Our beliefs in leather care are often based on hearsay, usually from someone with more opinions than expertise. You may have been told, “No water! Water is leather’s worst enemy.” Then you find directions on leather-cleaning products that direct the user to rinse thoroughly after cleaning.
You may hear, “No petroleum products! It rots leather.” But you know riders who have enthusiastically used products for years that contain petroleum distillates.
And, of course, there’s “No saddle soap! It’s alkaline.” But generations have used saddle soap conscientiously without problems. No wonder there’s so much misinformation. Research and reality don’t match.
Leather care falls into several parts: storage, cleaning and conditioning.
We all know leather’s biggest enemies — rain, mud and sweat — but we are less mindful of the threats from strong sunlight (leaving tack in the sun) and high heat (leaving it in a hot car). And, until we see the mold and mildew, we also often forget that high humidity (as in humid climates or storing leather in a damp basement) allows mold to attack the fibers of the leather. Corroding metal rivets, nails and buckles can also weaken the nearby leather.
Regular cleaning removes dirt and grime, allows the fibers to flex freely, and opens the pores so the leather can breathe. Tack should be cleaned after each use — but few of us do.
When choosing a cleaner, avoid products with chemical solvents that can extract dye and leave a puckered-pore structure. For the same reason, never use caustic household chemicals to clean leather and avoid alcohol and petroleum distillates, which may burn leather and stitching the way gasoline burns human skin. While the effects may not be seen right away, the damage is usually irreparable.
Frankly, if you don’t want to store and care for leather properly, you’ll miss out on its utility and longevity and would probably be happier with synthetic tack (see February 2001).
Good Ol’ Saddle Soap
The criticism that saddle soap has too high a pH for leather has merit. Saddle soap is indeed inherently alkaline (higher pH) and caustic, not pH balanced to leather. Skin, and therefore leather, is typically slightly acidic (lower pH). The vegetable-tanning process used in making leather is also pH dependent. When you raise the pH too much with your cleaning products, the protein complex dissociates, leaving brown dye in the water or on your cloth.
Saddle soap is a mix of oils and soaps that dissolves its own oils and releases oil-entrapped dirt due to its alkalinity, lifting them away. However, when saddle soaps include the directions “work into lather,” we believe the loosened dirt is suspended in the lather and pushed back into the leather and pores.
Saddle soaps have been around for hundreds of years without doing apparent damage to our tack despite their alkalinity. But with increasing scientific knowledge and changes in tanning, we think there are better, more advanced products available.
Fortunately, glycerine is also usually included in most saddle-soap products. It is an excellent moisturizer/conditioner and used in many cosmetics. Glycerine is present in the form of its esters in all animal and vegetable fats and oils. It is chemically stable and does not evaporate.
A final challenge in leather care is keeping our tack the color we bought it. Years ago, horsemen usually darkened new tack, doing so intentionally by oiling it like crazy, but today’s horseman wants to keep colors from changing, appreciating the light look.
We also used to be instructed to clean new tack to remove the whitish wax that was “put on it for protection in shipping.” Now we know we should not clean new tack, but instead we should just condition it for several weeks to help the dyes set completely, rubbing in that whitish wax rather than removing it.
Some cleaners break the weak bonds between the dye and leather fibers, so that the dye leaches out (such as into the rinse water). Alkaline products tend to remove dye.
If the cleaning product is in a heavy, greasy base, it will attract dirt, which will change the leather’s appearance. Sunlight and artificial lighting also effectively darken leather.
To retain its beauty, strength and flexibility, leather needs periodic conditioning to lubricate it and keep it supple. Again, there are differences in opinion as to the use of occasional or frequent conditioning, but conditioning itself is necessary to replace the natural lubricants. We will discuss conditioning in depth in an upcoming article about conditioning products.
However, some of the cleaning products we tested also condition tack while they clean it (sometimes called “one-step” leather cleaners), so it’s important to understand that conditioning leather is also a necessity, albeit done in moderation. If your cleaner is also a conditioner, you may not need to go through the second step. Follow label instructions to the letter and avoid over-conditioning your tack.
Despite earlier warnings about animal-based oils, in order to keep the original appearance of leather, we prefer to use conditioners with lightweight, penetrating, animal-based oils.
We tested our products mainly on tack, including saddles, bridles, halters and straps of various types. Riding boots, however, are made from leather that is tanned, finished and dyed differently than saddle leather so cleaners aren’t necessarily interchangeable. It may save time to swipe off your boots at the same time you clean your tack, but be sure to read the label on your tack cleaner to be sure you can also use it on your riding boots.
