There is a myriad of myths and misconceptions surrounding leather care. A large proportion of these relate to the application of oils to treat and nourish leather goods.
Browse the internet and you’ll find a wealth of — often contradictory — information on the topic; some leather aficionados swear by natural over organic oils, others sing the praises of products you’ll find in your kitchen cupboards: coconut oil, olive oil, even peanut butter.
With the aim of shedding light on this tricky subject, we set out to find the best oil for leather. After some research and personally testing a range of oils on Carl Friedrik products — including coconut oil, mineral oil, mink oil, neatsfoot oil and olive oil — we have our answer.
But before we share the conclusions, let’s consider why leather care is so crucial.
The importance of leather care
Animal skin is made up of microscopic, interconnected fibres that are replenished by natural lubricants while the animal is alive. However, during the leather tanning process (in which animal hides are turned into leather), water that nourishes the skin is replaced by tanning agents. This chemical reaction allows the leather to take on new physical properties, but it also makes the fibres susceptible to drying out over time.
When leather experiences sustained moisture loss, it appears cracked, stiff and brittle: tell-tale signs that it requires oiling. Aside from that, other instances of normal ‘wear and tear’ — like stains and scratches — also accelerate the deterioration process.
Enter leather oil. By penetrating and hydrating the fibres, oil replenishes leather, making it smoother and more supple. It can also rejuvenate physical appearance, gloss over blemishes and scuffs, and inject colour back into aged leather. Lastly, certain oils help to fortify against the elements, offering a degree of resistance to water and stains.
Leather is naturally a robust material with a long life expectancy. Applying the right oil to your leather goods — whether briefcases, wallets or furniture — will only increase their longevity.
How to apply leather oil
Learning how to apply oil is a fundamental part of leather treatment. Too much oil will make your item excessively dark and greasy to touch. While an untrained rubbing technique is a prerequisite for an uneven and patchy coating.
Steps of the leather oil conditioning process
- Clean the leather with a lightly wetted cloth.
- Allow the leather to dry for 24 hours.
- If required, remove excess residue.
- Patch test a small area of the leather.
- Condition the leather using a small amount of oil on a microfibre cloth.
- Allow the leather to rest for 1 hour.
- If required, remove excess oil from the leather.
- Apply a finishing product, such as natural wax or leather protection spray.
High-quality leather — like the vegetable-tanned, Vachetta leather we use in our products — is porous, meaning it absorbs dirt and other impurities over time. So, it’s first important to clean the leather, which will unclog the pores and permit the leather oil to penetrate into the fibres more easily.
We recommend starting with a lightly wetted microfibre cloth and gently rubbing the entire surface area of the product. Once complete, add a small amount of leather cleaner to the cloth and repeat the process. Rub in a slow circular motion and apply evenly, not forgetting the edges. If the coat is applied poorly, the repercussions will be self-evident later in the process, so be extra careful. Once complete, leave the leather to dry for at least 24 hours, and then wipe off any remaining residue.
When applying leather oil, less is always more, so err on the side of caution. You can always add another coat if you desire a darker appearance.
Take a clean microfibre cloth and apply a light amount of leather oil to it. Find a small patch of leather — preferably in a concealed area — and rub the oil in, retaining a circular motion at all times. This test helps you to determine how the colour of the leather will be affected.
Wait for around 30 minutes before inspecting the results; if you’re pleased, evenly apply the oil to the rest of the surface area. Then allow the leather to air-dry overnight. Should there be any residue left, wipe it away.
At this point in the process, your leather good should appear revitalised, a few shades darker and visibly smoother. For those of you after a glossy finish, we recommend a natural wax. When applying, remember to use only a small amount, and to adopt a circular rubbing technique.
For extra protection, a leather spray is the best option. These sprays prevent water and dirt from penetrating the leather’s surface, thereby protecting the internal fibres. From a suitable distance (at least 30cm), apply a thin layer of spray to your leather good. Leave it to dry for one hour before use. It’s worth remembering that leather care is an ongoing process, so we would advise repeating these steps a few times every year.
Now you understand the science behind why leather needs to be treated and how to go about the process, let’s consider the relative merits and drawbacks of a range of leather oils.
Coconut oil on leather
A ‘superfood’ touted as the solution to anything from heartburn to insomnia and skin conditions, coconut oil is now widely celebrated and easily accessible. But is coconut oil good for leather?
First, it’s worth mentioning that plenty of bloggers and online leather forums recommend coconut oil as a viable (easy to access) alternative to other leather oils. And due to its high saturated fat content (up to 90%), coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so must be heated before it is applied.
Treating leather with coconut oil has a few benefits, such as softening the leather and providing a thin layer of waterproof protection, but the cons far outweigh the pros. Renowned for giving leather a spotty, patch-like appearance, coconut oil will often leave a sticky residue after it has dried: we experienced both issues during our tests.
