Complete Guide to Cleaning and Caring for Car Leather


Cleaning and caring for the leather in your vehicle’s interior is vital if you want to keep it looking brand new. But it can be a little complicated and takes a bit of understanding of the different cleaning methods and products for maintaining and protecting the finish.

In this article, I’ll take you through a complete guide to caring for both new and old vehicle interior leather to make sure your car looks immaculate. So let’s get started.

I’ll first be talking about how to clean the leather, including deep cleaning and stain removal methods. Then the second half of the article is more about protecting and caring for the finish.

The Quick Answer

Caring for automotive leather starts with regular maintenance cleaning using a mild leather cleaner. Most leather in newer cars is coated so you can then seal the leather to protect the finish. Older or un-coated leather can be maintained using leather conditioners, followed by sealants to protect and preserve the finish.

The exact products and techniques you use to maintain your car’s leather will depend on what type of leather you’re dealing with.

Different Types of Car Leather

So one of the reasons why caring for leather interiors is a bit more complicated than caring for cloths and plastics is because there are actually many different kinds of leather to consider. So it’s important to understand these different types because they all need treating slightly differently.

There are three different types of leather commonly used for car seats and dashboards: aniline, semi-aniline and pigmented. Aniline leather is uncoated, and semi-aniline and pigmented leather types have a coating to make them more durable.

Aniline

This is often considered to be a very high quality type of leather and is very soft and looks rich because it has been coloured with dyes. It does not have a protective coating like the other two types of leather so it’s the least durable. It’s rarely used nowadays and is only really seen on vintage cars.

Semi-Aniline

Semi-aniline leather is coloured with dyes like traditional aniline leather, however it also has a protective coating making it more durable and resistant.

Pigmented

Pigmented leather is usually the most common type and the most durable. It has a layer of synthetic material above the leather that provides the colour and protects it.

The main difference between semi-aniline leather, it that with pigmented leather, the synthetic coating provides the colour. However with semi-aniline leather the colour is provided by the actual leather being dyed with aniline, and the coating is thin and colourless.

Nappa leather is a type of pigmented leather because it often has a slightly pigmented clear coating, however, feels natural to the touch.

Comparisons and Identifying the Types

Here’s a quick diagram to show the difference between the three types of automotive leather and how to identify it.

  • Common in older cars, very rare in newer vehicles
  • Absorbs water instantly
  • Common in high-end vehicles
  • Absorbs water slowly
  • Most common type of automotive leather
  • Does not absorb water

Usually, it’s pretty obvious if your car has aniline leather, however, it can be harder to distinguish between pigmented and semi-aniline leather types.

You can usually find the difference out by using the water droplet test described above, however, most manufacturers will also state the leather type of each car in their range.

Luckily, both types of leather are treated relatively similarly due to the top coat. Aniline is the odd one out when it comes to cleaning and protecting.

Cleaning Interior Leather

Cleaning interior leather seats and dashboards is super important if you want to maintain the look and feel.

Dirt not only can stain the leather permanently, but it can also act as an abrasive causing cracks and scuffs. Oils, sweat and spillages also cause the leather to look shiny instead of matte. This matte look needs to be maintained if you want that “new car look”.

The best way to keep the leather clean is by maintaining it regularly and clean it weekly. Then you can deep clean the leather every few months, or if it has been exposed to any spills or excess dirt to keep it super clean. Here’s how to do it.

You can check out this video below on the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel, or keep reading.

Maintenance Cleaning

Maintaining leather that’s already relatively clean is the best way to keep it that way and prevent fading, cracks and other forms of damage. Here is the best way to clean your automotive leather on a weekly basis.

  • Hoover the leather using a soft brush attachment and then a crevice tool to reach the corners and stitching.
  • Use a slightly damp microfiber cloth to wipe the seats down, or a very mild leather cleaner if necessary.
  • Wipe with a dry microfiber towel to remove any excess.

The main thing to remember, is not to soak the leather as this can cause more harm than good. It’s especially important if you’re dealing with aniline leather.

Quick Tip: spray the cleaning solution onto the cloth, not the leather to ensure you aren’t over-applying or causing issues with perforations.

If the leather requires a deeper clean, then check out this next section.

Deep Cleaning

It’s a good idea to periodically deep clean the leather to ensure any dirt, oil and sweat doesn’t build up over time. I recommend following these deep cleaning steps every 2-3 months, depending on how often you drive the car.

Of course, it may be necessary to pay more attention to the driver’s seat than the passengers which may not need cleaning as often.

