A handsome leather couch is luxurious, for sure, but it’s also pricey. In other words, that thing better last a lifetime. Of course, wear and tear is inevitable—we’d never tell you to stop with the Netflix binges—but ideally the leather will only improve with age. You know, like a fine wine. “The best way to think of leather is that it is like your skin. Good-quality aniline leather is a natural, breathable material; it changes over time,” says furniture designer and RH artisan Timothy Oulton. And just like skin, leather requires regular care to look its best. Not sure where to start? We asked Oulton and Christophe Pourny, a New York–based restoration expert and the author of The Furniture Bible, to share their advice for how to clean leather furniture, plus the secrets to bringing those seen-better-days pieces back to life.
How to clean leather furniture
According to Pourny, the only regular maintenance your leather sofas and chairs need is a good dusting with a dry cloth every once in a while and a monthly application of a leather cream to keep the material soft and moisturized. Actually, this same product can help you clean up any dirt or stains that crop up, too. Here’s what to do, step by step:
- Start with soap and water
To tackle mild stains, dip a clean, damp washcloth in warm soapy water, and use it to wipe away the stain. “Specific leather soaps exist, usually called saddle soaps,” says Pourny. Darker stains, like those from an ink pen, are another story. According to Pourny, “a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol can do the trick.” Just be careful to apply it directly on the stain spot, so the alcohol doesn’t spread the stain onto more of the leather.
- Dry thoroughly
“Be sure to carefully dry the leather with another clean, dry cloth to avoid any mildew,” Pourny notes. For best results, leave the spot alone overnight.
- Apply leather cream
Re-moisturize the material by applying the leather cream with a clean cloth. Let it sink in, then buff to a shine if you’d like.
- Take it to a professional
If that doesn’t work, go to a respected shoe repair shop or leather care expert for help. “Even if it’s a bit controversial, avoid bringing your garment to your local cleaner, even if they advertise suede and leather care,” says Pourny. “I do not know anybody that had great luck with them and the damage will be irreversible.”
How to avoid cracks and distressed spots
- Assess the leather quality
Aniline-dyed leather furniture, where the dye penetrates the entire material, is not only durable but is actually meant to look lived-in, says Oulton. “Rather than covering and sealing the surface with a colored coating, we work dyes and waxes into the leather by hand. As a result, we feel like the furniture wears in and not out. It’s very easy to live with, and it develops a rich patina over time.”
- Consider your room layout
“In most cases, it is ambient conditions that will lead to the cracking of leather—extreme temperatures and lack of moisture,” says Oulton. “Placing a sofa right under your air-conditioning or next to a radiator or in front of a roaring fire is going to dry out the leather.” Sunlight can also have this effect, says Pourney, so avoid putting furniture right next to a window or glass door, or hang light-blocking curtains.
- Paws off
Cats, and sometimes dogs, will use leather as a (very expensive) scratching post, so teach them to stay off the sofa. “I think this is the biggest cause of damage we hear of from customers calling the studio,” says Pourny.
- Moisturize the leather
To treat specific distressed areas, find a treatment made for your type of leather. Pourny sells an Old World–inspired leather serum and cream, which can be applied with a cloth to soften the leather and smooth scratches, while Oulton recommends Leather Masters. Regardless, use a light hand. “Less is more when applying any product to leather. Test a small area first,” says Pourny. “For colored leather, be extra careful and know in advance that any product will most likely darken the leather.”
- For big jobs, turn to a pro
Don’t run the risk of damaging the leather further. “For large cuts, we recommend contacting a professional who can mix color and texture by applying heat, and make repairs to the leather,” says Pourny.