are smaller than the ones used in the polyurethane top coats, so it can permeate through in vapour form, deep into the leather hide. Something that is essential to restore the suppleness and maintain leathers natural flexibility. And being water based also allows the leather surface to breathe, alleviating all the drying properties oils and other sealing products can create.
What have we made?
Our two product system, Leather Love and Leather Guard are world class formulations to look after a problem we faced when using leather care products that are not suitable for automotive leather. Two years of work went into perfecting them with numerous tests and reformulations till we had what met our list above. This makes us confident enough to use and put our name on them. All made in Australia, for our climate and conditions, making them very unique and special.
Leather Love and Leather Guard, our solution to good leather care.
Why we always use protection
The Leather Love cleaning and conditioning formulation does not do much for stopping the daily wear and tear you get in day to day use. Let alone those “just seem to happen” stains you tend to get in day to day use, especially if you have kids or pets. You need a special protectant to help guard from these, this is why we made the Leather Guard. First off, it significantly helps reduce the wear on your seats bolsters, stitching and seams as you hop in and out from your car, which suffer the inevitable rubbing as you move across them. The Leather Guard puts down a mircoscopic barrier to help prevent this damage from occuring.
Some of the many other incidents it has also helped with over the years would be; Brand new Audi A8, driving around a corner and the cup holder was reluctant to hold onto the skinny can of Red bull. Into my lap it went, dispensing all over my jeans and into the wonderfully warm heated seats, not a good combination… Some quick work with the Leather Love cleaned and mopped them up, no damage. Had there been no Leather Guard protectant there, it could have been a tasteful nice yellow stain trapped in the seat, while always telling your passengers, “It was red bull I assure you”.
Blue jeans stains are another comman issue, the family E class Merc has a light cream interior, looked great on the brochure, but in real life they are a bit harder to look after than darker leather interiors. We had been using the Leather Love and Leather Guard on them and they still look like new. Twice now, wet jeans have made their way into the car, one time left to sit for over a week. But the Leather Love has been able to remove any stains nice and easy, thanks to the Leather Guards protective layer, allowing an easy wipe off of the stain, with no damage to the leather at all.
Scuff marks on a new Bentley GT was another one, from rubbing of an expensive leather belt onto the light leather interior, was easily removed with a quick go over of the Leather Love no issues.
That perfect finish we love, not shiny, not dull, looking like leather should.
How to use it
It’s all pretty simple, and thankfully easy to use.. Firstly, get rid of any grit or bigger particles by cleaning the seats down with a vacuum cleaner, (soft brush extractor on the end is best).
Make sure the car is in a cool area and the leather is not warm to touch, as heat tends to evaporate the product’s good stuff before it can get into the leather hide.
Spray the Leather Love into one of our special applicator pads. Made for leather application, long loops in weave give more effective cleaning in leathers undulating surface. (Don’t use leather “soft bristle” brushes as they tend to be a little aggressive on the leathers polyurethane coasted surface, brushes are better for Aniline dyed or non coated leather. Gently massage away into the leather, using a circular motion. Cover the entire surface and let the product do the work, you don’t need to rub hard or apply extreme pressure.
Pay extra attention to high wearing points, as well as areas that your skin or sweat can come into contact with; Seat backs, side bolsters and especially steering wheels. Let it sit for 5 minutes, allowing it to get in and permeate the leather hide. Then wipe off any remaining residue with our interior microfibre cloth. Real dirty seats may need two or even three applications to clean and remove all the dirt, oils and grime. Plus bring back the softer feel to the leather as well. (As shown in the images below)
The protectant Leather Guard gets applied exactly the same way. With it being water based, just rinse the applicator pad you have been using with the Leather Love and gently wring it out. It is now ready to be used again. Use it exactly the same as the Leather Love above. Its important to use the Leather Guard on the high wear areas of the seats, as this is its greatest attribute, to help stop it wearing away and degarading the PU coating each time you get in and out of the car.
Some before and after shots sent in by one of our many fans of this product. His seats were quite neglected, hard and filthy. Now after the treatment as given in this article, they are rejuvenated to like new again.
To read more on this process of bringing back leather from the dead, as well as looking after your cars leather in summer, read our article by clicking here.
How often you need to use it.
Leather Love should be used to clean and rehydrate/ condition at least 4 to 6 times a year, while the Leather Guard on every 2nd or 3rd application of the Leather Love. This is due to the wonders of modern chemistry, as the Leather Love does not want to remove the protective qualities of the Leather Guard. It is however a sacrificial product and the protectant slowly dissipates over time, so doing it at least a couple of times every year will maintain the protection the leather surface needs.
Using this system of the two products will give your leather the best possible chance to survive our harsh climate, as well as keeping it like new for many years to come. Leading to another good thing… Both products are good and compatible to use on the older Aniline dyed leather as well….
I honestly do hope this article has helped you to understand that little bit more about the special leather type in your car and how to care for it correctly. It was an interesting journey for us making all this leather range, but every time I sit in the old race Shelby Cobra, admiring the patina only aged leather can get, it has certainly proved too been a worthwhile exercise. Knowing that it will be in the same condition for years more enjoyment, even for the cars next custodian to love and enjoy. A correct leather care system for cars is what we set out to do all those years ago and we are proud to be able to offer it as another part of our car care range. I hope you can enjoy using it to care for your car, as much as we do in caring for our own.
Our leather care products can be found at all our supporting AutObarn and other independent retailers, as well as on our website here.
If you have any questions about automotive leather, leather care tips or techniques, please feel free to drop me an email firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call (07) 5445 6065
Love your car,