  • Hoover the leather using a soft brush attachment and then a crevice tool to reach the corners and stitching.
  • Use a slightly damp microfiber cloth to wipe the seats down.
  • Use a leather cleaner and microfiber towel to deep clean the seats.
  • Use a gentle leather brush to clean the corners of the leather.

In terms of the best products to use, I tend to go for Colourlock’s range. I find that their mild leather cleaner is very effective and I don’t tend to need the stronger version.

It’s a foaming cleaner so doesn’t risk getting the seats too wet and is easily worked into the leather with either a brush or microfiber towel.

You can check out the Colourlock Leather Cleaner on Amazon.

Quick Note on All-Purpose Cleaners

Some all-purpose cleaners (APCs) are safe to use on leather, others aren’t. I recommend using a specifically designed leather cleaner to be on the safe side. But you can use an APC if it’s been formulated to work on leather as well, and you use it at a low concentration otherwise you can cause damage.

Cleaning Stains

Of course, spillages can happen from time to time and it’s important to try and clean them as quickly as possible to prevent the staining from becoming permanent.

A great product for tackling stains is Colourlock’s Strong Leather Cleaner. I use the mild version for regular maintenance cleaning, and even that is pretty potent, but for heavy stains the strong version is a great option.

You can also use an all-purpose-cleaner, but check that it’s safe to use on leather surfaces. Also try not to soak the leather too much as you can cause damage from over-saturation. Instead, choose a foaming cleaner like in the Colourlock range to prevent this issue.

You can check out the Colourlock Strong Leather Cleaner on Amazon.

Using a brush to work this into the stain is the most effective option compared to a microfiber towel. Then once you’ve removed the stain, use a damp microfiber cloth to clean away the excess.

Keeping It Looking New

As well as keeping the leather clean, it’s important to protect and maintain it as well. There are two processes to consider here:

  • Conditioning
  • Sealing

When most people think about caring for their automotive leather, they think about conditioning. However, this isn’t always necessary, and often sealing is the better option. Let me explain.

So remember the two main types of car leather are semi-aniline and pigmented. Both types have a “top coat” which is a synthetic protective layer that sits above the leather to protect what’s underneath.

If you apply a leather conditioner to coated leather, the conditioner won’t penetrate the top coat, and will instead be simply wiped away.

The need for a conditioner depends on:

  1. The type of leather
  2. The age and state of the leather

Brand new semi-aniline and pigmented leather will not benefit from conditioners.

Semi-aniline leather or pigmented leather that’s older than 2-3 years may benefit from conditioning, it really depends on the state of the top coat.

The top coat wears away over time due to friction, dirt, sweat, oils etc. So if this has happened, the conditioner will penetrate the leather.

If your car’s leather is fairly new, or has been well maintained, then it’s more important to seal the leather instead. This helps to protect the top coat and make it last longer. You can tell if the leather is coated because it will repel water, whereas un-coated leather will soak it up.

Conditioning the Leather

This is important to do if you are dealing with un-coated (aniline) leather, or older and worn leather. It helps to keep the leather’s colour richer, and softer to the touch to help prevent cracks and drying out over time.

It’s recommended to condition un-coated or older leather every 2-3 months to keep it looking its best.

Most leather conditioners are in a cream format and will need to be worked into the leather with a microfiber towel or applicator, left to work, and then the excess removed with a fresh microfiber towel.

Make sure you deep clean the leather before conditioning to ensure the conditioner penetrates the leather properly.

Sealing the Leather

Sealing the leather is important for both un-coated and coated leather. All leather should be sealed regularly, as this helps to either protect the leather underneath, or protect the top coat.

Leather sealants have the following functions:

  • Provides a hydrophobic coating so water and spillages are repelled instead of soaked into the leather.
  • Protects from UV rays and subsequent fading.
  • Keeps the leather soft and supple.
  • Prevents friction and consequently, cracks and scuffs.
  • Stops staining from spillages and dye transfer from clothing.

Leather sealants usually come in a spray format and can be applied using a microfiber applicator or cloth after the leather has been cleaned and conditioned (if it needed to be).

I’ve written a full article on how to seal leather, so check it out if you want some more detail.

The GYEON Q2 Leather Coat that I use says it lasts for 3 months, but I usually apply it monthly. It’s pretty cheap and goes a long way so I don’t mind using it more often, especially because I average around 300 miles per week.

You can check out GYEON Leather Coat on Amazon.

Personally, I recommend applying a leather sealant every 2-3 months, depending on how often you’re driving.

