Carry a leather handbag around for long enough, and it’s bound to develop a few stains. Large or set-in stains merit professional attention, as do any stains on a raw leather handbag. But if you’re feeling brave, you can treat small stains on finished leather handbags as soon as they happen. In fact, the sooner you get to the stains, the better your odds of success.
How can I tell if my bag is made of raw leather?
Before you risk your treasured handbag, inspect the leather carefully: Do you see pores or the animal’s natural skin texture showing through? If the answer is yes, you’re probably looking at a handbag made of raw, or unfinished, leather. It’s safest to leave the cleaning to the professionals. The good news is that most (but not all) leather handbags are made with finished leather, which you can treat.
Use this test from Wayne Edelman of Meurice Garment Care to confirm that the bag is finished leather: Dab an inconspicuous part of the bag with a baby wipe. If the bag doesn’t absorb any of the liquid from the wipe, it’s most likely made of finished, painted leather — and you can even use baby wipes to remove general soiling from the bag. Be gentle, though; if you scrub, you might take the bag’s painted finish right off.
Treating water stains
Of all the stains in this list, water stains are the trickiest to deal with, and experts disagree vigorously on how they should be handled. One of the most popular treatments is to wring all the water out of a damp rag, dip it in a leather moisturizer, and work the moisturizer into the leather over the water stain. With that said, the safest way of handling water spots — and the only way, if the spotting is really serious — is to seek professional help from a handbag restorer who can re-dye the handbag.
Getting rid of ink stains
Ink stains are a definite case of good news, bad news. The good news is that if you get to the ink stain in time, you can simply “erase” it right off the leather with a white eraser. If that doesn’t work, you can try a slightly riskier method: Dab a little bit of rubbing alcohol on the stain with a cotton ball or Q-tip. This can remove the ink, but it also comes with a couple of risks: One, alcohol isn’t the kindest to bags, and some experts recommend against using it. Two, the alcohol can pull out the bag’s coloring along with the ink.
Now the bad news: If you didn’t get to that ink stain quickly, it’s absorbed into the leather and will require expert attention to fix.
Fixing oil stains on leather
Oil stains are easy to work with: Just sprinkle corn starch right on the oil stain and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes to draw the oil out. Brush the starch away, repeat if necessary to remove the rest of the oil, then wipe the leather with a barely damp cloth.
A word on leather conditioner
No matter how you clean your handbag, follow it up with a high-quality leather conditioner to restore the leather’s moisture and texture. Stick to conditioners meant for use on handbags; avoid saddle soap and automotive leather treatments, which usually have too high a pH for your handbag.