Because coconut oil is a natural oil (like neatsfoot, olive and mink oil), it will darken leather when applied. However, we found that it drastically darkened both the Palissy Briefcase and Swanfield wallet that we tested it on, affecting the natural colour of the cognac leather.
Mineral oil on leather
A by-product of the oil refining industry, mineral oil is a petroleum-based, transparent and colourless liquid. It is commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products because it both softens and moisturises skin.
In our test, we applied baby oil (which is perfumed mineral oil) to a leather wallet and, as expected, a sheen quickly developed. The leather also became softer. While these are both welcome traits, the long-term effects of using mineral oil are extremely detrimental to leather.
Unlike natural oils, mineral oil is occlusive, meaning it forms a protective layer over surfaces that it comes into contact with and prevents moisture from escaping. When moisture becomes trapped within leather, dry rot sets in and this accelerates the deterioration of the fibres. So while mineral oil might appear a practical, inexpensive solution for leather care, the reality is more nuanced. Loss of colour and reduced durability are two common effects of frequent use.
Mink oil on leather
To start with, what is mink oil? Well, it’s an oily balm extracted from the fatty pelts of minks, semi-aquatic mammals that have long been hunted and farmed for their fur. It was indigenous populations in North America who first discovered that the oil functioned well as a skin conditioner. Despite animal welfare concerns, it has been formally adopted by leather workers worldwide, who use it to treat and soften their leather.
Mink oil easily permeates leather and replenishes internal fibres, meaning it works especially well with our full-grain Vachetta leather, which is highly porous. But apart from suede, it also represents a great option for other types of leather.
Out of all the leather oils we sampled, mink oil showed the best result, removing surface scratches and subtly darkening the tone of the leather for a uniform finish. In addition, mink oil is a natural leather softener, provides temporary waterproof resistance and improves flexibility by lubricating cracked fibres. Based on our tests and wider research, we recommend it as the best oil for leather.
Neatsfoot oil on leather
Recommended: in certain situations.
Neatsfoot oil is a yellow, thick liquid rendered from the shin and foot bones of cows. The word’s etymology harks back to Old English, in which ‘neat’ referred to cattle.
While neatsfoot oil is certainly a popular option, particularly because it softens leather, we have a few reservations. To start with, neatsfoot oil is acidic, meaning that it will gradually weaken and disintegrate cotton stitching on your leather goods. This can, however, be avoided by applying the oil sparingly. Synthetic threads — which are more commonly used in stitching today — will not be affected.
As aforementioned, all natural oils darken leather. Yet neatsfoot is particularly potent and has a strong effect on lighter leathers. Out of the oils we sampled, it caused the most darkening and the finish was very uneven. So if you’re keen to maintain a lighter shade, opt for something else.
In the long run, neatsfoot oil is prone to oxidising, causing leather to crack and deteriorate. As such, it’s wise to avoid using it on items that you’ve invested heavily in and plan on keeping for many years, like leather jackets and wallets.
While neatsfoot oil will restore dried leather, improving flexibility and pliability, mink oil is a better alternative for leather care and conditioning.
Olive oil on leather
Extracted by pressing whole olives, olive oil is used in anything from cooking to producing soap, and recommended to help high cholesterol and blood pressure. But should you be smearing it all over your prized leather briefcase in the name of conditioning? Definitely not.
While olive oil softens leather and promotes supplety, its use engenders an array of problems. Firstly, olive oil is known to resurface and stain leather after it has been applied and left to dry. This leads to unsightly spots and blemishes that will ruin the appearance of any leather product.
Aside from that, olive oil lingers on the surface of leather, giving it a tacky and greasy feel — a real inconvenience, especially for everyday items like leather wallets. When testing olive oil on leather we applied a light coat, but still found the surface to be slightly viscid after allowing it to dry.
Carl Friedrik Leather Cream
There are also several alternatives to oil, including all-in-one products that soften, nourish and offer a protective layer. One such product is the Carl Friedrik Leather Cream, which is specifically formulated for vegetable-tanned leather.
Containing a healthy combination of oils, wax emulsions and softeners, it prevents water loss, allowing leather goods to remain durable and supple over time. We recommend you apply the cream with a dry sponge, and perform a patch test on a hidden part before doing the full coat.
Applying oil is a crucial part of leather treatment, helping to ensure your items stay in pristine condition for years to come.
When it comes to choosing the right leather oil, avoid taking the easy route: home remedies and non-specialist products will often sacrifice long-term durability for short-term gain. And if you’re wondering how best to care for your Carl Friedrik product, drop us an email and we’d be happy to help.