Regardless of how well I take care of my leather products, they will eventually need to be cleaned. However, leather requires a specialized soap to clean the product without damaging its surface.
Leather soap is a specialized cleaner used on leather goods without damaging the surface. Most leather soaps will use a water, wax, oil, and soap formula. This combination allows the leather to be hydrated and sealed when cleaned. Leather soap can cost $6–$25, depending on the brand.
Using a leather soap on your leather products can revive and rejuvenate them. Let’s go over how leather soap works and how it can benefit your products.
What is Leather Soap
Leather soap is a cleaning solution specialized for leather. It is made from water, soap, oil, and wax. Its purpose is to be gentle enough on leather so as not to cause damage while providing trace amounts of conditioning ingredients.
Leather soap is best used as a deep cleaner after an item has been dusted with a horse hair brush to ensure no debris scratches the leather when applying the soap. Although leather soap shares ingredients with leather conditioner, if used in excessive amounts, the soap can dry out leather.
Types of Leather Soap
Two main types of leather soaps are hard and liquid, each offering unique benefits. Hard leather soap tends to be suited for most leather goods. It contains more wax than liquid soap, leaving a thin layer on top to protect the leather. The dense nature of the soap causes it to slowly seep into the leather as it is rubbed in, providing a deeper cleaning.
Liquid soap, on the other hand, is more commonly used for upholstery leather goods. Couches, chairs, stools, and similar leather goods tend to use leather with protective coatings. Liquid leather soap can be used to quickly clean this top coating without penetrating deep into the leather. Since the soap is liquid, it can easily cover areas rapidly, making it ideal for larger goods.
Leather Soap Properties
|Characteristics||Hard Leather Soap||Liquid Leather Soap|
|Protection||Somewhat Protective||Little to no protection|
|Cleaning ability||Deeply and thoroughly||Focuses on the top coat|
|Price||Around $10||Around $20|
|Purpose||Most leather goods||Upholstery and garment|
Characteristics of Leather Soap
Soap and Water
Like most cleaning materials soap and water is the backbone of leather soap. While most companies keep their ingredients confidential, some commonly known ingredients include sodium tallowate. This is used as the cleaning part of the soap, being delicate enough to use on leather but containing cleaning properties.
Leather soap begins to differ from regular soap by including ingredients like oil. Lanolin and neatsfoot are the most common oils used in leather soap. Both are often found in leather conditioners to rehydrate the leather.
They are used in small amounts when compared to conditioners. Their purpose is to keep some hydration in the leather as it dries, preventing it from becoming too dry and potentially cracking.
Wax is another material found in leather conditioners that is also used in leather soap. Beeswax is the most commonly used. The purpose of wax in leather soap is to provide a small protective barrier and lock in the hydration of the leather. Like the oil in leather soap, wax is used in small amounts and does not offer the same benefits as a leather conditioner.
Leather soap comes in various sizes to address different needs. Sizes 8oz and under can be purchased for a single leather item or if rarely needed. The standard 12oz is used for multiple or larger products that are used daily and will need bimonthly cleanings.
Any size above 12oz is typically made for commercial use. Repair shops and saddle makers will use this product weekly for their clients. Therefore, smaller sizes are recommended for home use.
Pros and Cons of Leather Soap
Pros of Leather Soap
Leather soap is one of the few products used to deep clean leather. It is formulated to minimize the damage caused by the water used in the product. Leather soap can be applied to most leather goods without discoloration.
It is the first step in rejuvenating a leather product when used correctly. According to A Survey of Current Leather Conservation Practices by Jennifer Hain Tepe and Melissa Straw, published in The Book and Paper Group Annual, current methods used for leather restoration found that saddle soap was still widely used in this process.
Cons of Leather Soap
Leather soap can slightly darken some leather products and must be closely monitored during use. If used improperly or excessively, leather soap can cause damage due to dryness. Leather soap can leave a residue that may need to be rubbed off.
Although leather soap shares ingredients with leather conditioner, if used in excessive amounts, the soap can dry out the leather.
How to Use Leather Soap
To begin, it is always important to follow the directions on the product container. Also, test the cleaner on a smaller or hidden leather part to ensure no unwanted outcomes occur. The first step in using a leather soap is ensuring the item has been thoroughly dusted. Any debris left on the leather could cause scratching if rubbed in during the cleaning process.
Once the item is dusted, use a soft rag to apply small amounts of soap. Putting the soap directly on the cloth instead of the leather is important. Gently rub the leather soap into the leather in a circular motion, spreading it throughout before using more. If too much leather soap is applied, wipe the excess off and lightly dab to prevent an uneven coating.
After the entire item has been cleaned, it should be left to dry before taking more action. Once dried, the leather product can have more soap reapplied if the item is not clean. If it has been clean, a leather conditioner can be applied to rehydrate the leather and prepare it for more use.
This helpful video shows how to use saddle soap on leather boots while offering tips along the way. This tutorial can be used for leather goods other than boots.
How Leather Soap is Made
Leather soap starts from a mix of soap and water. The chosen soap is mixed into the water in small amounts. Next, the wax is added while increasing the mixture’s temperature. The heat will liquefy the soap and wax, allowing them to mix more freely.
Oil will be mixed in as the final ingredient. Once thoroughly combined, the mixture will be poured into product containers where they may solidify depending on the manufacturer’s ratio of ingredients.
