How to Clean a Leather Handbag at Home

What to use to clean a leather handbag?

To clean a leather handbag, you’re generally better off with a cleaning product that’s specifically designed for leather, as well as two or three cloths – one to use first to clean gently without harsh chemicals, another for use with a dedicated leather cleaner, and then finally one for a leather conditioner or wax.

Classic cars often have leather seats and trim, so one cleaning option is to use leather car upholstery cleaner – it’s generally more cost-effective to buy than small bottles specifically for handbags.

Another option is to look for a dedicated “saddle soap” once the surface has been wiped, as these are designed to work specifically with leather to condition the surface gently. However, be careful, as if overused, they can harden, darken and weaken the leather.

When looking for a cloth to clean leather handbags, soft, old T-shirts work well, as well as microfibre cloths, as they will gently work into the creases of the leather.

Be careful with patent leather (the high-gloss variety), as it’s generally best to use a patent leather cleaner and conditioner specifically for that type of surface, rather than general-purpose leather cleaners.

Cleaning leather handbags and totes

Clean hands are always a good idea for cleaning leather, as any oil on your fingertips may end up worked into the fabric.

First, it’s a good idea to gently wipe any surface dirt from the leather with a damp cloth. Be careful not to soak the leather, as it takes a considerable amount of time to dry properly again.

A warm, slightly dampened cloth should be enough to take the top layer of dirt from the handbag, changing the part of the cloth that’s in contact with the leather regularly to ensure you don’t end up reworking the dirt into the leather somewhere else!

Try to work in the direction of the grain of the leather as you wipe the surface, as this will help to better penetrate it.

Once you’ve removed the top layer of dirt, it’s time to try a leather cleaner or a gentle soap (don’t use normal soap, as it will dry out the leather and cause it to degrade more quickly). 

Follow the instructions on the product (some require dilution, some can be sprayed on directly), but generally you’ll want to work it into the leather with a clean cloth, and keep changing the part of the cloth you’re working it in with to keep it clean.

It’s a good idea to test the product on a hidden section (for example, the bottom) of the handbag, to ensure you’re happy with any potential discolouration that might occur.

Restoring a stained leather handbag

It’s best to get any stains off of the handbag as soon as possible after the event. This is especially true for any liquids or solids with any sort of oil content, as the longer they are left on, the deeper the oil penetrates the leather.

If a coloured liquid comes into contact with the leather, try to dab it off with a cloth or tissue straight away, and then coat the surface in an absorbent material such as chalk powder to soak up any remaining liquid that has penetrated the leather overnight.

You can then continue to use the standard leather cleaner as described above to further clean the fabric.

Can a leather handbag go in the washing machine?

This one’s an easy one! It’s definitely not a good idea to put a leather bag in the washing machine if you want to maintain the shape and colour of the leather. While it’s technically OK to wash leather, as it will eventually dry out, machine washing leather handbags isn’t the most gentle treatment possible, for what is a fairly delicate accessory.

As mentioned above, this is especially true if not using specific leather cleaners, as standard concentrations of soap will dry out the leather and cause it to crack.

If you really are determined to fully submerge and wash your leather handbag, use soap flakes or a specific hand wash solution in tepid water, which will be slightly kinder than standard washing powder or liquid.

But this really should be a last resort after trying the above, as it can cause discolouration and changes to the shape of the bag, so we wouldn’t recommend it!

Cleaning leather bags at home without leather conditioner

We’re sometimes asked by customers how to clean a leather bag at home with only standard household products. While we’d always suggest a dedicated cleaner, you could try wiping with a light, diluted white vinegar and water rinse (around 1:2 ratio).

Be careful if making these mixes yourself to use deionised/distilled water (as you would use anyway in a hard water area for ironing), as this will prevent any build up of minerals on the surface of the leather once it dries.

To condition the leather, you could try a combination of olive or walnut oil and lemon juice with a splash of water (not too heavy on the oil – perhaps a 2:1 mix). Ensure it’s rubbed in lightly and consistently across the whole surface, so as not to leave any oily patches or streaks, and again, try on a hidden (bottom) surface before committing to the main surfaces!

Another favourite is to use softened beeswax to condition the leather on a microfibre cloth or old T-shirt – while many of us don’t keep beeswax to hand always at home, it’s easy to buy British beeswax from a local beekeeper! 

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