It’s a disturbing sight. You open the door to your relatively new, upscale car – and see worn, dry or cracked leather upholstery inside.
Maintaining leather automobile interiors isn’t difficult. It only requires a small, regular commitment of time and money – and using the right conditioner for the type of upholstery in the car.
The Best Leather Conditioners
1. Leather Honey Leather Conditioner
It was 1968 when Leather Honey hit the market, and it’s still a best-selling conditioning product today. The reason for that is simple: it works, and works well.
Leather Honey is a deep-conditioning oil which contains no solvents or toxic ingredients, and doesn’t leave a sticky surface or odor behind. In addition to moisturizing the upholstery, it also contains water-repellent ingredients to protect against damage from sweat, rain, or snow that gets into the vehicle. (Important: that doesn’t mean that this is a waterproofing product.)
Leather Honey is suitable for use on semi-aniline, protected or nubuck leather; it should not be used on aniline or suede leather, and trying to rub it into faux leather won’t do much good.
It can be applied directly with the hand or with a cloth and can remove some stains, although it’s better to use a leather cleaning product before conditioning. Like any conditioner, it won’t remove scratches, but it can hide them by making the leather more supple.
This conditioner will probably be around for another 50+ years (hopefully), because it works so well on almost all leather upholstery in vehicles and in homes. It’s reasonably-priced, and the go-to product for millions of Americans.
2. Chemical Guys Leather Conditioner
Unlike some products which contain both cleaners and conditioners in the same spray, Chemical Guys understands that the two processes are very different and should be undertaken separately.
The kit includes a cleaning spray that’s clear and odorless; once it’s been used on the dirt, grime and stains on your upholstery, you can rub the conditioning lotion into the leather to nourish it.
The conditioner doesn’t contain any toxic chemicals; it does contains glycerin, aloe, an emulsifier and vitamin E, which will lubricate and leave a glossy protective sheen to upholstery in addition to nourishing it. It also leaves a faint leather-like aroma. The two products work together quite well to clean and maintain leather in the car or home.
Both the Chemical Guys cleaner and conditioner are pH-balanced, and can be used on any type of leather or faux leather (although we’d be very careful to test on a small corner of aniline or nubuck leather before using any cleaning or conditioning product).
The price for this kit isn’t bad; it contains 8 ounces of each product, for about the same cost as 16 ounces of Leather Honey. It does go fairly quickly, though, if you’re cleaning and conditioning your leather upholstery religiously.
3. Meguiar's Gold Class Rich Leather Cleaner
Here’s an all-in-one cleaner and conditioner which won’t be as effective as using separate products for each task. But it’s the best of the bunch when it comes to all-in-one products, and the spray is extremely easy to use.
There are nutrients and moisturizers in this Meguiar’s product, which will clean most stains and leave leather upholstery in good condition with added UV protection, although it will be rather slippery for a little while.
There is also one toxic ingredient which can be a skin irritant, 2- Aminoisobutanol, meaning you should wear gloves or use a cloth when rubbing the spray into your leather.
The Gold Class cleaner and conditioner should not be used on suede, nubuck or aniline leathers, but is safe for all other leather and faux leather products.
It’s very inexpensive, so you won’t be risking much by trying it (except potentially your upholstery – so be sure to test it on a small swatch first).
4. Adam's Polishes Leather Care Kit (Cleaner & Conditioner)
In a short time-frame, Adam's Polishes has become an industry standard in the detailing world (a number of their products are on featured on The Vehicle Lab). Namely because they go out of their way to provide superior products.
In a similar way to Chemical Guys, Adam's Polishes follows the same strategy of offering a leather care kit (cleaner and polisher).
Truth be told, you should use separate products to perform two different tasks; The cleaner quite literally cleans the leather while the conditioner works to nourish the natural tanned hides or synthetic materials.
Adam's also understands that most car interiors are comprised of real leather, leatherette (viny), plastics, and plastic coated wood veneers. As a result, their product is engineered to accommodate this.
While much isn't said about what's inside, Adam's tells us that the conditioner leaves a satin finish that is never greasy or oily. It also contains UV blockers for SPF 65 protection.
The finish also results in a fresh leather aroma, which stays. Keep that in mind if the "new car smell" is off-putting for you.
5. Bickmore Bick 4 Leather Conditioner
Bickmore has been around since 1882. While their leather conditioner isn't marketed specifically towards the automotive industry, the application and results are just he same (it's actually nice not to see fancy marketing gimmicks and product labeling).
Bickmore notes that the Bick 4 leather conditioner performs four tasks: cleans, conditions, polishes, and protects. They note that unlike other brands Bick 4 is wax-free (doesn't affect breathability) and it will not darken colorfast leather or deteriorate stitching.
It is effective on all smooth, finished leathers, including exotics. A number of people have noted they've used Bickmore on aniline and semi-aniline leather with great success (always test conditioning products on a swatch first).
Overall for the amount of use you get (a little can go a long way), and the price of the product while being made in the USA (Detroit, Michigan), it's a great product.
What to Look for in a Leather Conditioner
It doesn’t make sense to use the same soap to wash both your clothes and your dishes, since they’re made from two completely different materials. You’d use laundry detergent for the clothes and dish soap for the kitchen, because each has the right properties for the two very different tasks.
You might not realize it, but the same care has to be taken when choosing a product to clean and condition leather upholstery – because not all material sold as “leather” really is leather, and not all types of “real” leather have the same properties.
