Steam cleaning is an effective method to remove bacteria, dirt, and grime, that are deeply embedded in the materials of garments, furniture, carpets, and other household items.
However, it’s not a common or preferred method of cleaning leather articles. While heat and water are generally not compatible with leather, there is a safe way to use a steam cleaner for leather articles if it’s used in moderation.
It can help to lift bacteria and dirt that are deeply embedded in the leather, leaving the fibers clean and free of impurities. Although they should not replace your regular leather cleaning routines, steam cleaners can have an application for certain types of leather products.
This article is designed to inform you about the benefits and drawbacks of steam cleaning leather. It will also act as a guide on how to steam clean leather safely, which best practices will yield the greatest results, and will also highlight alternative methods that you should consider.
Benefits of Using a Steam Cleaner on Leather
You may be hesitant to use a steam cleaner for your favorite leather articles; however, you should know that steam cleaning has various benefits that may not be availed with other cleaning methods.
- It’s Chemical-Free – Steam cleaning is a chemical-free cleaning method that can not only clean your leather product but sanitize it as well. Similar methods may contain chemicals that can leave marks or streaks on your leather article and can even cause severe health-related problems.
- It Kills Bacteria & Germs – It’s also highly effective in killing harmful bacteria and germs. With the ability to produce steam up to 285° Fahrenheit (140° Celcius), as opposed to 212° Fahrenheit (100° Celcius) produced by similar cleaners, steam cleaners can eliminate up to 99.9% of germs and bacteria from your leather upholstery or apparel. This also prevents the chance of mold growth, dust mites, and the buildup of pollutants.
- It Removes Odors – With steam cleaning, the hot steam can easily penetrate the layers of leather and draw out foul odors from the pores. It also allows you to remove any bacteria, yeast, or microbes producing any foul odor due to the high temperatures.
- It Cleans Leather – Steam cleaning is a highly effective method of cleaning leather because the heat can open up its pores effectively. The high temperature of the steam loosens the dirt and oil molecules present deep within the leather and separates it effectively from the material.
- Removes Mold & Mildew – If there is mold or mildew present in your leather items, steam cleaning the article can eliminate fungi that are deeply embedded in the leather. This is because mold or mildew cannot withstand the heat emitted from steam cleaners (bacteria won’t be able to take heat above about 140° Fahrenheit or 60° Celcius)
Drawbacks of Using a Steam Cleaner on Leather
Even though steam cleaning leather can be highly effective for removing mold, mildew, bacteria, and other embedded impurities, this process can also have some disadvantages.
- It Can Dry Out Leather – Steam cleaning can cause the leather to dry out and lose its nourishing oils in the process. As the hot steam penetrates the pores of the leather, the moisture mixes in with the oils present and evaporates along with it. This combined effect can be effective for removing bacteria and embedded impurities; however, it can also cause the leather to dry out. Therefore, you’ll need to condition your leather articles after having steam cleaned them.
- It Can Result in Water Damage – Since steam is essentially water vapor, can cause water damage to the leather. If you steam clean leather excessively, you will notice your leather articles looking dry, cracking, peeling, or even rotting (in the worst-case scenario). Therefore, you’ll need to let your leather articles dry naturally.
- It Can Shrink Leather – Exposure to water while steam cleaning can cause the leather fibers to shrink. Additionally, the heat from the steam can act as a catalyst for the process and further soften and shrink the leather. Shrinking can affect the appearance of leather since it causes wrinkles and creases to form.
- It Can Lead to Mold Growth – If the moisture from steam cleaning does not dry or escape successfully, it can lead to mildew and mold growth. To ensure no water vapor remains trapped in the leather after steam cleaning, you should dry the leather article in a clean, well-ventilated, and moisture-free area.
- It Doesn’t Remove Spots & Marks – Steam cleaning is designed to remove impurities that are deeply embedded in your leather products. While it’s a great option for doing that, it may not be effective for cleaning surface-level dirt. For example, you won’t be able to remove spots and marks on your leather with a steam cleaner.
How to Steam Clean Leather
Now that you know the advantages and disadvantages that steam cleaners have on leather, we’ll now show you what a safe cleaning process looks like. Please take note that you should only use a steam cleaner if you want to clean embedded impurities such as mold or bacteria from leather.
You also need to understand that steam cleaning leather regularly may cause damage to it. Therefore, you should only use a steam cleaner when necessary.
1. Pretreat Your Leather Product
To ensure safe and effective steam cleaning, you’ll need to pretreat your leather articles first. Start by mixing half a cup of linseed oil with half a cup of white vinegar in a small bucket of hot water.
If you’re planning to clean larger or multiple leather sofas, you can use a full cup of each instead, and if you’re only planning on steam cleaning leather apparel or smaller furniture, we find that 1/4 cup of each typically suffices.
