Cleaning leather: how to remove stains and keep this material in top condition

Whether you want to remove stains from a leather sofa or freshen up your favourite handbag, follow our guide to find out how to clean leather like a pro

Living area with brown leather sofa and monochrome rug
Image by Katie Lee
(Image credit: Katie Lee)

If you want to know how to clean leather, you're in luck: it's actually quite easy, although we will say that prevention is far better than cure in the case of leather staining, so whether you're cleaning leather car sears or you favourite leather sofa, regularly conditioning leather will keep it cleaner in the long run.

If you do have a stain on leather furniture or a leather garment, follow our advice to cleaning leather below. 

Find out how to clean leather in this guide, then find more cleaning guides and hacks on our dedicated hub page. 

leather chesterfield sofa with red cushions in front of a tapestry

(Image credit: Darren Chung)

How to clean leather: regular maintenance

Whether it's your leather sofa, a leather jacket, or a pair of leather shoes, this material really benefits from regular maintenance. Think of leather as essentially an animal skin, and skin requires adequate moisture levels to stay supple and repel dirt. So, prevention is the best cure where it comes to cleaning leather. About every month, apply a layer of leather cream all over your furniture piece/garment with a soft sponge or cotton balls. The process of working in the cream will also give the leather a general clean: you will see this on your cotton ball or sponge, which will collect surface dust and dirt. 

Some leather conditioning treatments also have added beeswax which acts as a water and stain repellent. Note that all leather creams and balm should be applied to completely dry leather only. 

Cleaning a leather sofa or armchair

leather sofa

(Image credit: Unsplash/Stephanie Harvey)

Best course of action? Every time you vacuum your floors (let's say once a week), vacuum your sofa cushions, and beneath the cushions with the brush attachment. Every time you dust, take a dry cloth (a microfibre cloth is ideal) to your leather sofa or armchair, too. 

Find more about how to vacuum to get the job done like a pro.

Check that your sofa is made of finished leather, which can be cleaned with a lightly dampened cloth and a small amount of a gentle soap (see below). Your leather furniture may have a manufacturer's label, which will tell you which cleaning products it can withstand. 

A 'W' means you should use a water-based cleaner; 'S' or 'P' means dry-clean only; 'SW' or 'WS' means use either method to clean your leather furniture; 'X' means professional clean only.

Only dab or wipe at stains on leather. If they won't budge, don't scrub. If in doubt, always call in a professional upholstery cleaner instead.

As with all cleaning, particularly of upholstery, always test any cleaning methods or products on an unseen area before you proceed. Find out more about cleaning upholstery in our guide, too.

How to remove mild stains from leather with soap and water

For mild stains, dip a clean, damp cloth in a solution of warm water and leather soap, and use it to wipe away the stain. Ensure the cloth is damp, not wet, or you may leave behind a water mark.

How to remove stubborn stains from leather with rubbing alcohol

More stubborn stains, such as those from an ink pen, can be carefully removed with rubbing alcohol applied with a cotton bud. Be sure to apply the rubbing alcohol directly on to the stain, not the surrounding leather. Next, use a mild leather soap and water mix to remove any remaining alcohol.

How to spot clean leather with vinegar

You can create a leather cleaning solution by mixing equal parts of water and white vinegar. Dip a soft cloth (ideally a microfibre cloth) into the solution and wring it out so that the cloth is just damp, not completely wet. Dab gently at the stains. Next, use a mild leather soap and water mix to remove any remaining vinegar. Find more tips for cleaning with vinegar in our guide.

Cleaning leather with a commercial solution

You can mix a few drops of commercial leather cleaner in water or load it on to a damp cloth to remove dirt and stains, but as with all cleaning of leather, do a spot check on an unseen part of the sofa, first. Next, use a mild leather soap and water mix to remove any remaining cleaning solution.

After cleaning leather, dry it off

Once you've removed stains and dirt from leather, it's important to dry it carefully. In a warm room, it can be left to dry naturally if it is merely damp. Otherwise, use a clean, dry microfibre cloth to dry it more quickly to avoid any mildew or mould growth. Find more ways to get rid of mould in your home in our guide.

Copper table lamp

(Image credit: Original BTC)

Condition leather furniture with leather cream

Once a month, apply leather cream to the sofa with a clean cloth to keep it soft and supple, following the manufacturer's instructions. Let the leather cream sink in, then buff to a shine.

Condition leather furniture with olive oil

Apply a dab of olive oil to a clean, soft microfibre cloth and buff the leather sofa or armchair with it to help keep them supple. In fact, you can mix equal parts white vinegar and olive oil in a bottle, shake well and use it to clean and condition the furniture all in one. Wipe and buff the leather afterwards to remove the oil. 

How to stop leather furniture cracking

You might like the look of lived-in leather – its characterful and perfect for period homes and contemporary interiors. This type of furniture is made from aniline-dyed leather; the dye penetrates the material, making it a durable choice. With this type of furniture, cracking can be quite desirable.

However, if you'd rather keep your leather looking brand new, here's what to do:

  • Keep leather furniture away from radiators, roaring fires, direct sunlight and air conditioning units;
  • Vacuum and dust the leather regularly, using the brush attachment to avoid scratching;
  • After cleaning and drying, treat your furniture with a leather conditioner just before it is completely dry.

living room with green walls leather chair and drinks cabinet

(Image credit: Malcolm Menzies)

How to stop leather furniture smelling

There are a few easy ways to tackle smelly leather furniture:

  • Take the furniture outside. A shady spot is best if you're worried about the leather cracking; remove the cushions and allow the furniture to air for as long as possible, and bring it in before the evening starts to feel damp;
  • Failing that, air the room with the furniture in it;
  • Sprinkle bicarbonate of soda (baking soda in the US) over leather furniture and cushions, allow it to sit for an hour or two then vacuum off. Find out more about how to clean a house with bicarbonate of soda in our guide.
  • White vinegar diluted with water (half and half) wiped over the furniture will work to remove odours. Don't forget to treat the underside of cushions, too.
  • Check for mould and mildew and treat (as above). Ensure the leather furniture isn't kept in a dank or damp room. 

How to clean leather handbags

Cleaning a leather handbag is no more complicated than cleaning a leather sofa. Simply mix a solution of warm water and washing up liquids (find our pick of the best in our guide), dip a clean, soft microfibre cloth into it, wring it out and wipe the outside of the bag. Using a new clean, damp cloth, wipe off the soap. Dry with a lint-free cloth.

Cleaning leather car seats

You can use any commercial leather cleaner or leather cream to clean and buff leather car seats – or use a solution of one part Castille soap to five parts water. Soak a soft cloth in the mixture, wring off the excess, and gently wipe down the seats. The olive oil in the Castille soap will help moisturise the leather.

More cleaning tips: