How to Clean Leather and Faux Leather Purses

A woman holding a leather handbag

Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images

For many of us, purchasing a leather purse is an investment in an item that should last for many years. That investment needs care and when stains happen, cleaning is essential. Even if you don't have a real leather purse, these tips will help that faux leather handbag look better longer.

Before You Clean

Begin by emptying all pockets, opening all zippers and clasps, and shaking the purse upside down to remove dirt and trash.

If the bag has a fabric lining, pull the interior lining to the outside. Use a lint roller to capture dust and crumbs. You can also use the fabric brush attachment on a vacuum to tackle the interior.

If the bag has no fabric lining, vacuum out the interior and wipe down with a slightly water-dampened cloth.

Examine the bag for care labels or type of materials used, especially for the lining. Follow any recommended care guidelines and attempt to identify the cause of any stains (ink, food, or general grime).

Leather Purse Care and Cleaning

Leather is a porous, natural animal hide that easily absorbs oils from our skin and other sources. To keep your bag looking its best, regular cleaning - every week or so - is best. Purchase a good leather soap. Add a couple of drops to some warm water, then dip in a clean, soft white cloth. Wring out excess moisture and wipe down the outside of your leather bag. Do not use a colored cloth because dye transfer is possible. After wiping down, buff the bag dry with another soft white cloth.

Never use harsh cleaning products on leather including bacterial wipes, baby wipes, ammonia or alcohol-based cleaners, or a stiff brush.

Twice per year, your bag needs to be reconditioned to help the leather remain supple and stain-resistant. You can purchase great commercial leather conditioners online or at your local home improvement store. Just empty your bag and follow the directions on the product. Alternatively, you can make your own conditioner by mixing 1 part distilled white vinegar with 2 parts linseed oil. Use a soft white cloth dipped in the mixture to rub it into the leather. Allow to soak in for 15 minutes and then buff dry with another soft, white cloth.

The biggest issue with leather handbags comes from stains like ink, blood, food or wine. The key to success is to treat the stain as soon as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Ink stains: Isopropyl alcohol, plain old rubbing alcohol, works best for home removal of ink stains from leather.
  • Food, oil or wine: As soon as possible, sprinkle the grease/oil stain with talcum powder, cornstarch or baking soda. You can even use a slice of bread to help absorb the stain. When you get home, mix a paste of 1 part cream of tartar and 1 part lemon juice. Apply the paste and allow to sit for 10 minutes, then wipe off. Allow to dry thoroughly and repeat if necessary, and then apply a leather conditioner to the entire bag.

To prevent staining, keep makeup in a separate zipped waterproof bag. It's also a good idea to keep pens in a sealed bag.

For hardware on the handbag, use a good quality metal polish or brass cleaner to help bring back the shine. This will work best if you use a light hand because most of the hardware is simply plated base metal. Dip a cotton swab in the polish and apply to the metal. Use a clean, soft, white cloth to buff away the tarnish. Be very careful to keep the cleaner off the leather or any fabric trim, as it can cause discoloration.

If your handbag is very expensive or gets a stain that you don't know how to handle, shoe repair shops and some dry cleaners specialize in cleaning leather.

Patent Leather Purse Care

Patent leather is real leather that has been finished with lacquer to give it a glossy, reflective finish. Due to the finish, cleaning can usually be done with just a damp cloth to remove dust and soil. For scuff marks, use a pink artist eraser and lightly rub away the scuff. Finish by polishing with a dry cloth.

Faux Leather Purse Care

Taking care of a faux leather handbag is much more simple than taking care of a leather one. Most faux leather is a plastic or vinyl material. The key is regular cleaning with a mild soap or detergent. Simply mix a bit of mild soap with warm water and wipe down with a clean, soft white cloth dipped in the solution. Follow up with a wipe from a water-dampened cloth and then dry with another soft cloth.

Storing Leather Purses

Never store leather or faux leather handbags in plastic bags. The plastic can stick to the leather and ruin it. In addition, plastic bags trap moisture that can lead to mildew. Use an old pillowcase or cotton bag to store your leather or faux leather purses to prevent dust from accumulating during off-season storage. The fabric bag will allow the leather to breathe and help it remain supple.

Stuff your leather or faux leather bags with tissue paper when not in use so they will keep their shape, and do not hang them but store them upright or lie flat to preserve their shape.