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How to Care for Leather
"If you treat it right, leather only gets better with time. If you don't, it'll dry out, get stiff, and even start to crack. That's because the natural fibers of leather are prone to break and fray with the passage of time, particularly when they're exposed to harsh conditions. So, anything you can do to keep the fibers clean, strong and supple will help your leather stay looking bold and beautiful—the way leather is meant to look.
Most of the leather accessories you buy have been tanned, which means the animal skins they were made from underwent a chemical process to make them less absorbent, more durable, and more flexible. So, when you run your fingers across a leather belt or pair of leather dress shoes that feels soft and smooth to the touch, looks a little shiny, and could easily deflect water, now you know—that's what tanning did.
That being said, you don't need to know much about the chemicals and processes used in tanning to take care of leather, but you should know that most of what you'll do to life-proof your leather is meant to preserve the integrity of the tanning agent that was used to tan the hide.
Keep Leather Soft by Conditioning It
You might find it useful to think about caring for leather the same way you think about caring for your own skin (leather is skin, after all). It's a good idea to moisturize regularly the body parts you use often for hard work (like your hands, for example) to keep them soft and prevent cracking. Leather's the same way; to keep it durable and supple, you need to condition it.
It's easy to find leather conditioners (often called "hide feeds") online, and they're fairly easy to apply. Using a clean cotton cloth or an applicator sponge, work the conditioner into the leather, let it absorb for 10-15 minutes, and buff off the excess with a clean, 100% cotton cloth. Do it every few months and you can bet your leather will stay soft and supple, no matter how often you use it.
Use Polish to Improve the Shine
Whether you want leather so slick you can see your reflection in it, or you just want to add some luster to a leather wallet, handbag, or pair of shoes, polishing works wonders. It's especially good for keeping leather from looking worn or scratched after repeated use.
All you need for a bang-up job is a soft cloth (old t-shirts and rags work fine), a can of polish, and a sturdy brush. Clean the leather with a brush and/or rag, use the cloth to work the polish into the leather in tight, circular motions, and use the brush to brush away any excess polish. Use another rag to buff the leather for extra shine and you're done. Remember, you can shine leather whenever it starts looking scratched or dull, and you won't hurt the leather if you do it often.
Be Sure to Keep it Clean
Leather is surprisingly easy to clean, even if you're trying to get rid of tough stains. For light cleaning, use a rag soaked in warm water and a mild soap (wrung out thoroughly) to gently clean the area in question, and then use another rag soaked only in water (also wrung out thoroughly) to wipe away the soapy residue. You can also buy leather cleaners, which don't require rinsing, if you'd rather rely on something made specifically for leather.
Removing stains from leather can almost always be achieved with household chemicals common to most homes. For grease stains, simply wipe the grease away from the leather with a dry cloth—don't use water at all. For ink stains, dip a cotton swab (or rag tip) in rubbing alcohol and rub it over the stain. Use a hair dryer (set to the lowest heat) to dry the clean area. Finally, for heavier stains like food or blood, make a paste with equal parts cream of tartar and lemon juice. Rub it onto the affected area, leave it for ten minutes, and remove it with a damp rag. Quick and easy!
Protect it from Corrosives
Aside from caring for the leather, it's important to protect it from the environment and other outside factors known to harm leather. Generally, you want to keep leather out of direct sunlight, and to keep it free from dirt, dust and sand, which can cause discoloration and cracking. Also, be sure to avoid using harsh corrosives, like bleach, or ammonia-based cleaners, like Windex, on leather as they easily lead to discoloration and damage to the natural fibers of the leather. For more about how to protect leather, visit our guide to properly storing clothing.
As you can see, it doesn't take much work to reap the rewards of well-cared-for leather products and accessories. If you remember to treat it like you would your own skin, you can bet you'll have a product that looks beautiful and lasts for years to come.