Proper Leather Care
By Michael Mankarious
© Detailers Finest
It used to be that leather interiors were an option only in luxury cars. Today, you can order leather for just about any car at any price point. This is a good thing because leather looks and feels great. It's easy to clean and when properly maintained, it can last for many years. With some simple care and a little time, leather can have that new look for many years.
Choosing the Right Product
Deciding the right leather cleaning product without any knowledge about proper leather care or an informed recommendation can make anyone's head spin. Reading the claims on a product certainly doesn't help since most sound the same. So, in order to come to a decision, a buyer will do what most people do: decide based on price and maybe even the fragrance. Of course we know this isn't the way to go but how do you choose
There is a certain romance with treating leather in much the same way as there is with waxing a car. Sound ridiculous? When's the last time you heard anyone talk about how much they like cleaning their car's engine? Well perhaps you do but for many people it doesn't bring the same satisfaction as a gleaming paint finish. There's just something about cleaning and conditioning the leather surface with a leather soap and an earthy smelling conditioning lotion that brings immediate satisfaction. Some go as far as massaging it into the leather with their bare hands.
Now imagine the response when you tell that person that there's no need for the soap and rubbing the conditioner into the leather - that those days are long gone. The same reaction from you too possibly?
Proper surface care is about knowing the properties of the surface you want to treat and what product contains the correct formulation of ingredients best suited for that surface.
Choosing the correct product for a surface makes every job easier. But not everyone is an expert and requires the guidance of professionals and car care product manufacturers to steer us in the right direction. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen to be the case. Here's hoping we can offer some direction in making a more informed decision.
Types of Leather
Not too long ago, to keep your leather looking its best, on a regular basis the leather had to be cleaned with leather soap and then conditioned with a conditioning oil or leather hide food. If the leather didn't receive this treatment, time and normal wear and tear would take its toll causing the leather to dry and crack leading to costly repairs.
Fortunately, as leather has become available to a wider cross section of customers, the ease of maintenance has significantly increased. And while today's leather doesn't require the same amount of care and attention as it did years ago, it still does require proper care to maintain its look and feel. How it's cared for depends a lot on the type of leather you're treating. Let's take a look at the different types.
This type of leather utilizes the finest quality leather available, sourced from the best part of the hide. It has a rich and very soft texture, has practically no surface defects (scars), and is even in color. So rare in fact that most exotic vehicles do not have aniline leather. The leather is aniline dyed in a vat process and has no polyurethane clear coating applied to the surface, which is why it's referred to as unfinished leather.
These features make it the most expensive leather, which is why it is primarily reserved for custom applications. This type of leather is very rare because of its high maintenance requirements.
Since the leather does not have any coating it maintains a temperate temperature throughout the summer and winter - not hot to the touch in summer and cold in the winter. Its texture is easily identifiable with its natural, soft feel that doesn't feel like you're rubbing your hands on a synthetic surface. Feel your skin and feel a typical ladies hand bag or leather jacket and this will give you an idea in difference between unfinished leather (your skin) and finished leather (hand bag and jacket).
Aniline requires constant and regular maintenance including washing with leather soap and conditioning with leather hide food. Failure to maintain will result in drying and cracking of the hide which can result in a short life span and costly repairs.
How to tell
It absorbs liquids easily. To test if you have full aniline leather, place a drop of water on the surface of the leather it should absorb into the hide and darken the surface.
Semi-aniline leather is dyed and has a coating applied to the surface of the leather. The dyeing process, followed by the thin coating, allows for soft and supple feeling leather while offering the protective benefits of a surface finish. Semi-aniline, or finished leather, is the second most common leather installed in cars today including the luxury segment because of its low maintenance requirements and long-lasting finish.
Semi-aniline doesn't stain, dry or crack like aniline leather if left untreated. For these reasons, it's easier to clean and maintain and has a longer life. It's also less costly to maintain if treated as prescribed. However, if left untreated, the finish coating can become hazy and brittle so it does require occasional maintenance to maintain pristine condition.
Semi-aniline leather can become hot to the touch in the summer and cold in the winter. It also lacks the soft, natural feel of aniline (unfinished) leather.
How to tell
Unlike aniline leather, the surface finish does not allow liquids to easily absorb into the surface. To determine if you have semi-aniline leather, place a drop of water on the surface of the leather it should remain on the surface.
Pigmented leather is the most common leather application found in today's cars segment because of its minimal maintenance requirements and long-lasting durability. The leather will have surface defects such as scars but a thick coating of colored pigmentation covers this. The coating may be embossed with a grain pattern for visual effect.
While it may not contain the highest grade of leather, it's very cost effective allowing for more car owners to enjoy. It's used in cars of all price ranges, especially utility vehicles and convertibles that require more durability against the elements. Pigmented leather won't absorb liquids because of the protective properties of the finish making for easier clean-up. Maintenance is minimal compared to aniline leather treatment but like semi-aniline it does require occasional maintenance to maintain its pristine condition otherwise it can become hazy and brittle.
Like semi-aniline leather, pigmented leather can become hot to the touch in the summer and cold in the winter. It also lacks the soft, natural feel of aniline (unfinished) leather.
How to tell
Water placed on the surface will not absorb into the surface.
