Q&A #9: How Do Body Oils Affect Leather?
Posted by Daniel Sutton on Jul 9th 2014
Leather Guru Ponders Animal Hide's Deepest Mysteries
Q: How Do Body Oils Affect Leather?
A: Heh. Body oils. What are we going to do with them, and what would we ever do without them?
To answer the first question, body oils are pretty much God’s gift to humanity: they're our very own personalized leather conditioners. Without those pesky oils at the end of your fingertips, our skin would have no lubrication, and dry out and wrinkle up like a raisin before whittling away into icky piles of dust (or just the latter part on the off chance Buffy the Vampire Slayer just staked you, and you are a vampire). But on the other edge of this handy-dandy sword, we’re like Rogue from X-Men, destroying anything we touch. That actually might also be a plus to some people. You can take that part however you want.
There is one definite bad thing about this peculiar superpower: it messes up leather, big time. You’ve probably noticed it by those dark spots that came out of nowhere on your leather purse, or flakes and cracks on the armrests of your leather couch. Or anything that has lots of contact with skin. That's how body oils affect leather. Give them a chance to accumulate, and in time they’ll tear a whole right through your leather and rot it straight to the gates of Hades itself.
Body oils and perspiration are made up with lots of salts, enzymes and fatty acids, which can amount for a pH level that is adamantly not leather’s style. Chemical reaction ensues any time your sweat and fingerprints touch your leather. Unfriendly pH oils penetrate and build up, and leather fibers weaken as it keeps building. Eventually, body oils affect leather by destroying it completely. Adding to your woes, you probably won’t even notice this is happening until a lot of oils have already soaked in. The first symptoms you’re likely to observe are flaking or a darkening spot. If you let body oils affect leather over a long time, your leather will start to crack, at which point irreparable damage can occur.
If I may state the obvious, it’s a good idea to prevent this from ever happening. Couches and chairs are the worst offender for body oil build up. Because we sit and lay in them so much, furniture is the most vulnerable to letting body oils affect leather. Like whenever you're coming in from outdoor work with lots of sweat, or munching on a lot of greasy food - you know how that works. Even pets can contribute, because hey, it turns out they have body oils too. And you thought the omnipresent bundles of hair were the worst of your woes. Or the urine stains (those actually are – “How to Clean Pet Urine from Leather Furniture”).
Don't fret though. You don't have to let body oils affect leather. Cover your couches up with blankets or coverings when they’re getting used. If you’re extra sweaty, try sitting on something not made of leather, or shower off before taking your nap. You don’t have to keep them on permanently, (although this will help protect leather from dust). Just give them some kind of coverage from the most common places body oils will accrue: the headrest and armrests. There have been sad things happen to leather furniture neglected to suffer the harsh throes of our bodily secretions. If you love your leather, protect it.
So what if I suspect my leather’s already got a lot of body oils? That’s a good question, leathermancer. I’d recommend cleaning it out. You’ll need to know the type of your leather first, which will determine how you clean it. Many types of leather will need different treatments than others. Suede, for example, can’t take ordinary leather treatment methods. If you’ve got an aniline couch, most leather conditioners are going to darken its color. Check your leather’s type first (our blog "How to Identify Types of Leather" may help), and the leather item’s manufacturer for cleaning recommendations. After that, you’ll want to test any leather cleaner you plan to use in a discreet area before using it on your whole leather item. For most finished leathers, I like to use Straight Cleaner no. 2.
Any time after cleaning leather, it’s a good idea to restore the natural lubricants you just lost. Yeah, cleaning pulls those good old lubricants out with the bad. Leather cleaner's an impartial predator. Leather conditioner is what you need for the job. If your leather was beginning to crack, you may need a more heavy leather paste or dressing, or a more intensive, frequent application of leather conditioner, or you may give it to much and rot the fibers. Get to know what your leather needs and make sure its texture doesn't begin to become anywhere near mushy ("How Often Should I Condition Leather?”). For routine care, I recommend Leather Care Liniment no. 1, or if you’re treating furniture, Furniture Treatment no. 5 is even better. Test them first like your leather cleaner, and feed it to that leather to get it back to its happy, supple self. Leather conditioner also has a cool bonus feature: it protects leather, helping ward off future body oils and contaminants that will try to seep in. You can read a little bit more about how to use leather conditioner in our other blog “How Much Leather Conditioner Should I Use?.”
You’ve got the general idea how body oils affect leather, 'mancers. Take care of that couch, and it’ll take care of you for years to come. A close bond, those leather couches can forge. They take on all your weight, day after day, never asking for anything but to be your close confidante, giving free hugs and listening to all your problems even when no one else will.
Don’t stare. You know you talk to your couch too - right?
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