Hands-On Review: The Best Leather Cleaners and Conditioners to Ride Like Royalty
Clean and condition your leather upholstery for comfort and luxury.
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BY Mike Bumbeck / LAST UPDATED ON May 17, 2021
Leather automobile upholstery has been around since Bertha Benz fired up her Benz Patent-Motorwagen and logged its first long-distance journey in 1888. Automobile technology has thankfully moved beyond the Motorwagen’s leather-lined brakes and 2/3 HP engine, but leather is still the premium choice for luxurious cabin comfort.
Unlike durable modern plastics and synthetic fabrics, leather requires more frequent care to prevent irreparable damage. It’s prohibitively expensive to repair leather seats once extensive damage sets in, but it’s easy, inexpensive, and satisfying to keep leather upholstery in like-new condition. Cleaning removes dirt and oils, and conditioners moisturize and protect.
The best leather cleaner and conditioner depends on what kind of leather upholstery you have and its condition, so we got our hands on some leather care products and put them to the test.
Versatile and easy to use all-in-one spray liquid cleans, conditions, and protects leather, vinyl, and rubber.
- Outstanding performance on multiple surfaces
- Excellent cleaning power
- Perfect for combination leather and vinyl seats and upholstery
- Some prefer using a separate cleaner and conditioner
- Not compatible with hard plastics, painted trim, or window tint
Traditional two-step cleaner and conditioner that leaves leather supple and clean with excellent protection.
- Two-step cleaning and conditioning process
- Softens and conditions leather without excessive shine
- Separate cleaner and conditioner requires two steps
- Classic leather scent not for everybody
Disposable leather care wipes that clean, condition, and protect out on the road or back home in the driveway.
- All-in-one leather care on the go
- Compact package is easy to stow
- Not ideal for larger jobs
- Can dry out over long periods
- May need a separate cloth to remove excess
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About Our Leather Conditioner Review
We chose a range of leather cleaning and conditioning products for this review, from dedicated cleaners and conditioners to new products that do it all on leather, vinyl, and rubber. We already had a few personal leather care favorites in our collection, so we purchased a couple of new all-in-one products, and received some samples directly from manufacturers.
We tried out the lot on the leather interior of a 1987 Mitsubishi Starion. Since it was time for a deep interior clean and detail, all the seats came out of the car and went up on sawhorses and service carts. The last time this car had no seats was on an assembly line back in Japan!
The upholstery is a blend of pigmented leather and matching vinyl. Burgundy was big in the Eighties, and Mitsubishi put plenty of it into their flagship turbo specialty sports coupe. We’ve always used a separate cleaner and conditioner on these seats over the years, but we were amazed at how well the new all-in-one products performed.
Which one did we think is best? That’s a tough call to make. They all worked very well. The differences come down to application methods and fragrance. Choose a leather care product you’re most likely to use, and you can’t go wrong.
Benefits of Leather Conditioner
- Clean and Condition. Removing dirt and grime prevents damage, and a conditioner moisturizes and protects leather against dirt and grime. A deep clean and conditioning can restore dried out and dirty leather.
- Protect Your Investment. Cracked, chapped, or shabby leather seats won’t help you sell your car, and new leather upholstery is prohibitively expensive.
- Ride In Comfort. You didn’t get leather seats because you wanted a backache or clammy legs. Cleaning and conditioning leather car upholstery preserve the supple, breathable comfort you deserve.
- Pleasant Fragrance. Cleaned and conditioned leather looks, feels, and smells like luxury. Removing rancid sweat, oils, and grime is crucial to successful leather cleaning and conditioning. Don’t let the funk turn your leather seats into junk.
Types of Automotive Leather
Automakers have myriad names for their different types of leather, but automotive leather falls into two general categories when it comes to cleaning and conditioning: finished or porous. The majority of modern car leather is finished, with color and protective coatings for durability and easy cleaning. Porous leathers, like true aniline or suede, are easily damaged by liquids or oils and require special care.
Finished, Pigmented, or Coated
Automakers have been using various combinations of pigments, dyes, and protective coatings on car leather for over a century, and this type of leather is collectively referred to as finished. Premium semi-aniline or top grain leather is the least processed of the bunch, with only a thin coating on top of natural texture. Thicker synthetic coatings are often embossed with a simulated grain to add a more natural look and feel to lower-quality leather.
Aniline or Natural Leather
Aniline leather is the most natural and expensive automotive leather upholstery. The name refers to the soluble aniline dyes that give the leather a natural look and warm, supple feel. Authentic uncoated aniline leather is porous and requires special care, cleaning, and conditioning. A tiny drop of water in an inconspicuous area can help identify porous aniline leather. If it soaks in, you have an answer.
Automaker marketing departments have created plenty of leather-like names for these synthetic imposters through the years, but this type of material isn’t leather at all. Pontiac’s Morrokide sounded exotic but was grained vinyl all the same. Uniroyal even dreamed up the fictional Naugaas the source for their Naugahyde material. Today’s faux leather is better than yesterday’s leatherette and is increasingly used with finished leather on automotive upholstery.
Lexol has been in the car care business since the early Eighties, and its premium lineup of cleaners and conditioners carries on today as part of Energizer Brands. We’ve used its leather cleaner and conditioner for over a decade with excellent results.
