How to Clean a Leather Purse, According to Experts – The Wall Street Journal

Leather bags not only help you look pulled together but can also take a beating, which is why we love them. But if yours has been lugging a laptop on daily commutes or landing on the floor of restaurants or car floorboards, chances are it’s accumulated some dirt, stains or scratches or, at the very least, is looking a bit worn and dull.

To help you bring your tote, messenger bag or other satchel back to life, we tapped top pros to share their leather-care secrets, and did our own testing to narrow down the best methods. These are the ones to use on the majority of leather types (excluding nubuck, patent leather, and suede).

Clean and condition quarterly

Leather Master

Leather Care Bundle

For general cleaning and to tackle any grayish buildup that accumulates from every day use, a water-based pH formula every few months is ideal, says Lonnie McDonald , a leather-care instructor and owner of Leather Pro & Integrity Carpet Care in Grandview, Mo., who literally wrote the book on leather care . His go-to is Leather Master Leather Treatment Bundle , a three-step process of cleaning, conditioning and protecting; it entails applying the formulas with a foam sponge or lint-free cloth, allowing each coat to dry before the next. (Pro tip: Clean seam to seam, McDonald says; if you clean just a spot, it will leave a ring. )

In our tests, we found the kit worked exceptionally well to restore the luster to leather that had dried out and stiffened, giving it a buttery smoothness that none of the other methods we tried provided. McDonald recommends using this treatment quarterly for an everyday bag—but since handles are prone to getting grimy from body oils plus dirt, they may need more frequent cleanings.  

Eliminate stains with targeted treatments


Water Based Wipes

Dr . Bronner’s

Organic Virgin Coconut Oil

The particular newer the stain, the better chance you’ll have of removing it—and it helps to know the cause of the blemish, too. To remove an ink mark, for example , the best fix is to spritz a cotton swab with hair spray containing alcohol, and then dab the ink and feather it out, says McDonald. If that will doesn’t work, the only way to salvage it may be to dye the whole bag a darker color.  

Stains from lipstick and other types of cosmetics are among the ones leather-care pro Chris Moore handles regularly at Artbag , the New York City handbag-repair shop he owns. “Makeup these days is designed to last through sweat, so it doesn’t come off easily, ” he says, which is why it often requires a pro-level treatment.  

But there are some quick fixes you can try, such as natural baby wipes , suggests Liz Sennett, associate director of LCO fashion at The RealReal, an online resale marketplace for high-end handbags and other goods. It works best on darker leather rather than light, which is more prone to staining, and, says Sennett, “you want to lift, not spread, the stain, so it’s best to dab rather than wipe. ” 

If the source of the stain has a high alcohol content, another option is to treat the discoloration with a clean towel dipped in a little coconut oil , she adds. “This worked well for me when I got hand sanitizer on a Louis Vuitton bag during the early days of Covid, ” she says, and it passed our testing too. “Just dab lightly so you don’t get a wet spot, ” she adds, because water spots are notoriously difficult to clear up.

Use a light touch when treating scuff marks

Moneysworth & Best

Professional Paste Polish

Scratches on leather can seem like a lost cause, but the good news is that a light scratch—say, from a fingernail—is surprisingly simple (and free) to fix. McDonald’s method: “Gently rub the area with your fingertip. ” Key word: gentle. “If you put too much pressure in one area, it changes the composition of the leather, and you’ll be left with a discolored place, ” warns Moore.  

Deeper scratches are harder to repair for this reason, but fitness the bag with a leather cream or neutral, colorless shoe polish will minimize their appearance.  

Some leather experts have suggested baby shampoo, white vinegar or a mild bar soap for cleaning plus tackling scuff marks, but in our testing, none of these removed stains or scratches or improved the leather’s overall appearance. Additionally , when used in conjunction with a leather polish, there wasn’t any difference from using the polish on its own. In fact , because these methods required getting the leather somewhat damp, the results often led to leather that dried with a rumpled texture—one reason experts strongly caution against saturating leather.

To prevent future blemishes, store your leather bag on a shelf in a cool, dry place. If you won’t be using this for a period of time, stuff (but don’t overstuff) it along with tissue to help maintain its shape and keep it from developing fold marks.  

The advice, recommendations or even rankings expressed in this article are those of the Buy Side through WSJ editorial team, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by our commercial partners.

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