Suede is the underside of hide which gives it a nappy finish. Since it's not the top of the hide like leather, it's not as durable and absorbs dirt and liquids easily. Failure to properly maintain suede can result in a short life span.
While suede is not used in automotive applications, a synthetic imitation known as Alcantara® is commonly found in sport luxury vehicles on the steering wheel, armrests and seat inserts both for visual purposes and grip (on the seats and steering wheel). Suede is unfinished like full aniline leather and is highly absorbent. Because Alcantara® is synthetic; it does not require the same maintenance as suede. Please refer to the Alcantara website for more information on proper care.
Treating the Leather
Aniline Leather Care
Only in rare cases will you find full aniline, or unfinished leather, which is characterized by its extremely soft and rich texture. Because aniline leather does not have a clear coat finish on the surface, it's exposed to the elements and you can feel the natural grain of the leather.
Although aniline is the least commonly used type of leather in automotive leather applications, there are products available on the market formulated specifically to address aniline leather needs. You can find leather soaps, conditioners with neatsfoot oil and hide food in car dealerships and auto parts stores.
Since aniline leather has no coating, it can become dry and requires more attention and care. Car care product companies that make leather care products for aniline leather produce soaps that are pH balanced and gently remove grime, body oils and sweat salt from the leather without harming the hide. They make leather conditioners that contain natural oils that replenish lost leather oils due to heat, normal aging, and wear and tear. Treating aniline leather is the same as treating your own skin: wash it with soap and apply a lotion to keep it from drying.
Avoid using products formulated for finished leathers that contain ingredients that address the needs of the clear coat finish on pigmented and semi-aniline leather because they can harm the more delicate, non-coated leather hide.
Semi-Aniline and Pigmented Leather Care
Since the leather hide has a clear coat finish, when treating the leather, you are actually treating the clear coat and not the actual leather hide so you'll need to use a product that is formulated to treat the clear coat and not the hide itself as with 'unfinished' aniline leather.
Products specifically formulated to treat the finished coating contain special cleaners that remove oxidation, grime, body oils and sweat salt while conditioners maintain the flexibility of the finish so that the leather remains supple, not dry and brittle.
nextzett Leather Care and Kenotek Leather Cream is specifically formulated for treating both semi-aniline and pigmented leather. Both nextzett and Kenotek chemists worked with leather suppliers to produce products that effectively cleaned the surface, removed oxidation, and maintain the suppleness of the finish without it looking unnaturally glossy or greasy. In addition, nextzett Leather Care and Kenotek Leather Cream do not leave a powdery residue around the stitching, do not clog the pores of perforated leather, do not contain harsh chemicals that can strip the pigmented dye, and have a pleasant fragrance that allows the natural leather scent to dominate. In fact, Kenotek Leather Cream has the most realistic leather scent we've experienced. nextzett offers a fragrance that blends lavendar and sandalwood for a scent that compliments the natural scent of leather perfectly. But first and foremost, the overall objective is to maintain the appearance of the leather as it was the day it came out of the factory.
If you are a professional detailer looking for a product that will only clean the surface, we suggest nextzett Blitz All Purpose Cleaner (used in 1:20-1:30 dilution ratio). Blitz will clean the surface but not treat the finish so it is important to occasionally treat the finish with nextzett Leather Care or Kenotek Leather Cream.
While cleaning the finish with a soap-based product on a regular basis is ideal for cleaning the surface of dirt, grime and sweat, it doesn't condition the clear coat surface. Constant cleaning of the surface without conditioning could lead to eventual clear coat failure characterized by drying and cracking. Imagine only washing your cars paint finish and never polishing it; over the years, the clear coat will eventually lose its luster, become brittle and crack. The same effect can occur on the leather finish. This is why the conditioners in nextzett Leather Care and Kenotek Leather Cream are important to use at least twice a year.
When You Choose the Wrong Product
Now that you know the importance of matching the right type of leather cleaner with the right type of leather, let's look at what happens when you don't get it right.
One of the most common complaints of customers is that their current leather care product leaves a greasy, slippery residue. While this is sometimes the result of too much petroleum oils and silicone formulated in some finished leather care products, most of the time the problem is a result of choosing to apply a product made for aniline leather on to semi-aniline and pigmented leather. Normally absorbed by the aniline leather, the conditioner simply stays on top of the clear coat finish resulting in a slippery and oily finish. The only surface the product has an effect on is your legs and pants. It's completely ineffective in treating semi-aniline or pigmented leather surfaces.
Also, keep in mind that many leather goods, both automotive and non-automotive related, are either semi-aniline or pigmented leather. This includes jackets, luggage, handbags, belts, shoes and wallets.
And never apply products formulated for finished leather on aniline leather. The cleaners used to treat the clear coat finish can harm the sensitive leather hide.
Remember, to find out if the leather has a finish (semi-aniline/pigmented) or not, simply place a drop of water on the surface. If it is absorbed and darkens the leather, it is aniline and does not have a finish. If it rolls off, it has a finish.
The key to maintaining the original look and feel of your car's leather interior is knowing which type of leather you have and using the leather care product made for that type of leather. When you have the right combination, maintenance is simple and you'll get to enjoy your leather for many years.