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The Chemistry of Leather Care

Leather can be thought of as a non-woven mass of fibrous collagen protein derived from animal skin that has become biorefractive. An animal skin becomes biorefractory and is thus converted into leather by the tanning process. The tanning process permanently embeds the equivalent of a biocide into the collagen protein. Other desirable characteristics are imparted to the leather through liposuction, coloring, dressing, waterproofing, shaping and processing.

Fatliquoring is the process of incorporating fats, grease and oils into the body of the skin. The presence of fats, oils and greases in leather lubricates the fibers and tends to waterproof the leather. Without enough internal lubrication, the fibers will fray and break due to friction, and the leather may break.

Leather is given color through dyeing or coloring. Depending on the media used, the coloring may be embedded throughout the thickness of the skin or may be concentrated on and near the surface.

Dressing is a surface finish given to the material. The surface finish is a continuous organic matrix other than protein fibers. This organic matrix can range from latex paint to wax. Dressing always refers to what is the outermost layer of organic matter of the skin. Thus it is possible for a bandage to be “dressed”, as it is possible to apply a wax varnish to a surface of dyed leather. Before waxing, the organic matrix which is the outer paint layer of the leather was the “dressing”.

Leather processing refers to the repeated bending of leather in order to reduce stiffness. This is a completely mechanical process.


All chemical skin treatments fall into one or more of these categories: oil substitutes, surface coatings, waterproofers, and cleansers.


Cleansers are chemicals or chemical preparations aimed at removing foreign matter from the skin. The trick with cleansers is that they must be able to remove the foreign matter without themselves permanently changing the appearance of the skin being cleansed. Invariably, the material to be removed from the skin is a solid or semi-solid and the cleaning chemical is almost always a liquid. Cleaning is accomplished either by dissolving the solid matter or by removing the matter from contact with the skin through a preferential wetting process. Preferential wetting means that the skin prefers to come into contact with the cleansing liquid more than with the solid contaminant.

In either case, dissolved solid or lifted dirt, a cloth or sponge is almost always necessary to complete removal of the foreign matter from the skin. The foreign contaminant is transferred from the skin to the cleaning cloth.

The cleansing formulation must also be removed from the leather to fully restore the leather to its previous clean state. Cleaner that is not removed by itself can become a foreign contaminant. The cleaner is removed either by rinsing, transferring to a cloth or sponge, by evaporation, or by a combination of all three processes.

Rinsing is the process where excess water is used to dissolve the skin cleanser and remove it. In fact, the rinse water replaces the cleaner chemical on the skin. The water, weakly bound in the fiber mass, then evaporates by itself. This process of removing the cleanser is effective provided the skin itself is not adversely affected by getting wet.

If the leather to be cleaned is dressed, i.e. has a continuous matrix of organic matter over the fibers, then other coating means can be used to clean the leather product. In fact, it is the surface dressing that needs to be cleaned, not the deep mass of protein fibers. Water and other leather coating agents are useful for removing contaminants from the dressed leather. Dissolution and preferential wetting processes also occur here, as well as the transfer of solid contaminants from one body to another. So cleaning, waxing and polishing can be done as part of a single process.


Silicone is a type of synthetic oil, and the term silicone refers to a homologous series of organic chemicals based on a backbone of alternating silicon and oxygen. Organic side chains, most often methyl groups, are attached to the silicon atoms. The chains are terminated with methyl groups, making them unreactive. Chains can also be terminated with hydroxyl groups or with hydrogen, making them reactive.

Silicone oil is a lubricant and when able to penetrate the fiber mass, acts as a grease substitute. Silicone imparts water repellency as well as gloss and a pleasant “hand” or feel to the skin. Because silicone wets the skin fibers so well, a moderate amount of silicone can replace the oil without affecting the “breathing” of the skin. “Breathing” means that water vapor can pass through the fiber mass. The leather can also be “stuffed” with grease or wax that prevents water vapor from passing through the mass of fibers. The use of silicone allows the leather to become water repellent to a degree without losing this “breathable” property. Filling the leather with grease makes it waterproof, but makes it unable to “breathe”.

Silicone is usually an important ingredient in leather polishes, especially those that require polishing to bring out the shine. Silicone helps smooth the wax crystals into a continuous glossy matrix and also contributes to gloss and water repellency.

Silicone is a very useful product in skin care and cleaning. It finds use as a fat, in cleaners and in sauces. The disadvantage of using silicone is that silicone has a very low surface tension and the performance of other water-based skin treatment chemicals can be affected because the silicone prevents the other product from wetting the skin.


Neatsfoot oil is produced from the exfoliation of the feet and bones of cattle. It is typically yellow in color and has a low melting point. It is used to keep the skin supple and flexible, which means it acts as a lubricant for the protein fibers. Therefore, it acts as a fat substitute.


A dressing is a coating that is external to the mass of protein fibers, but is attached to it. Typically, a dressing consists of a continuous organic matrix that can hold other types of material, such as pigment. Because the coating is external, it is possible to dress a dressing, such as when a leather item is polished with wax or water-repellent with a silicone-containing product. Dressings are used to provide a decorative and often a protective coating over the fibrous mass, and much of the leather sold commercially is dressed during the manufacturing process. Dressing in a dressing is sometimes called top dressing.

Aftermarket leather dressings are intended to restore or reinforce the dressing applied to the leather during the manufacturing process. Waxes, for example, often contain a matrix that matches the color of the dressed leather, and the act of polishing the leather with colored wax applies a dressing that is a pigment, a sealing agent, and adds a pleasant sheen to the leather.

Pigments are matrices and pigments that impart color to the skin and are different from dressings. Colorants can be a component of a dressing product. Some leathers, during the manufacturing stage, are treated with dye solutions that transport the coloring agents deep into the fiber mass, so that the leather retains its color even when scratched. Pigments are added to aftermarket sauces so that leather that has lost some of its color due to wear and tear appears renewed.


Many aftermarket chemical preparations are made to make leather waterproof or water repellent. There is a slight difference in meaning between the two terms. Being waterproof means that water simply won’t pass through the skin. The condition is achieved by filling the skin with wax and/or grease. Leather in this condition is often hot to wear because the leather cannot breathe. It is impermeable because the spaces between the fibers have been largely covered by a sealing agent and water vapor is trapped close to the body. But in a road storm, waterproofing can be an essential property of leather.

Being water-repellent means that water does not wet the leather, but because the leather remains permeable in liquid form, water can pass through the leather under pressure. Water-repellent leather can breathe because water vapor can escape through the fibers even if liquid water cannot wet them. Water repellency of the skin is usually achieved by silicone treatment. The silicone stays wet and wets the fibers, forming a film on them that water cannot wet. The film is thin enough that the gaps between the fibers remain unfilled.

Of the two terms, waterproof is closer to absolute than water repellent.

A degree of waterproofing or water repellency can be achieved through products that apply a surface finish to the leather. It is the surface finish that provides resistance to liquid water penetration, not the mass of fibers.


The four functions of skin care are: cleansing, oil replacement, surface dressing and waterproofing. Commercial aftermarket skin care products offer one, some, or all of these functions.

Waxes, fats, greases and fatty oils naturally repel water. and most of them are useful lubricants for leather fibers. Thus, mink oil and “dabina” products act as both sealants and oil substitutes, each better at one function than the other.

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