Leather clothes, shoes, hats, and handbags can mildew and allow mold growth when the moisture and heat levels are too high in a closet or storage area. It is important to remove mildew as soon as possible before the growth permanently damages leather surfaces.
How to Remove Mold and Mildew from Leather in 4 Steps
Step One: Head Outside
It only takes one spore to start a mildew colony. So, when you discover a mildew covered item it is essential to prevent the spread of spores from one area to another. Always take the mildewed leather items outside for the initial cleaning.
Use a soft-bristled brush or a dry clean cloth to brush away the spores. If the items were stored in any type of paper storage boxes, discard those right away. If the mildewed leather items were stored in fabric storage containers or hanging bags, they should be washed in hot water and dried at high heat to kill the mildew spores. Plastic storage containers should be cleaned with a solution of chlorine bleach and water and allowed to air dry in the sun.
The closet or area where the mildewed items were stored should be emptied completely of all items and vacuumed thoroughly. Then the walls (and floor if not carpeted) should be wiped down with a chlorine bleach/water solution. Allow the area to dry completely before using again.
Step Two: Soap it Up
In a small plastic container or bucket, mix a solution of a mild detergent or leather saddle soap and warm water. Use a clean cloth or sponge and wipe down all leather and faux leather surface (don't forget the inside of shoes). Use a separate cloth dipped in plain water to wipe away any soapy residue.
Hang any leather clothes on a sturdy hanger or place items on a flat surface to air dry. Do not place near direct heat or in the sun. It is helpful to have a fan circulating air to speed drying.
Step Three: Kill the Spores
In a clean container, mix equal parts plain cool water and rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol). Use a clean white cloth dipped in the mixture to wipe down the leather. For shoes, use a cotton swab to reach crevices and difficult to reach trimmed areas.
Finish with a wipe down with a clean cloth dipped in plain water. Allow the items to air dry again. For shoes and boots, it may be helpful to stuff them with plain white paper to help them hold their shape. Don't use newsprint or you may have ink on your socks and feet later!
Step Four: Recondition the Leather
Leather is a natural product with oils that must be maintained or the surface may crack. Once the leather item is completely dry use a leather conditioner to return the finish to a supple touch. Leather conditioners are sold in cleaning sections of mass merchandisers or can be purchased online. Follow the product instructions for use.
If the leather item has a removable fabric lining, follow these tips to remove any mildew stains. If the lining cannot be removed, follow Steps One, Two, and Three listed above. After the lining is completely dry, treat any dark spots using a solution of oxygen-based bleach and water.
In a non-metallic container, mix two tablespoons of dry oxygen bleach (brand names are: OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) with two cups water. Sponge the stained areas with the solution and allow to work for at least 30 minutes or longer and then sponge with a clean white cloth dipped in plain water. Allow to air dry. Be careful not to splash the solution directly on the leather because it can harm the leather finish. Repeat until any discoloration is removed.
If you can detect a mildew odor after the leather items have been cleaned, the best solution is fresh air and some sunshine. This will help remove odors. You can also tuck a dry odor absorbing product or a box of baking soda into a plastic container and add the cleaned leather items that smell musty. Leave the container sealed for a week so the odors can be absorbed.
How to Prevent Mildew Growth on Leather
The key to preventing mildew growth on leather goods is to control the temperature, air flow, and humidity where these items are stored and keeping everything as clean as possible. Mildew is a mold that loves natural products as a food source. Any leather that is stored with a bit of a food stain or mud is a target for mildew growth. Never store a soiled item.
In addition to reducing moisture in your home by using a dehumidifier, waterproofing foundations or damp areas, and increasing air circulation, you can keep leather goods from becoming mildewed by inspecting them often. Twice a year when you switch wardrobes with the season, remove leather articles from their storage space and take them to a well-lit area for a close inspection.
If you suspect mildew problems, use a mildew inhibitor in storage areas. Silica gel can be purchased in hardware stores or online to absorb moisture from the air.