Leather is a natural material that loses moisture over time, leading to cracks and breaks. It’s important to maintain it with leather oil or conditioner that helps ensure it will retain the proper levels of moisture and flexibility over time.
Leather oil is a natural or synthetic substance that, when added to leather, helps to moisturize and condition the fibers so they stay flexible and durable. It can be composed of a singular oil, or a blend of oils, fats, waxes, and other conditioning agents mixed a specialized formula.
While leather requires periodic maintenance to keep it in great shape, it is certainly well worth it. Let’s see more about when to use leather oil and which ones work best. For detailed guides, templates, courses, and ways to start improving your leathercraft today, click here for my leather club.
What is Leather Oil?
Leather oil is a conditioning substance applied to leather in order to moisturize and protect the fibers from drying, cracking, and breaking apart. Some, such as mink oil, are naturally-derived oils that can be applied directly to some leather surfaces. Other leather oils are specially-blended mixes of natural and synthetic oils, fats, and waxes.
Some leather oils only provide conditioning, helping restore some of the natural moisture to the materials. Others add some water resistance, and even waterproofing qualities to the leather. The choice of which leather oil to use will depend on the leather good being oiled, and preference for its finished result.
For example, heavier leather oils might be used on thicker leathers used for heavy jobs, such as work boots, some saddlery, and tool belts. While, finer leathers used for dress shoes and accessories might benefit from a much lighter oil formula and a suitable polish. We’ll explore more below.
When to Use Leather Oil
When owning a natural leather good, at some point it’s likely it will need to be oiled and conditioned. This is totally normal. Leather is comprised of natural fibers. Over time, exposure to the elements such as heat, sun, dirt, rain, and grime will draw out some of its natural moisture. This can lead to drying, lightening of the color, and ultimately cracking of the leather material.
“Thus, proper oiling and conditioning of leather is a great way to maintain leather goods for decades.”
Once the material cracks and flakes, it’s weakened and very difficult to repair. Thus, proper oiling and conditioning of leather is a great way to maintain leather goods for decades. There are a few signs when one might want to oil leather:
Every few months (proactive maintenance)
Ideally, like most things, proactive maintenance will help keep larger issues from coming up, and prevent leather damage that will require far more than just oiling/conditioning. For items that are used frequently and in tough conditions (sun, heat, rain, daily use, etc.), conditioning every few months can be helpful. For items used less often or in lighter conditions, oiling every 6 months to a year should be enough.
It begins to lighten in color
Leather begins to lighten in color as moisture is lost. If you notice it doing so, it might be a sign that it needs oiling and conditioning
It becomes less flexible and somewhat stiff
Once leather loses moisture for a prolonged period of time, it can become stiff, and even rigid. This is definitely a sign that is can use oil/conditioning
Small cracks begin to appear
Once the flexibility is lost, the leather fibers will begin to crack as it’s bent, moved, and used. If cracks appear, it’s a sure sign the leather is dry and needs leather oil/conditioning.
It’s relatively easy to use leather oil. Once familiar with the process, the trickiest part might just be remembering when to do it 🙂
Types of Leather Oil
Choosing the proper leather oil is very important, and an oil that works great for a specific type of leather can easily damage another. There are several high-quality options available, some of the more popular include:
Mink oil has been used for centuries to oil leather. It is a naturally derived substance, from the mink animal. Mink oil is valued in large part due to it’s unsaturated fatty acid composition, which makes up about 70% of the oil. These fats are what helps give the leather fibers flexibility. The other 30% of mink oil composition is made up of other types of fatty acids.
In more recent times, “Mink oil” has evolved to not only infer natural mink oil, though other oils similarly produced from other animals such as pigs, and mixed with other lubricants.
The oil isn’t too heavy, when applied lightly, and works to slowly penetrate deep into the leather fibers. It’s is also used extensively in the human cosmetic industry, where it’s benefits are realized when applied to people as well via cosmetics.
Neatsfoot oil is an oil conditioner that’s most commonly associated to be made from the bones and feet of cattle, though can sometimes come from other hoofed animals. As the oil is produced, it is often blended with other oils and petroleum-based substances to create a conditioner that has been used often in oiling leather. Neatsfoot oil is a general term, so different brands might have very different formulations even though “neatsfoot oil” is in the name.
However, the chemical composition of neatsfoot oil also makes it prone to oxidizing over time. This is especially true for older leathers. This, applying this oil will help condition the leather in the short-term, though speed up it’s decomposition in the long-term, making it brittle and prone to cracking.