We looked for products that are easy to use, leave our tack feeling pliable and present no difficulties in removing residue, storage or handling. We also don’t want it to darken our leather.
Bee Natural Leathercare Saddle Soap (8 oz./$5.75) comes in a flip-top squeeze bottle, which we appreciate as we don’t have to worry about losing the top.
Instructions say to clean tack with this saddle soap only once or twice a year. For in between cleanings, they suggest their Leather Amore, which we also tested. The leather soap contains no chemical solvents or petroleum distillates. We found the product thick and gooey, making it difficult to work with. While it takes awhile to get through the detailed instructions, it does get your tack clean.
Carr & Day & Martin Saddle and Leather Soap (500 ml./$9.50) contains glycerine, coconut oil and cleaning agents. It has its own sponge packed in the tub, which we liked. This product formed an orange lather, which we found difficult to dislodge from rein lacings and buckle holes. The directions did not call for rinsing, so we tried to wipe the residue off. We also found that tack took up more conditioner after being cleaned with this product.
Carr & Day & Martin Belvoir Leather Wipes (15 wipes/$3.95) are heavy paper towelettes impregnated with liquid saddle soap, which includes glycerine, coconut oil, cleaning agents and is “antifungicidal.” The package is self-sealing, but it didn’t stand up to much resealing, so we opted for a self-sealing plastic sandwich bag instead. The towelettes stood up to serious cleaning, even heavy mud. They are easy to use and are a respite in cold weather from cold barn water and a sponge. While we’re not ready to use these exclusively, we’d keep a package on hand for shows and hunts or on cold days.
When we saw that W.F. Young’s Horseman’s One Step (15 oz./$6.20; 7 lb. $35.90) and One Step Lotion (12 oz./$8.95) contained petroleum distillates, we were surprised, but we experienced no problems with it. The product has three cleaning agents and lanolin to condition.
The Original One Step comes as a cream in a tub with a pop-off top. It sometimes separates, but that doesn’t affect its efficacy, just its appeal. It does liquify and lift dirt easily and requires no water. The lotion comes in a squeeze bottle, and we didn’t experience any separation. Both packages travel well. We liked the ease of this product for quick cleaning, and it left our tack with a nice appearance and a good pliable feel.
Bick 1 Leather Cleaner (8 oz./$6.50) comes in a squeeze bottle with a snap-up spout that gives an accurate delivery. It is pH balanced for leather and has no harmful abrasives or chemicals. You use no water, just a clean cloth and rub in, with no rinsing. The only complaint we had with this product was the label warning, “Keep from freezing,” which can be difficult to do in a barn. We got good results, found it easy to use, and the product had a particularly appealing smell.
Bee Natural Leathercare Leather Amore (8 oz./$7) comes in a nice flip-top squeeze bottle. It contains no chemical solvents or petroleum distillates.
It’s a cleaner-conditioner product, and we have no complaints. In fact, our testers were enthusiastic about it. The dirt just wiped off, with long-lasting effects.
Leather Therapy Wash (2 oz./$2.50; 8 oz./$8.50; 16 oz./$13.50; 32 oz./$20.50; 128 oz./$62) had both a sprayer top and a traditional cap. We like the option of a sprayer or cap, especially when storing in tack trunks or traveling. Plus, when the sprayer broke off one bottle during testing, the cap was a necessity. The product is pH balanced. It is nontoxic and nonflammable, however, it must be kept from freezing, which can be difficult in a barn.
Our testers were enthusiastic, finding tack clean and supple. It left no residue. It worked equally well on old tack, and we found it seems to repel dirt. Leather Therapy Wash also does leather and fleece in one step — an important consideration for sheepskin- or fleece-padded longeing cavessons or girths.
Hard glycerine bars are a long-time tack-cleaning staple. It takes trial and error to know what’s an appropriate amount of water to use (minimal). Novices tend to use too much water, getting a truly luxuriant lather but making a mess and ultimately drying the leather. We know some riders dislike glycerine bars because they arrive without a real storage box or bag. Riders want a glycerine-bar “tub.” However, the fact is glycerine bars dry quickly and travel fine with no wrapping.
Carr & Day & Martin Belvoir Glycerine Bar (250 g/$5.50) is a balanced combination of coconut oil, glycerine and cleaning agents. It performed well, giving the results we expect with glycerine bars. The instructions advise the user to test the product first on a hidden area — something our testers were hesitant to do, finding it difficult to decide what spot on their tack they didn’t mind using as a test area.
