How To Clean And Condition Car Leather

Proper leather care is one of the most overlooked aspects of DIY detailing projects. A close second only to engine bay cleaning. Leather can “look fine” for years despite little to no intervention from the owner. There’s a belief that black, for instance, doesn’t get as dirty as the light-colored variety. This is, of course, false and could prove costly down the road.

Why You Should Clean & Condition Leather

Leather found in today’s vehicles has come a long way. It’s now manufactured for the fast-paced world and daily grind we are all accustomed to. A protective coating fends off harmful UV rays, liquids, and other contaminants. Car seats are not the only leather product using this technology. Shoes, coats, purses, and duffle bags are all treated in this manner. Sure, the salesperson at the store will try their best to sell you a cleaner and conditioner combo. But let’s be honest. How many of you follow through with a consistent leather conditioning regimen? How many bottles of leather conditioners are gathering dust in your shoe closet? This is because taking care of leather isn’t perceived as critical anymore.

This thinking could be why you lack the motivation to clean your seats and interior. Proper leather care prolongs its life span and makes your vehicle more enjoyable. It also keeps it from getting discolored, dried out, or cracked over time.

Your list of priorities may still rank leather care somewhere near the bottom. After all it “looks fine” and you are busy. I have one more reason that will make you rethink that list. You will lose money should you decide to sell the vehicle in the future. Potential buyers become connoisseurs when shopping for used vehicles. A poor interior will be scrutinized and could drive down the price significantly.

Truth About Leather Conditioner

Vintage Coupe with Red Leather

Most owners appreciate a clean interior, glossy exterior, and smudge-free windows. Some get quite defensive having to explain which one they spend the least amount of time on. I must admit I did what I’m about to tell you for years. I’d slap on a hefty layer of conditioner all around the interior of my vehicle and use it as a cleaner.  The dust was gone and everything looked fresh. In a few short minutes, I would switch my focus to more exciting tasks. I’d rather spend 20 minutes polishing the front grill with vinegar solution believe it or not. Even though the interior was the only part of the vehicle I could see while driving.

Truthfully, the conditioner will not benefit your leather without cleaning it first. It’s not designed to clean dirt and grime out of the pores. It’s purely a superficial fix much like body spray without taking a shower first. In fact, if all you do for the life span of your vehicle is clean the seats and not condition them, you will be better off. The dirt, grime, and top coat will prevent the conditioner from making any impact on your leather. You’ll end up wiping it on your clothes, and wasting your money.

Types of Leather Cleaner & Conditioner

Vintage Green Convertible Tan Leather


Don’t fall for marketing tactics when choosing a cleaner. Do your due diligence and make sure it’s leather friendly, of course. Anything specifically engineered for car seats and interiors is, in my opinion, a ruse. Again, make sure to read the label and ensure it won’t damage or discolor the leather.


Conditioner types vary. There are a couple of details you should be aware of before purchasing.

Pigmented leather conditioners enhance the durability of the top coat we previously discussed. It’s the most commonly used product for modern leather. It should be your top choice when making a selection.

Aniline and Nubuck leather conditioners are similar to each other. They are designed to protect as well as repel liquids. This product is great for older leather or if cracks have already begun forming in yours. The top coating on modern leather diminishes the need for these types of products. Consider going with a pigmented leather conditioner.

Key Feature

  • PH-Balanced Formulas are great at conditioning your leather without damage or discoloration. They protect the integrity of your leather and do not eat away the top coat.
  • Non-Greasy Formulas are self-explanatory. You can avoid staining your clothes and getting slimy hands by going with this feature.
  • Ease of Application deserves an honorable mention as a feature, in my opinion. Anything too difficult that becomes a hassle will hurt consistency. Conditioners come in spray, wax, or liquid form. Choose whichever one fits your method best. If you decide to go with a spray, apply it on your cleaning towel and not directly to the surface. This should be standard practice in all areas of car detailing.  It will be easier to control the over-spray and save you the time necessary to wipe off unwanted surfaces. I can’t explain the frustration of having to clean the conditioner off the inside of the windshield.

How to care for leather seats

You’ve considered the pros and cons when it comes to your leather seats and interior by now. You’ve done your due diligence and picked a conditioner. You even invested in a good leather friendly cleaning solution and are now eager to start. Well, I’m excited for you!

Seats are amazingly good at storing clues about your daily habits behind the wheel. I’ve found fast-food crumbs, coins, makeup, grass, lip ointment, and even dog treats in them. You don’t want these unwanted particles transferred to the floor of your vehicle. You should take some time and vacuum thoroughly before proceeding.

Set up a bucket of clean water for whipping off the cleaning solution. I buy my cleaning solution in bulk and transfer that to a spray bottle. Spray the cleaning solution on a clean microfiber towel and start cleaning the seats. You will have to apply a little elbow grease here and perhaps go over the same surface more than once. Don’t over saturate the towel with the cleaning solution. Notice all the small perforations in the leather. Excess solutions on the towel could get inside them and mold over time.

Pick a small inconspicuous place inside the vehicle and perform a spot test. Give it a few minutes and see how the cleanser reacts with your leather. Pay close attention to how the cleanser dries. It should not leave any residue or look like it’s drying it out.

Brown Leather Seat Interior

The natural way of cleaning is to keep going until everything has been wiped. By the time you are done, most of the liquid that remained has evaporated. That means less work at the end. In this case, clean and wipe the solution immediately using a dry microfiber towel. Doing this prevents the dirt and grime from reabsorbing into the leather.

Notice I keep referring to microfiber towels. They should be called “car care towels.” Nothing else should ever touch your vehicle. Enough said on this topic.

Similar to my other car care tips, leather care should become part of your regular routine. As we mentioned above, however, cleaning your leather is more important than conditioning. So if you’re strapped for time and have to choose one or the other, clean it. Conditioners should be applied 2 to 3 times per year.

Lastly, some owners and car dealerships will attempt to restore leather by dying it. A quick way of bringing back its glory days. If you suspect this to be the case, it’s better to get a hold of them and ask rather than guess. The spot check will also be an effective way of telling. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this practice. But you should factor that in when deciding which products to choose from.


Overlooking the leather care portion of your vehicle’s interior is a sure way to miss out on cash later on. Few products depreciate faster than vehicles. Doing everything you can to keep them in mint condition will pay dividends should you decide to sell it.

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