Walk into any auto parts store and you’ll be greeted by row on row of brightly-colored bottles of leather conditioner featuring cars showing off sparkling paint jobs, fancy wheels, sultry models, and pristine interiors. One thing in common with all these different products is that they promise the moon; all swear they can rejuvenate your leather to look better than it did new. But can they? And if so, how are they reviving your cracked, sun-drenched old leather?
The chemicals mixed into the average leather conditioner are a mouthful, to say the least – and reading an ingredients list doesn’t help clarify what is actually hiding in the bottle. But it’s safe to say that some cleaning products aren’t looking out for the longevity of your leather.
We wanted to pull back the veil enshrouding leather cleaners. We’ve figured out what chemicals to avoid, what works best, and what to consider when purchasing your next bottle of leather conditioner. First, let’s start with the basics:
What’s the point of leather cleaners and conditioners?
Leather is a premium, all-natural material created by tanning the hides of cows. Though there may be synthetic materials applied during the tanning process to help preserve and protect the leather, the base-layer stuff is the real McCoy. And like anything else, leather deteriorates – only faster and more noticeably than most automotive upholsteries. Without proper maintenance, that deterioration process is exacerbated.
Unfortunately, soap and water can only do so much to clean leather. Wiping a damp, soapy rag across your leather seat bottoms will clean up the most superficial layers of dirt, but anything that has settled deeper into the pores of the leather will require a stronger product to remove. Cue leather cleaners and conditioners, which contain a unique mix of chemicals designed specifically to root out stubborn dirt and provide long-lasting upholstery protection.
What chemicals do leather conditioners contain?
Leather conditioners often fall into two categories: more expensive, all-natural conditioners, and the cheaper options that contain mostly petroleum-based oils and synthetic compounds. The end goal of both types is the same – to condition and protect aging, dry leather – but they go about it in very different ways. Let’s consider both individually:
Image courtesy of Pixabay
All-natural conditioners turn to the time-tested methods of preserving leather. Ingredients such as beeswax and neatsfoot oil will commonly be mentioned first and foremost on these products.
So what is all this stuff? Let’s take beeswax first. It’s a substance that, as the name suggests, is generated by worker honeybees. It naturally softens the leather, helps it retains moisture and suppleness, and is a natural waterproofing agent. Beeswax also has no trouble soaking deep into the pores of the leather, providing more complete cleaning and protection. It’s a versatile, skin-friendly product that has many uses far beyond cleaning leather.
Neatsfoot oil is another all-natural, animal-based product. It is the result of boiling and purifying the fat found on the feet and shin bones of cattle. Like beeswax, pure neatsfoot oil will easily penetrate leather and provide long-lasting protection against brittleness, dryness, and rot. It’s important to note that some conditioners use pure neatsfoot oil; others may use neatsfoot compound. It sounds like semantics, but the difference is significant. Pure neatsfoot oil is exactly that – it doesn’t contain any other additives or synthetics. Neatsfoot compounds, on the other hand, are diluted with other mineral oils. These additives help lower the price point but can actually prematurely deteriorate and dry out the leather.
Of course, you may have the best leather conditioner already in your home. If you want to use coconut oil, it’s been known to give a good condition to your leather. You will notice that a lot of natural conditioners include the same ingredients.1
While all-natural conditioners steer clear of any man-made chemicals, that isn’t the case with more common and more affordable conditioners. Diluting pure, organic oils with synthetic compounds helps make a more affordable product that can do a great job cleaning up old leather.
Among the common ingredients found in synthetic-based products include alkaline, petroleum jelly, and synthetic variants of natural oils, such as the synthetic neatsfoot oil already mentioned.
We’ve already got a great article on the merit of using petroleum jelly as a leather cleaner, but suffice to say that we don’t recommend it in its pure form as a conditioning agent. Synthetic conditioners, however, typically use small amounts of petroleum jelly and other petroleum-based minerals to provide a certain level of waterproofing. That’s because these chemicals can penetrate the innermost layers of the leather.23
Some conditioners may also feature alkaline agents among their ingredients. To go back to middle school science class for a moment, alkaline is the upper end of the pH scale, ranging from 7-14. Its opposite is acidity, which is measured between 1 and 7 on the pH scale.
Some substances, such as water, are neutral and measure at an even 7 on the scale. Leather happens to be more acidic, coming in around a 5. Certain soaps and compounds are often alkaline – and therein lies the trouble.
Using an alkaline product on a material that’s more acidic creates an unfavorable chemical reaction on the microscopic level. Your naked eye won’t catch it, but the acidic leather will react to the alkaline cleaning agent. Done repeatedly, this acid-alkaline showdown will harm the leather, causing it to dry out and potentially rot.
Don’t take this to think all synthetic cleaners are bad. Just stay away from products containing alkaline and petroleum and you won’t cause any damage to your leather.
Is there a difference between leather cleaners and conditioners?
Yes. Leather cleaners are designed to pull up and remove the dirt trapped in the leather; unless the bottle specifies it is an all-in-one product, a leather cleaner won’t do anything to protect the leather going forward.
Leather conditioners are used as a follow-up to cleaners for just that purpose. Applying a conditioner moisturizes the leather beyond just the surface level, which reduces the chance for cracking, dryness, brittleness, and rot. A conditioner protects and enhances the look and feel of your leather while preserving it for six months to a year.
You’ll want to lightly clean your leather more often than once or twice a year, but a thorough cleaning and conditioning really don’t need to be done more than once or twice a year. Over-condition and you may oversaturate the leather, which also isn’t ideal.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Manufacturers of leather conditioners are a sneaky bunch; good luck getting any of them to disclose the full list of the ingredients they use in their products. However, while we might not learn the exact formulas used to concoct leather conditioners, we can look for – and lookout for – a few key ingredients.
Our recommendation is to pay a bit more for an all-natural product that doesn’t contain any alkaline substances or any petroleum minerals. Such a product is not only providing soft, rich-looking leather right now; it’s also looking out for your upholstery down the road. Oh, and if you want the most natural, earth-friendly solution of all? Try making your own homemade leather conditioner.
Motor Sports Village uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
- Ski Glove Leather Treatments, Conditioners and Balms: Guide to ingredients Freethepower.com. Accessed 24 Sept 2021.
- McCrady, Ellen. How Leather Dressing May Have Originated. Abbey Newsletter. 1990; 14(1). Accessed 27 Sept 2021.
- Compo, Mel. Does It Matter If Your Leather Conditioner Has Petroleum? StrideWise.com. Accessed 24 Sept 2021.