California-based Chemical Guys is a relative newcomer to the car care industry and has become a major player thanks to its innovative product lineup and extensive library of instructional videos. We gave their leather cleaner and leather conditioner creme a try and were impressed with its quality and predictable results.
Mother’s built an empire from a single can of wheel polish. The California company still makes its world-famous Mag and Aluminum polish and a full range of high-quality car care products. Check out Mothers how-to section for expert guidance.
Meguiar’s celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2011, and the California company continues its legacy with a full line of traditional and cutting-edge car care products. Their Gold Class Cleaner Conditioner Protectant performed with the consistent and forgiving qualities shared across the entire product line. Check out their how-to videos for car care knowledge.
Aero Cosmetics has got you covered by land, air, or sea. The Texas-based company makes a full line of products for automobiles, aircraft, recreational vehicles, and watercraft. Their Leather Soap and Leather Care conditioner delivered premium results, and the company hosts instructional videos for all its products over at washwax.com
Leather Conditioner Pricing
- Under $10: Most single bottles of cleaner or conditioner, quick wipes, and the majority of all-in-one products can be yours for under a sawbuck.
- $10-20: Larger quantities of all-in-one and separate cleaners and conditioners can crest ten bucks, but they’re still a great deal compared to new leather upholstery.
- $20 and up: Complete leather care kits with everything you need to get the job done along with boutique or specialized products that demand a premium price.
Cleaning is a crucial first step to leather conditioning. The mild ph-balanced cleaner removes oils and potentially abrasive crud without damage and prepares the leather for conditioning. Using a leather soap or cleaner first and then applying a dedicated leather conditioner has its advantages, especially if the leather is neglected and filthy.
Dirty and dried-out leather is a bad combination. Conditioner moisturizes and protects the leather from damage and maintains its original combination of breathable comfort and support. Using a dedicated conditioner gives you complete control over the application process. A microfiber cloth full of conditioner can double as a cleaner, but use a new clean cloth as needed to prevent reintroduction.
All-in-one products offer a one-and-done approach and are an excellent option for regular cleaning, conditioning, and protecting leather and vinyl. All-in-one conditioners are an increasingly popular choice as automakers use leather and vinyl together on car seats. Use a brush, vacuum cleaner, or both.
- Condition. Choose leather care products based on leather condition. All-in-one products shine for regular maintenance. Separate cleaners and conditioners are better for dirty, aged, or dried-out leather. Neglected or damaged leather may require repair.
- Full Kit. A complete leather care kit with everything you need to get the job done can save time and money. Using manufacturer-recommended brushes, applicators and microfiber cloths can deliver superior results.
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Leather Care and Conditioning Tips
- Always test leather cleaners, conditioners, or any car care product in a small inconspicuous area. We can’t stress this first step enough. Use a light cloth for testing and check for color or pigment bleed.
- Clean and condition leather often. Frequent light applications and attention are better than infrequent heavy assaults. Dirt buildup and body motion abrade color and texture, and harmful oils require immediate removal.
- Brush and vacuum. Don’t grind dirt and oil into your leather. Make sure the tips of any vacuum attachments are smooth to prevent scratches. Use soft bristle brushes to lift dust and dirt out of folds, creases, and grain.
- Microfiber towels and applicators are indispensable leather and interior care equipment. Get different colors. Use a bright-colored cloth that makes it easy to see dirt for cleaning. Use a different color for conditioning and buffing.
- Don’t overdo it. Apply leather conditioner onto a cloth and work it into the leather a little at a time. Remove excess product as directed. Avoid overspray. Do not spray leather conditioners directly onto the upholstery.
Q: What kind of leather does my car have?
Unless you’re rolling in a vintage Rolls Royce Silver Shadow with Connoly upholstery, your car’s leather is likely finished and compatible with most automotive leather cleaners and conditioners. That said, always test the leather conditioner on a small, inconspicuous area before use. Do not use anything wet on porous leather.
Q: What if my leather is cracked, discolored, or peeling?
An extensive cleaning and conditioning can salvage dried-out or dirty leather, but it won’t fix tears, delamination, pigment loss, cracks, heavy abrasion, or punctures. Look into a leather repair and pigment kit for minor pigment loss, abrasion, or peeling. Consult a professional upholsterer for more severe damage.
Q: Can I use a household furniture leather conditioner in my car?
You could, but an automotive interior is a far harsher environment than your living room. Your car seats are not the same as your sofa. Automotive leather upholstery and conditioners have to stand up to searing heat, sub-zero cold, relentless direct sunlight, flying fast food, and miles of road grime.
Q: Can I use leather conditioner on vinyl?
Yes. Automotive leather conditioners will not harm vinyl, and most all-in-one conditioners are formulated for use on leather and vinyl. The ever-increasing demand for leather upholstery means automakers use vinyl and leather together on the same seat. Avoid overspray; leather conditioners can cause spotting on hard plastic and painted surfaces.
Choose a leather care product that works best for you. Disposable wipes are great for quick detailing and onboard emergencies. All-in-one products excel at regular maintenance. Separate cleaners and conditioners can work miracles on dirty or dried-out seats. Leather deserves the best. If you’ve got it, flaunt it!