Cost of Leather Soap
Leather soap will typically cost $6–$25. Cheaper soap may have simpler ingredients, focusing solely on cleaning rather than keeping the leather hydrated. While more expensive leather soaps will combine more natural oils such as lanolin, coconut, avocado, and various nut oils. Liquid conditioners also tend to be more expensive because they are geared towards large upholstered items that need an easily applicable soap.
Leather soap is best used as a deep cleaner after an item has been dusted with a horse hair brush to ensure no debris scratches the leather when the soap is applied.
Tips for Working With Leather Soap
- Use a clean cloth when working with leather soap.
- Test small unseen areas to ensure desired results.
- Use sparingly to avoid drying the leather.
- Condition the leather after using leather soap.
- Let the first layer of soap dry before applying any additional product.
A horse hair brush can be used if the product to be cleaned is merely dusty. When used alongside leather conditioner, this is a popular alternative to using leather soap. However, if more extensive measures are needed, a cloth in warm water can be used to clean an area. Although it is important to thoroughly dry the item after cleaning it.
Examples of Items Made with Leather Soap
While leather soap is a great tool for maintaining leather, it does not need to be used often. Typically item wear will include dust and other debris, which may be cleaned with a horse hair brush or wiped away with a soft rag. However, spills and other tough stains may occur, so leather soap should be used.
Ideally, leather soap should be the last resort when addressing a leather product and should be saved for items that have been heavily worn or stained by foreign materials. Nikola Mihajlovski and Konstantin Bahchevandjie from the Faculty of Design and Technologies of Furniture and Interior in Skopje, North Macedonia, researched the best clean methods for upholstery leather and found leather mixtures such as saddle soap beneficial during leather maintenance.
My Research Testing Leather Soap on Various Leathers
The most common question I see when looking online through leather forums is, “How do I clean my leather product?” To better understand how leather soap works, I attempted to use it on various types of leather.
Method for Testing Leather Soap
I used Fiebings Saddle Soap to test four kinds of leather, including oil tanned, vegetable tanned, chrome tanned, and suede. To simulate wear, I sectioned the leather into three parts. For the first part, I simply rubbed dirt into the leather. I wet the second leather section with water before rubbing dirt into it. Lastly, I poured a small amount of soda to simulate a spill on the third part. After letting everything dry, I began cleaning the leathers.
I started each leather by dusting it with a horsehair brush, removing a lot of the dirt but leaving behind a dusty look that needed cleaning. Once this step was completed, I used the saddle soap with different towels for each mess to avoid contaminating anything. The section of the leathers that were just dirt did not need saddle soap, in my opinion, but I applied it anyway.
Results of Testing Leather Soaps
As expected, three of the four leather types cleaned nicely, but the suede turned into a mess. Next, I attempted to clean the dirt and water mixture. The oil tanned leather was able to be cleaned and slightly darkened from the process but left no marks. The vegetable tanned leather was also able to be cleaned and darkened. However, it left some water marks throughout.
Chrome tanned leather did the best for this section. The dirt and water mess came out fairly easily with no visible changes to the surface. Suede, once again, became an unsalvageable mess, with its surface texture becoming hard and water-stained throughout. The last section, the soda spill, took a bit more work to clean.
Once dried, it had a sticky surface that darkened due to the soda. For both the oil tanned and the vegetable tanned leather, the soda could be cleaned, but the leather darkened. The chrome tanned leather, once again, received the most benefit from the saddle soap. Removing the soda with only minor discoloration. The suede leather was a mess.
Although I knew suede would perform poorly, I did not expect the saddle soap to cause further damage as it did. Saddle soap overall seems to work fairly well as a cleaning solution, although it may darken leathers that are not chrome tanned.
Leather Soap Care and Maintenance
How To Clean Leather Soap
If the leather soap gets contaminated by foreign material, it can be cleaned by removing any affected area. This only applies to hard leather soaps. Liquid leather soaps may require replacement if the soap is thoroughly contaminated.
How To Maintain Leather Soap
Leather soap can be easily maintained by always using a clean cloth, keeping the lid closed when not in use, and properly storing it.
How To Store Leather Soap
Leather soap should be stored closed in its original container and according to the instructions. For most leather soaps, this will be in a moderate environment without direct exposure to heat.
What is the best soap for leather?
There is no best soap for leather. Every leather piece will differ and may require unique needs. It is important to test each product before determining which one is right for you.
Is saddle soap bad for leather?
If applied excessively, saddle soap can be bad for leather. This is because the water and the cleaning agents could cause dryness, leading to cracks.
What is the difference between saddle soap and regular soap?
Saddle soap contains waxes and oils to mitigate water’s negative effects on leather. Using regular soap instead of saddle soap can cause dryness in the leather.
Is glycerin good for leather?
While glycerin can be used for leather, there are better products. Glycerin is known to leave behind a sticky residue and can be an aggressive cleaning solution that may damage leather.
What is the difference between white and yellow saddle soap?
There is little difference between white and yellow saddle soap. However, it is suggested to use white saddle soap on lighter leathers to prevent color changes.
Leather goods are made to last a lifetime and will see many years of wear. It is important to keep these items clean, and looking their best, to get the most out of them for years to come.
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