Compared to its cloth counterpart, leather and vegan leather interiors offer the driver and passengers a premium cabin experience while also allowing the vehicle owner to express themselves with a wide range of different colors to choose from. This of course begs the question: How does one properly maintain and protect the finish to preserve it for as long as possible? This blog today will aim to shed some light on proper leather maintenance and what you can do to keep your interior looking factory-fresh.
Understanding The Material
Before we get to discussing any products or processes, understanding the material that you are working on is crucial to understanding how to properly care for it. All modern leathers from all manufacturers are going to fall into 1 of 3 categories:
- Full aniline
Learning the differences between the 3 materials can help you properly assess the surface and shed some light on which cleaning approach should be used. This is imperative because the process for full aniline leather is not the same as it would be on synthetic leather, and not properly caring for the surface could potentially result in unintentional damage. That said, let’s briefly discuss the main differences between the 3 options starting with synthetic.
Synthetic Leather (A.K.A Vegan Leather)
This has become quite the popular option amongst car manufacturers to cut production costs but still provide the look and (somewhat) feel of authentic leather. Some of the most recognizable examples of this would be the Vegan Leather found in Teslas, SensaTec found in BMW’s, or NuLuxe found in Lexus. Synthetic leathers are honestly pretty self-explanatory by just the name alone; they are fully man-made synthetic materials such as vinyl or are even sometimes made from recyclable materials. Generally, synthetic leathers are where you will find most of the exotic color options from all across the color spectrum – vibrant whites, bright reds, ocean blues, and thousand colors in between. Of course like all things, there are exceptions to this, as companies like Rolls-Royce or other high-end manufacturers can still achieve pigmented leather, but we’ll discuss why it’s different from synthetic once we get to the full aniline section.
The construction of synthetic leather can vary depending on the method used for creation, but usually, it is a material that is constructed of about 2-4 layers. Due to the artificial creation methods used, synthetic leather gains its UV protection, elasticity, and pigment from chemical mixtures that are poured/pressed on a leather-textured surface for curing; the results are a vibrant, fully synthetic, leather-like surface. Due to the artificial nature of this type of leather, the chemicals used will seal everything in – keeping the dyes from fading and offering a less permeable surface (sometimes even waterproof). For surfaces like this, depending on the level of cleaning required, I would recommend either one of our Leather Cleaners or possibly even APC in extreme situations (work truck, work van, or similar). Once clean, you’ll want to add some additional protection to protect against any spills, blue jean dye transfer, etc. Traditional leather conditioners should not be used here, as there is nothing organic about the substrate that would be able to absorb the product or hydrate the surface. Instead, you’ll want to aim for something that aids in repellency and additional UV protection - *Enter Q² LeatherShield and Q² LeatherCoat.
For this specific seat material type, I would reach for Q² Leathershield, as it is a real ceramic coating for leather and synthetic leather surfaces. To use Leathershield, as I mentioned before, you’ll want to make sure the surface is clean and free of any residues or oils. Our Leathershield Mild or Strong were designed with this task in mind; with them both being free of any dyes, protectants, and conditioners, they serve as pure cleaners that are a perfect coating prep. Contrary to what you may have read on different forums across the interwebs, baby wipes are not the correct item to use for this step. They might be gentle and convenient to use, but the moisturizers and residues they leave behind will cause LeatherShield to not be able to bond properly to the seat and will result in a streaky mess with uneven high spots everywhere; it’s best to keep the baby wipes in the house and used for their intended purpose.
To use our LeatherCleaners, you’ll want to work in sections at a time – we don’t want to saturate the entire seat with cleaner. Focusing on one section at a time allows for greater control over the product which results in a better, more thorough, clean. We recommend using our LeatherBrush, but you may use a short-pile microfiber towel like the Q²M Baldwipe as well. Take your LeatherCleaner, apply 3-4 sprays to the seat, and 1-2 to the bristles of the brush. Without using too much pressure, start agitating the surface with circular motions – be sure to use extra caution if cleaning perforated seats. You shouldn’t be trying to force the bristles or towel into the seat, just enough pressure to agitate the cleaner on the surface and get it to foam and release dirt from the surface. Once clean, take a dry BaldWipe towel and wipe off the area in a straight-line motion. The reason we want to wipe in a straight-line motion here is because we want to pull all of the loosened dirt off the surface – if we were to wipe in a circular motion, we would essentially be rubbing the dirt back into the surface of the seat. Once the first wipe is complete, take a second damp (not dripping wet) microfiber towel and wipe in a straight line again; this step is going to remove any excess cleaner that may have been missed on the previous wipe down. Once complete, give a final wipe with a dry towel and you will have a clean and prepped surface that is ready for an application of Leathershield.