Thus, is most cases, it would be advised to use a different leather oil for any goods that will be kept for long periods of time. The same is true for any goods where the general look/finish is to be maintained.
Lexol is an aqueous emulsion (water-based substance) that does not contain any silicone or petroleum-based solvents or substances. This helps it penetrate the leather fibers deeply and evenly. Lexol also is non-toxic, doesn’t have an odor or smell, is not flammable, and is not greasy. This makes it a very different leather oil/conditioner than most others. It is very gentle, and effective.
The oils used are held within the water-based emulsion evenly, so when applied to leather they spread consistently across the surface and into the fibers. Often, leather with Lexol applied does not feel tacky after it dries. Since it is so gentle, non-toxic, easy to work with, and leaves great result, Lexol is one of the best leather oils/conditioners for many types of leather goods. In general, it should not be used on suede or nubuck leather.
Some folks use common oils such as olive oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, etc. While these might add some moisture back into the leather, they might be a little too heavy for applications outside of saddlery and related uses. Outside of those uses, these heavier oils could oversaturate stain, and lead to faster decomposition of the leather fibers than with a more suitable oil.
The Best Leather Oils
Here are some of the more popular leather oil brands:
This is a great all-around, non-toxic leather oil and conditioner suitable for most leather uses except suede and nubuck. It can also be used on finer, more delicate leathers where other leather oils might be too heavy.
Obenauf’s Leather Oil
This is a blend of natural oils, propolis (a sticky, glue-like substance produced by bees), and beeswax. This works well on medium-duty leathers such as jackets, bags, and upholstery.
Red Wing Heritage Mink Oil
This is a mink oil formula that includes lanolin and silicone, intended mainly for boots. It helps oil and condition the leather, while also increasing water resistance of the leather’s surface. This would be too heavy an oil for use on finer leathers, though excellent for casual/hiking/work boot use.
Saphir Medaille d’Or Mink Oil Polish
This is a 100% pure, natural mink oil formula. It will penetrate the leather deeply, and also works on shoes. One of the challenges of oiling shoes is that some oils will block the leather pores and prevent even application of a nice polish/shine. This formula from Saphir is formulated for shoes, so is a great choice when using it for that.
Sof Sole Mink Oil
This is an inexpensive and effective oil that will condition and waterproof leather. After applying, it will likely form a barrier on the leather that will be mostly un-removable. Also, the polishing and shine of the surface will likely be limited. However, for casual boots, work boots, some saddlery, and other heavily-used leather, this can be a great option to condition and waterproof it.
How to Apply Leather Oil
To moisturize leather and apply leather oil, these steps will help make it successful:
Prep & Clean
Leather gets dirty over time. It could be from dirt, dust, mud, grime, oils from the skin, food, various stains, really anything that gets on the surface and into the fibers over time. It’s important to first clean the leather, freeing up the dirt and removing it. This will allow the oil to penetrate the leather fibers much better.
“Prep the work surface by clearing a work area, covering it with a protective layer of material…”
Prep the work surface by clearing a work area, covering it with a protective layer of material if desired (such as plastic or paper), and lay the leather good to be cleaned on top. Next, use a gentle leather cleaner, such as Lexol’s leather cleaner, on the surface.
When choosing a cleaner, be very cautious what’s in it. Some with alcohol will not be preferable, as the alcohol will pull moisture out from inside the leather; the opposite of what we want to do. Also, some cleaners have a very high pH, which could damage the leather. A more neutral pH cleaner is most recommended, so it’s gentle on the material.
Apply the cleaner to a lint-free cloth; this could be a microfiber cloth, or a cotton cloth. Gently rub it in small circles over the entire leather surface, all the way to the edges. It’s important the surface is cleaned all over, as it will take on a slightly darker color once the oil is added later. Thus, any spots that aren’t cleaned well will also have a different color later. The goal is to clean evenly, so the color stays even.
Once the cleaner has been applied, let it dry per the instructions from the manufacturer. Usually for larger pieces, overnight is best, as that allows enough time for it to thoroughly dry. Many factors can influence dry time, such as leather thickness, how much cleaner was applied, ambient temperature, and ambient humidity.
Apply Leather Oil – Moisturize the Leather
Next, we’ll apply the leather oil. Get a lint free cloth, this could be a microfiber cloth, or a cotton cloth. Apply some oil to it, and gently rub it in small circles over the leather surface. Ensure all areas of the surface have oil applied.