Apply this mixture to the leather surface of the items that need to be steam cleaned. Make sure to wipe away any excess to ensure only a thin even layer remains. Allow the leather to dry for about 30 to 45 minutes before proceeding to the next step.
2. Prepare Your Steam Cleaner
Once you have filled the steam cleaner according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, you must conduct a spot check to test if the hot steam or high temperature will damage your leather article.
Use the steam cleaner in an inconspicuous spot on the leather product and let it dry completely to see the final results. If the steam cleaner successfully cleanses the test area of your leather article, you can continue to steam clean the entire leather item.
Remember to use a heat setting of at least 250° Fahrenheit (about 120° Celcius) to sanitize your leather product, rid it of germs and clean the embedded dirt.
3. Steam Clean Your Leather Product
If you are cleaning a large leather product, focus on steam cleaning the inner or hidden leather sections first. For leather articles that are soiled extensively, you can use the brush attachment of the steam cleaner to bring out the deeply embedded impurities.
We recommend using the brush attachment of the steam cleaner with soft circular motions on your leather article for more efficient cleaning. You can also run the steam cleaner multiple times in areas where the leather needs rigorous cleaning.
4. Wipe Down Water Residue
After using the steam cleaner, you’ll need to wipe away any excess moisture remaining. This will prevent water vapor from accumulating on the surface which could potentially lead to water damage or even foster mold growth.
Clean the dampness from the leather as much as you can with a dry cloth before placing it in a well-ventilated space for drying. The leather article should be placed in a dry, cool, and airy environment so that any water present can safely evaporate from it.
5. Apply a Conditioner
As steam cleaning can cause the leather to become dry and lose some of its natural oils, it is imperative that you renourish it using a good-quality leather conditioner. Leather conditioners contain essential lubricating ingredients that can bring suppleness and shine back to the material.
It can also prevent water damage that arises through steam-cleaning by introducing nourishing oils into the fiber structure. This is one of the most crucial steps of the process that should not be skipped.
Without conditioning your leather items, chances are that your leather article will dry out and become brittle over time.
Leather Items to Consider Steam Cleaning
Steam cleaning treatments are most commonly used for cleaning leather upholstery or car interiors. This is because the hot steam makes cleaning large sofas, couches, and car seats more convenient and quicker.
These types of leather products also tend to absorb sweat, moisture, and dirt, whereby sanitizing them through steam cleaning can make sense. You could also steam clean leather clothing such as long jackets or pants since it will save you the trouble of washing or cleaning them by hand.
However, we would recommend using a dedicated leather cleaner for clothing pieces as the material is much thinner and easier to clean.
Some of the most typical leather items you can steam clean are:
- Car Seats
- Car Interiors
- Bar Stools, etc.
Smaller leather accessories and products are often not steam cleaned. This is because a steam cleaner is designed to clean thick and large leather objects instead of bags or wallets. We would also recommend using leather cleaning products for those types of items instead.
We have compiled a list of effective alternate methods that can be used to clear grime, dust, or dust. These methods are much safer since you do not have to worry about possible water damage or shrinkage due to hot steam.
Better Alternatives to Cleaning Leather
Although steam cleaning leather seems to have a number of benefits (it’s a convenient, time-efficient, and easy-to-follow method), it is our opinion that the drawbacks that affect the quality of leather outweigh them.
When you choose to steam clean leather regularly, you put it at risk of mold growth, water damage, drying out, and shrinking. Therefore, you should opt for safer alternatives that can upkeep the quality of your leather products.
To reiterate, we only recommend steam cleaning if you’re planning to remove deeply embedded dirt, bacteria, and germs from leather items that are thicker in nature (such as leather furniture or car upholstery).
Our recommended alternative methods to steam cleaning are using leather-friendly cleaning products or leather wipes:
Option 1: Leather Cleaners
Leather cleaners are cleaning products with formulas that are safe for use on leather. They typically contain natural ingredients that can clean grime and dirt from leather upholstery or other products.
An important advantage of using a leather cleaner is that it does not draw out essential oils from the material – in fact, they often contain renourishing properties. They are specifically designed for leather ensuring that they remain supple.
Option 2: Leather Wipes
Leather wipes are similar to leather cleaners, but provide more convenience and ease of use. A pack of high-quality leather cleaning wipes can help you clean most of your leather articles with a single wipe, without much of a fuss.
For example, cleaning leather upholstery with leather wipes only takes a few minutes and requires little time. Moreover, since these wipes are designed for use on leather, they often contain conditioning ingredients that promote suppleness.
Some special leather wipes also contain a UV protectant that can shield your leather products from the harmful effects of sunlight.
Co-Founder, Researcher & Writer At Leatherskill
I’m a leather enthusiast who spends most of his free time crafting, researching, and writing about the many facets of this versatile material. Thanks for reading!