Although applying a semi-permanent coating to your interior may seem intimidating, it’s quite easy to use. That said, it’s also easy to overthink it – keep it simple, follow the instructions, and you will have a great install. Inside the Leathershield packaging, you’ll find the bottle of coating, the foam block applicator, and a few suede application towelettes. Once again working in sections, grab a suede and load it up with a moderate amount of product – not enough to soak the seat, but enough to leave behind a moderately thick and even layer. Apply the product in a gentle back-and-forth motion being sure not to push hard into the seat or start and stop in different areas; just a nice easy and smooth application does it. If you’ve got more intricate seat patterns like diamond stitching in Audi’s or sport seats in an M3, something like our finger Microfiber Applicators can also be used to allow a bit more control around seat bolsters or in between stitching patterns. When applying Leathershield, I like to split the seat into 3 sections – the seat base, the lower backrest, and finally the upper backrest/headrest. Once you’ve got coating applied to any given section, unlike a paint coating, you’re not looking for any sort of rainbow or sweating effect. Instead, we want Leathershield to form a nice layer on the surface, so you’ll want to leave it to cure/dry on the surface. What I like to do is 2-3 minutes after applying, I’ll come back with an inspection light and give the surface a quick wipe with a dry Baldwipe towel to remove any high spots or uneven areas. If you notice an area where the coating has already dried as a high spot, simply add a bit more coating to your applicator and work it into the area. Give it a few seconds to set, and then remove the excess with a towel. Follow this method for the remainder of the seat and the result will be a factory-fresh, matte finish surface that is protected from UV, dirt, and spills. Once applied, you’ll want to leave the surfaces undisturbed for a minimum of 12 hours for the coating to cure.
Semi-Aniline Leather (Nappa Leather)
Nappa leather is likely a term you have heard before. It is generally found in German/European vehicles but is not limited to them. Nappa leather is only a type of semi-aniline leather and is typically the ‘nicest’ variant of the category. Semi-Aniline leathers are going to be genuine leather hides that have been treated with organic or inorganic dyes, undergo different tanning processes, and receive the same UV protective urethane layer found in synthetic leathers. Some lower grades of leather hides will be tanned and sanded down to remove any imperfections and then stamped or embossed to replicate the original look of leather grain. Where Nappa leather varies, is that it is a minimally treated, full-grain leather hide that is dyed with organic dyes only. This results in the original grain of the hide being shown through along with any blemishes or imperfections that may have been present from the animal’s life. These leathers can be cleaned and maintained similarly to vegan leather options since they have both been treated with a protective UV urethane topcoat. Apply Leathershield using the same process listed in the previous section – we have an episode of The Detailing Guru where our brand ambassador, Yves, installs Leathershield on a Mercedes equipped with Nappa leather seats.
Full-Aniline (Pure, Untreated Leather)
Usually only offered on highest level trims from manufactures or as the only offering on ultra-premium luxury brands (Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Pagani, etc.). Full-aniline leathers are the highest-grade animal hides that are untreated and unsealed. They are typically only available in natural shades of brown from most manufacturers, but in more expensive applications (Rolls Royce) the hides are dyed by tumbling them in a barrel of pigment for an extended period – the goal here is for the dye to penetrate every layer of the hide to allow for a vibrant, bold color that wears evenly over time. If you have a vehicle equipped with this type of leather, while cleaning, you might notice some pigment appearing on your towel – this is normal since the surface is untreated and unsealed. Full-aniline leather is going to be the softest/most sensitive variant of the 3 types of material – it is meant to wear with age and develop a look of its own. What makes this type of leather so special is that no two hides are alike – each grain pattern is unique. The most recognizable vehicle with this type of leather would be something like a Ford King Ranch truck or even something like a vintage Cadillac. This type of leather is going to be the most absorbent and most susceptible to UV damage – the connotation of needing to “moisturize” leather with traditional conditioners is only applicable to full-aniline leather since the aforementioned types are sealed by urethane, formulated with inorganic materials, and sometimes are even a combination of both. While Leathershield could be used on surfaces like these, the absorbency of the substrate would likely result in an uneven application with high spots being very visible. It is for this reason that we advise using LeatherCoat on these surfaces instead. Q² LeatherCoat is a SiO2 easy-to-use leather sealant that (like LeatherShield) adds hydrophobic protection from spills, UV protection, and dye-transfer protection. Compared to the 12 months of durability that LeatherShield offers, you can see up to 3 months of protection from a single application. The cleaning method is going to be the same as mentioned before and the application of LeatherCoat is fairly straightforward; a little bit of product goes a long way, so using either a microfiber finger applicator, applicator sponge, or even just a towel, apply 2-3 sprays to your application method and work the product evenly into the surface making sure to get even coverage. If you’re looking for more of a visual aid, we have a video on LeatherCleaner Mild & LeatherCoat being used on the interior of a Rolls Royce Dawn – check it out here!
Shiny Leather Is Dirty Leather
This is perhaps the biggest piece of advice I can give here. The only type of leather that should be shiny is patent leather, but you will seldom find that on any surface outside of the fashion industry. Your vehicle interior should carry a matte/satin finish that feels smooth and soft. If your leather looks shiny and feels sticky or grabby, it has some level of contamination built up.
After diagnosing your type of leather and selecting your protectant of choice, you’ll be well on your way to a #gyeonized interior that’s clean, fresh, and protected. Being the area that we spend the majority of our time with our vehicle, take the extra time out of your day and treat your interior to a proper clean and coat – your future self with thank you if you have a late morning coffee spill or if your kids have an on-the-go lunch disaster. Hopefully, this entry helped answer a lot of the questions surrounding the interior and our product offerings. If you have any suggestions for future blog topics, let us know via any of our social media accounts (Instagram, Facebook, TikTok), and if you’re looking for more videos or product guides, check out our YouTube channel. Thanks for virtually spending time with me in this week’s blog entry – I look forward to the next. See you all then… Happy cleaning and coating!