Apply in light coats. The leather will darken slightly as the oil is applied, as there is now more moisture in the fibers. If you feel it needs a lot of oil, apply in thin, light layers and allow to dry before doing it again. This will help ensure that not too much oil goes on, which could clog the leather pores and prevent proper finishing later (as well as a tacky, greasy feel).
Once the oil has been applied, let it dry per the instructions from the manufacturer. Similar to the cleaner, usually for larger pieces, overnight is best, as that allows enough time for it to thoroughly dry. Many factors can influence dry time here too, such as leather thickness, how much cleaner was applied, ambient temperature, and ambient humidity.
Apply Leather Finish (if desired)
Once the leather oil has been applied and dried, the leather has been oiled and conditioned. If you’d like, a leather finish can be applied. The leather finish is usually a thin layer of a protective substance that seals in the leather underneath and protects it from dirt and water. The finish can also add visual appeal, be it a matte or shiny look.
There are some finishes that are synthetic, such as acrylic. These form a waterproof seal, which is preferable for some uses, though overall not as desirable as other options. The acrylic surface will make it hard to condition the leather in the future, since it’s essentially a plastic coating sealing in the leather underneath.
More recommended would be a natural finish such as beeswax. This will protect the leather underneath, though also can be buffed away later if needed, to apply more conditioner in the future. Also, finishes will naturally wear away over time just from use of the leather good. A natural finish will be easier to work with in the long-run, plus, it often looks much better than acrylic finishes.
Further, many shoe polishes are finishes with color pigments that closely match the shoes they’re being used on. This both help protect the leather underneath, while also hiding minor scratches and blemishes, due to the color in the finish.
Once you have a finish chosen, apply some to a lint-free cloth. This could be a microfiber cloth or a cotton cloth. Then, gently apply in small circles across the entire surface of the leather. Ensure the whole surface has been evenly treated. Then, check the instructions that came with the finish you’re using, and let it dry per the manufacturer’s recommended dry time. This could be a few minutes, or hours, depending on the finish.
Once finished, use a clean, lint-free cloth and buff out the polish. Use small circles, lightly rubbing all over the surface. As you do this, the surface will begin to take on an even tone. If you’re using a shiny polish, the surface will begin to have a sheen and shine to it. Great! Almost there. Periodically check the cloth to ensure it’s not too covered in finish. If it is, use another clean cloth. The goal of buffing is to even the surface texture and remove excess polish. A clean cloth will be more effective than a dirty one when doing this.
After the surface has been buffed, you’re all done! The leather good is looking great and ready to be used.
Common Leather Oil Questions
What is the best oil for leather?
The best oil for leather will mainly depend on the type of leather being oiled. That said, generally more natural, gentle oils will be the best for any type of leather over synthetic oils. For example, petroleum-based oils can have harsh long-term effects on leather, helping them degrade faster. Neatsfoot oil is one such leather oil.
Oils derived from natural fats are generally more similar to those originally present in the leather fibers, making them more suitable for conditioning leather. An example of a non-toxic leather oil that works very well is Lexol.
Also, lighter oils, applied as often as needed, are better than heavier oils. Heavier oils can block the leather pores, stain the leather, or make it feel greasy. Lighter oils generally penetrate the leather more deeply, evenly, and don’t have a noticeable feel to them.
Is oil bad for leather?
Oil is great for leather. It is naturally present and essential for soft, flexible leather that lasts decades or centuries. The key, is the type of oil. An oil parked incorrectly with the leather it is going on can make the leather degrade faster, become weak, and crack. The right oil applied to the leather good it’s going on will nourish, condition, and soften the leather. This makes it flexible, supple, comfortable to use, and well-cared-for.
Is baby oil good for leather?
Generally, baby oil is not good for leather. It is a mineral oil and very thin. So while it will penetrate the leather’s pores, it doesn’t really have enough fats as part of the oil to deeply soften, and for extended periods, the leather. Leather-specific oils are much more effective.
Is Vaseline good for leather?
No, vaseline is not good for leather. Since it is petroleum based, it will over time accelerate the breakdown of leather fibers. Also, it will form a nearly-unremovable surface coating. This will prevent the leather from being properly conditioned in the future. A leather-specific oil will work much better.
Is olive oil OK for leather?