Thornhill Enterprises Glycerine Bar (8/10 oz. bars/$2-$3) is basically glycerine soap, but our testers especially liked the smell of the Thornhill bar. Again, we obtained the results we expect when using glycerine bars.
Liquid glycerines came in spray bottles, with the exception of Leather New Foam. Solvents are added to enable the products to be sprayed. Liquid glycerines are one of the quickest tack-cleaning products.
Carr & Day & Martin Belvoir Glycerine Spray Soap (500 ml/$9.95; 5 liters/$38.95) had a nicely shaped trigger-spray bottle that was easy to grip and had an accurate sprayer. While it is the same basic formula as this company’s glycerine bar, it’s easier to use in spray form and doesn’t require water or rinsing.
However, we were concerned about the label warnings, especially the word “flammable” and “do not breathe spray and use only in a well ventilated area.” The manufacturer said the labeling is due to the presence of ethanol, but they say it’s in a low amount.
Farnam Leather New Liquid Glycerine Saddle Soap (16 oz./$7.43; 32 oz./$12.17; 64 oz./$20.18) said to remove all dust and dirt from the leather before cleaning, then spray the product on without allowing it to run. We found this tricky, as the spray was not as accurate as we’d like and it was one of the thinner liquids. It’s a no-rinse product, so residue must be wiped away. A few testers felt it left their tack a bit dry. It contains no powerful solvents, just a mild proprietary detergent. Overall, this product cleaned well.
Farnam Leather New Foam Cleaner and Polish (7 oz./$5.39) is basically the same formula as the liquid but delivered in a foam via a pump top. It left our tack shinier and was more accurate and less wasteful than the original Leather New. We found the foam a good pick for a quick touchup, such as between classes at a horse show, and the package is substantial enough to travel well. Riders who don’t really like using liquid glycerine but miss its convenience, may find this new foam just the right product. It cleans well.
Original Tanner’s Leather Soap (8 oz./$5.95; 16 oz. $8.49; 32 oz./$11.95) is a water-based formula, glycerine-enriched and non-alkaline with a sporicide to kill mold and mildew. It has a pH “virtually the same as leather.” The product has an adjustable sprayer. The manufacturer said to use a gentle scrubbing motion to create a foam, then remove the foam and dirt with warm rinse water and a soft cloth. One tester said it required virtually no rubbing; another said she needed a toothbrush to remove heavy dirt/sweat. Although tester satisfaction varied, overall we found Tanner’s worked well for everyday use.
BioGroom Glycerine-Lanolin Saddle Soap ($16 oz./$8.60; 32 oz./ $13.45; 128 oz./$34) is a spray and directed us to remove all dust and dirt from the leather first. Satisfaction among testers again varied as to its efficacy on heavy dirt or dried sweat, but otherwise it worked well for everyday use.
Lexol pH Leather Cleaner (200 ml./$5.10; ?? liter/ $9.99 with sprayer, $8.85 without; liter/$13.75; 3 liter/$28.40; towelettes also available) from Summit Industries is “glycerine-rich” and pH balanced to leather. Lexol pH left our leather clean, shiny and supple. It was easy to use and required minimal rinsing, but this allowed us to easily remove residue.
Lexol also makes nifty terrycloth-covered sponge applicators that fit our hands nicely. The terrycloth nap really gets into stitching or rein lacings, and when it was dirty, we just tossed it into the washing machine.
With more pH-balanced choices available, we’re going to save alkaline saddle soaps for the really heavy jobs — and we’re going to use it infrequently.For travel, shows, hunts and quick cleanups, we’ll take Carr & Day & Martin’s Leather Wipes anytime.
If you don’t like wipes, pack Farnam’s Leather New Foam, a liquid glycerine product that even impressed testers who weren’t keen on liquid glycerines.
Our Best Buy is the good, old glycerine bar. While the two we tested cleaned similarly, the difference in price and scent gives the nod to Thornhill.
Our “final four” favorite cleaners are Leather Therapy Wash and Lexol pH, followed very closely by Bick-1 and Leather Amore.
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or: Bee Natural 800/541-3264; Carr & Day & Martin at Nunn Finer 800/342-1723; Thornhill 610/444-3998; Tanner’s 800/826-6373; Bickmore 800/356-8804; BioDerm 800/762-0232; Farnam 800/825-2555; Lexol at Summit Industries 800/241-6996; Horseman’s One Step at W.F. Young 413/737-0201; Leather Therapy 800/711-8225; Nikwax 800/335-0260.