Check out this video on the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel showing you how to seal your leather car seats.

Leather Seats vs Dashboards

A lot of car interiors have leather on both the seats and the dashboards, so it’s important to understand how to care for both types of leather.

Usually, the cleaning process and the maintenance steps are the same, except if the leather is a different type (coated or uncoated). Generally, you’ll get away with cleaning leather dashboards less frequently than the seats.

However, it’s still important to care for the leather using a conditioner and/or a leather sealant to protect the dashboard from UV damage and fading over time.

Leather Steering Wheels

Cleaning leather steering wheels is very important if you want to prevent them from becoming sticky and shiny. Not only is a build up of oil and sweat unhygienic, but it also quickly makes a car’s interior look old. All leather should have a matte look, and that includes the steering wheel.

Here’s how to clean your leather steering wheel to keep it clean and maintain the matte finish.

  • Wipe the steering wheel with a damp microfiber cloth weekly to prevent oil build up.
  • Use a leather cleaner every 2-4 weeks to deep clean the steering wheel.
  • Wipe down with a damp microfiber towel after cleaning with any products to remove any residue that may be sticky.

Do not apply a leather sealant or conditioner to your steering wheel. This is potentially very dangerous.

You do not want to seal or condition the leather on your steering wheel because it will create a slippier surface. This is incredibly dangerous when driving as it can cause your hands to slip on the wheel.

Instead, just keep the steering wheel oil and grime free using the steps described above. Cleaning it regularly will be enough to keep it looking brand new for years to come.

Check out this quick video on the Auto Care HQ YouTube channel showing how I cleaned this steering wheel to get it looking brand new again in under 5 minutes.

Top Leather Care Tips

We’re almost at the end of this article, so before I jump into the FAQ section, I thought it’d be a good idea to give you some top leather care tips. So here we go!

  1. Always make sure you know what type of leather (aniline, semi-aniline, pigmented) you’re dealing with before cleaning or conditioning.
  2. Avoid over-saturating the leather with cleaners to protect the finish and avoid it soaking up any water or moisture.
  3. Clean the leather in the shade and never in direct sunlight to avoid the cleaners and products evaporating and becoming too concentrated.
  4. Keep the leather dust and dirt free to prevent friction which can cause scratches and scuffs.
  5. Some leather on your seats and dash may be synthetic, however it will still benefit from regular cleaning and applying a sealant.

Frequently Asked Questions

Don’t worry if you still have some leather care queries. Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about cleaning and caring for automotive leather.

Can you clean leather with vinegar?

It’s not recommended to use vinegar to clean car leather because it will damage the top coat. Vinegar is acidic, so it can corrode the leather’s top coat which protects the leather underneath. Instead, use a leather cleaner, or an all-purpose-cleaner that’s been formulated for use on leather as well.

How do you clean leather seats with holes (perforated leather)?

Caution should be taken when cleaning perforated leather as you don’t want any cleaning products or moisture to go into the holes. Always spray cleaners onto your cloth, not directly onto the leather, and avoid over-saturating the leather with cleaning products.

How do you make old leather look new again?

Restoring old leather to make it look brand new is first about deep cleaning it to restore the matte finish by removing any oil and dirt build-up. Then using a leather conditioner, followed by a leather sealant will help to both restore the finish and colour also protect it from damage.

How often should you clean and condition car leather?

Leather should be cleaned at least monthly to maintain the finish. Spillages should be cleaned immediately to prevent permanent damage. The leather should be conditioned (if uncoated) every 2-3 months, and sealed (both for uncoated and coated leather) every 2-3 months after deep cleaning.

How do you protect car leather from fading?

The best way to protect car leather from fading is to use a leather sealant. This helps to maintain the coating on the leather, and subsequently, the leather underneath. Leather sealants should be applied every 2-3 months to protect the leather from UV damage and fading.

How do you protect car leather from cracking?

Using a leather sealant will help to prevent the leather from cracking as it reduces the friction the leather is exposed to. Using a leather conditioner on older or un-coated leather prior to sealing, will help to maintain a soft and supple finish. Newer or coated leather does not need to be conditioned, and only needs to be sealed instead.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and found it useful. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the blog and the YouTube channel to learn more about car detailing tips, products and techniques.

Check out the Auto Care HQ YouTube Channel for vehicle transformations, product reviews, how-to videos and loads more.

Heather

I first became interested in car detailing around 3 years ago and learnt all the main techniques on my very first car. I spend a lot of time detailing my current car, and trying to keep my family's cars looking presentable too!

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