Olive oil can be ok for some leathers, generally as a substitute for those where neatsfoot oil would be used. Olive oil usually won’t darken the leather as much as neatsfoot oil. It’s generally applied to heavier, or tooled leathers. It would not be recommended to use olive oil on finer leathers, shoes, or anything delicate. For those, use a gentle, leather-specific oil.
What can I use instead of leather conditioner?
Olive oil can be used, in some cases, instead of leather conditioner. For any fine leathers, shoes, or well-loved products it’s recommended to use a leather conditioner such as Lexol. However, if you’re in a pinch and looking to condition some work boots, hiking boots, or leather that will see heavy use and doesn’t need to look perfect, most any oil such as olive or vegetable oil can work. Worth noting, their composition might speed up the breakdown of the leather long-term.
Can I use coconut oil on my leather jacket?
Coconut oil is not recommended for use on a leather jacket. While it might have some uses in niche cases, in general it’s a very slippery oil that might not fully absorb into the leather, leaving a slick surface that will rub off onto other clothing and upholstery. In general, a leather-specific oil would be best.
Can you use olive oil on leather shoes?
It is not recommended to use olive oil on shoes. Shoe leather generally needs to be oiled/conditioned in such a way that the surface can also take a layer of polish. Olive oil might leave too much of a tacky/greasy surface, not allowing for an even coat of polish to be applied.
Also, once the olive oil is in the shoe leather, it would be very difficult to successfully apply a layer of proper leather oil on the shoes, since the olive oil layer would still be present and tough to remove. Thus using it would take away the option of proper show care maintenance later. A leather-specific oil, intended for shoes, would be best here.
Can I use vegetable oil on leather?
Vegetable oil, like olive oil can be ok for some leathers, generally as a substitute for those where neatsfoot oil would be used. Vegetable oil usually won’t darken the leather as much as neatsfoot oil. It’s generally applied to heavier, or tooled leathers. It would not be recommended to use it on finer leathers, shoes, or anything delicate. For those, use a gentle, leather-specific oil.
Is beeswax good for leather?
Yes, beeswax is great for leather. It’s a natural substance that is used to provide a protective finish on leather goods. It helps seal moisture in the leather (from a leather oil or leather conditioner), and also provides a bit of water-resistance, further protecting the leather underneath it.
Does coconut oil darken leather?
Yes, coconut oil will darken leather. Generally, whenever oil is applied to leather, the color tone will darken a bit. The specific amount will vary based on many factors (such as leather type, thickness, amount of oil applied, drying time between layers, etc.). While coconut oil is usually not recommended for use on leather, if used, it will darken the leather.
Does olive oil fix cat scratches on leather?
Not really, olive oil does not fix scratches on leather. Applying any leather oil or conditioner to leather with scratches can help reduce the look of some scratches. This is mainly because leather that is conditioned and nourished will swell a tiny bit, becoming soft, supple, and a little darker. Thus, scratches will be a little darker and closer in color tone to the original leather, and a bit less noticeable.
Olive oil is generally not recommended to be used on leather, or leather upholstery. A leather repair kit is likely the best approach to fixing scratches on leather.
Is argan oil good for leather?
Argan oil is high in fatty acids, which can be good for leather (similar to mink oil). However, it is not recommended as a first choice for leather oil and leather conditioning. Also, argan oil could perform very similarly as olive oil, leaving too much of a tacky/greasy surface, not allowing for an even coat of polish to be applied later on.
If used for casual work or hiking boots in a pinch, it can work some. Though, it might impact the longevity of the leather. It can also limit/prevent adding more suitable oils later on, and the ability of polishes to be applied evenly.
How do you get oil out of leather?
Talcum powder or cornstarch can be used to help remove oil from leather. Leather is naturally porous and absorbs oils/moisture. Thus, if an undesired oil stains the leather, it can be a bit tricky to remove. To try, place a liberal amount of talcum powder or cornstarch over the stain, and let it sit to absorb the oil. Usually, overnight is best to allow time for the talcum or cornstarch to draw some of the oil out.
“Talcum powder or cornstarch can be used to help remove oil from leather.”
Depending on how much oil is staining the leather, or how deep it is, multiple talcum/cornstarch applications might be needed.
Can I use hair conditioner on leather?
It is not recommended to use hair conditioner on leather. Leather, as a natural substance, usually reacts best with other natural conditioners, such as mink oil or beeswax. Hair conditioner can contain a wide array of chemicals and ingredients that lead to weakening of the leather fibers over time.