That’s why properly caring for your car’s upholstery requires the right type of conditioner.
Types of Leather Used in the Automotive Industry
Aniline or Semi-Aniline Leather
The best types of leather are full-grain and top-grain leather, cut from the top layer of a tanned hide. Full-grain retains all of the hide’s grain and imperfections, and it’s very rarely used for automobile upholstery.
Top-grain is the most luxurious leather seen in vehicles; it’s had the very top of the grain sanded off, and is dyed to create a more uniform surface appearance.
Soluble aniline dyes which can penetrate the leather are used for this process, since they won’t obscure the natural look and markings of the fabric. Leather treated in this way is known as aniline leather; if a thin, transparent protective topcoat is added, the fabric is called semi-aniline leather.
Semi-aniline leather feels almost as soft as aniline, but the added durability created by the topcoat makes it slightly “waxy” to the touch. Either way, it’s very high-quality leather, it’s relatively fragile, it’s easily scratched or stained by accumulated dirt and moisture – and it requires frequent and careful conditioning.
Some commercial conditioners are formulated specifically to be gentle enough for aniline or semi-aniline leather, and will usually contain a mild sealant to protect against further damage. An abrasive product will damage the leather even further, and home cleansers should never be used.
Split-grain and bonded leather are of lesser quality than full-grain leather that’s been aniline-dyed. Split-grain (sometimes described by the marketing term “genuine leather”) comes from the bottom section of the animal hide, while bonded leather is a processed product made from a combination of leather scraps and other non-leather material; in truth, it’s not “real” leather.
Each of these leathers or leather products doesn’t have much natural beauty which might be obscured. So they’re normally covered with a thick, protective layer of a polymer like polyurethane or silicone, as well as non-transparent pigments – that’s why this type of leather is called either “protected” or “pigmented” leather. Protected leather is what’s most often used for car upholstery.
The protective layer makes this type of leather much more durable, largely stain-resistant, scratch-resistant and moisture resistant. That also makes it much easier to clean, and tolerant of most mass-marketed leather cleaners and conditioners which might be too strong for aniline leathers.
Nubuck or Suede Leather
Nubuck and suede are actually two different types of leather, but they’ve each been sanded to create their unique velvet-like feel. Nubuck is usually top-grain leather that’s buffed on the “grain” side, making it more durable, while suede is split-grain leather sanded on the inside so it’s softer and more resistant to stains and scuffs.
Conditioners for these leathers should be gentler than those for pigmented leather, since they don’t have a protective coating. However, they’re easier to maintain than aniline or semi-aniline leathers and nubuck is quite a bit tougher, so many all-purpose conditioners will work quite well on nubuck or suede. One of the best ways to prolong the life of these leathers is to apply a protector spray, in addition to cleaning and conditioning them.
Even though they’re fake leather, faux products resemble the real thing in their texture and graining, so they can be conditioned in the same way as protected leather if they’re able to be penetrated by a liquid or cream.
In that case it can be even more important to condition them regularly, because faux leather is especially prone to cracking and degrading.
All-In-One vs Dedicated Products
All-in-one products clean and condition the leather in your car at the same time. They’re fine for relatively-new upholstery that’s in good condition and cleaned regularly.
But once the leather has aged or is starting to show signs of damage – or if it’s highly-sensitive aniline or semi-aniline leather – you’ll be doing the leather a favor if you use separate cleaning and conditioning products.
Older or high-quality leather requires a good deal of TLC in order to keep it in like-new condition, and leather conditioner is one of the best tools to accomplish that goal.
A dedicated conditioner will be more likely to remove any discoloration in the leather, remove dirt and grime that’s worked its way into the fabric, and restore the leather’s luster and sheen. Many will also protect the upholstery against moisture and the sun’s UV rays.
Leather Conditioner Application
You’ll find leather conditioners sold in three different forms:
- Conditioning oils: If you played baseball or softball as a kid, you’ll probably remember rubbing neatsfoot oil into your glove to keep it soft and supple. The right conditioning oils do much the same thing for your upholstery, but the wrong ones can make the leather sticky or even destroy it.
- Conditioning creams: The best creams provide leather with needed nourishment, in addition to the moisture that’s provided by oils. Many will also serve as a protectant.
- Conditioning waxes: These don’t nourish and moisturize as deeply as creams, but they do provide better surface protection for your leather.
Most people choose either oil for its convenience, or creams for their multiple benefits. Spray applications, most often seen with all-in-one products, are even more convenient. However, they’re not as strong, and they primarily work just on the surface of the leather without penetrating into its fibers.
Don’t Ruin The Leather!
The one thing you never want to experience is that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when the conditioner you bought for your gorgeous leather upholstery actually ruins the leather.
One way to avoid that issue is to look for a pH-balanced conditioner which doesn’t contain solvents or other toxic ingredients. Many DIY car owners stick to those which clearly identify their ingredients as non-toxic, and choosing an organic conditioner is a great way to do that.
In any event, be aware that many conditioning products can damage leather; always test a cleaner or conditioner on a small, “hidden” area of the upholstery to make sure it doesn’t create a film, leave the surface sticky, darken the leather or cause other types of damage. Light-colored leathers are particularly at risk for darkening.
It’s easy to wait until tomorrow when a task doesn’t have to be done today. Putting off conditioning for the leather upholstery in your car, however, is a mistake which can leave you cursing yourself for procrastinating. Buying a leather conditioner and using it religiously, will keep your car’s leather in great shape for the life of the vehicle.