“It is not recommended to use hair conditioner on leather. “
If you’re in a real pinch and need to condition a leather good or pair of boots that aren’t very important, this can technically work in the short term. However, it’s far better to use an oil/conditioner specifically intended for leather. It will provide a much better result, and help maintain the leather for much longer (years/decades, etc.)
Can I put coconut oil on leather boots?
Coconut oil is not recommended for use on leather boots. While it might have some uses in niche cases (short term needs), in general it’s a very slippery oil that might not fully absorb into the leather, leaving a slick surface that will rub off onto clothing. In general, a leather-specific oil would be best.
Is linseed oil good for leather?
Linseed oil is generally not a great choice for use on leather. In it’s raw form, it can be heavy, a take a long time to thoroughly dry on the leather. It also might begin to degrade/rot who it’s drying, which would begin to deteriorate the leather.
Boiled linseed oil, a variation, is often combined with other chemicals that can be harsh to the leather. In the short term it can help add and retain moisture, though in the long term it can lead to faster wearing and cracking of the leather fibers. A leather-specific oil, such as Lexol, would work much better.
Is it easy to make homemade boot oil?
Generally, it’s best to use a leather-specific oil to condition leather goods. However, if you’re in a pinch, or want to try a homemade solution on some old boots or leather good that aren’t needed for a long period of time, it is certainly do-able.
“One recipe includes combining beeswax, sweet almond oil, and cocoa butter…”
One recipe includes combining beeswax, sweet almond oil, and cocoa butter over low heat, periodically stirring while they blend. This will help form a nourishing conditioner that can be applied to the leather. Again, something like Lexol will be much better for quality goods or long-term use. Though for some fun DIY on an old leather goods, homemade boot oil can be made.
Leather Oil for Specific Uses
Let’s look at some good leather oils that work well for different applications:
Leather Oil for Shoes
Shoe leather is usually a finer quality leather that requires a gentle, light oil. An oil like Saphir Medaille d’Or Mink Oil Polish, or Lexol, would work well here.
Leather Oil for Saddles
Saddles are a thicker leather that require a lot of oil and don’t need to handled as delicately as, say, shoe leather. That said, a quality leather oil will help make saddles and tack last a very long time. For saddles, mink oil can work well, and some folks use olive oil. Most recommended, though, is Lexol.
Leather Oil for Jackets
Leather jackets care usually a medium-weight leather that are intended to stay flexible and look great. It’s important a quality oil is used here. Mink oil is an option, and most recommended, is Lexol. It’s non-toxic, gentle on materials, penetrates the leather fibers deeply, and works very well.
Leather Oil for Couch
The best oil to use on a leather couch is likely Lexol. Leather couches see a lot of “traffic”, thus it’s important that an oil is used that will absorb deeply without being sticky or tacky. Heavier oils can pose those issues, while lighter oils such as Lexol will go on smooth and not leave residue on the surface.
Leather Oil for Faux Leather
Faux leather generally will not need conditioning in the same way that natural leather does. Thus, in most cases faux leather does not need leather oil. For example, many faux leathers are pastic-based, or even 100% plastic. They’re often waterproof and won’t really absorb oils rubbed into the surface. Faux leathers can benefit from periodic cleaning, and care based on the specific composition of the material. For more details and how it’s made, click here for an article I wrote about faux leather.
Leather Oil for Suede and Nubuck
Suede and nubuck often require different maintenance than other leathers. For more details on its qualities, click here for my article on suede. A good oil to use for suede and nubuck is Saphir’s Medaille d’or Renovateur Suede and Nubuck Spray. It is very gentle and will likely work best when compared to other options/heavier oils out there.
Quality leather goods can last decades, even centuries, when properly maintained and cared for. Oiling and conditioning leather periodically is an easy way to help preserve leather goods for a long time. It’s a relatively quick process, and with the right leather oil, will keep things feeling and looking great. For suggestions on quality options to use, click here for my guide to the best leather oils and conditioners.
How do you condition leather?
Leather is conditioned by cleaning the surface with a leather cleaner, then applying a leather oil or conditioner chosen based on the type of leather being treated. Once the leather conditioner is dry, a leather finish (matte or shiny) can be added.
Is coconut oil good for leather?
Coconut oil is not recommended for leather. While it might have niche uses, in general it’s a slippery oil that might not fully absorb into the leather, leaving a slick surface that will rub off onto clothing. A leather-specific oil would be best.