Leather looks great when new – but it doesn’t take long for rich hides to start showing their age. Distressed leather might be trendy on furniture, but in a new car it’s the last thing you want. To prevent your leather from drying out and cracking, you’ll need to regularly clean and condition it. But with leather cleaners so expensive, you might be wondering: can I just use Vaseline instead?
There are a lot of answers to this question floating around on the internet, and some cursory googling shows that everyone seems to have their own opinion. Needless to say, the debate is far from over as to whether Vaseline is good for leather. Vaseline has often been used to dress the leather of book bindings, and by not changing the smell or touch, is highly favored.1
We’ve combed through a lot of the research out there in order to throw our hat in the ring. You’ll know our stance on this topic in a moment, but first, it’s important to know what Vaseline even is.
What is Vaseline?
Image courtesy of Pixabay
Vaseline is the best-known brand name for petroleum jelly, a generic, mineral-based compound that is created the same way petroleum fuel is: by pumping oil out of the ground and refining it to a certain consistency.
Turning pure petroleum into Vaseline also requires the addition of other chemicals and additives as well, making the final product a concoction of different substances.
Why is using Vaseline on leather so controversial?
In the short term, petroleum jelly will clean and even soften leather. But the long-term ramifications of regularly using it to clean and condition will actually do more harm than good. And because Vaseline requires frequent reapplication to keep leather supple, you’re actually exacerbating the long-term effects to the leather that will eventually come to pass.
Of the long-term effects, the worst is that it breaks down the leather fibers, which promotes cracking and splintering of the leather. This is due to the petroleum-based nature of the product. And because it needs to be applied to leather often in order to make the hide look and feel appealing, you’re hastening the breakdown process.
Those who promote Vaseline will suggest using a hairdryer to melt it into leather; however, Vaseline will often burrow itself too deep into the leather, and too much of it may make the leather so mushy as to lose its shape. Even if you don’t oversaturate the leather with Vaseline, it can still cause it to lose its tensile strength. This encourages further deterioration of the leather.
Are there any advantages to Vaseline?
Yes, actually. Petroleum distillates as a whole have deep-cleaning properties, thanks to their ability to soak into very small pores that water and other solutions would not penetrate. It’s why most leather cleaners use at least a small amount of petroleum distillates in their product. But the fact is that it isn’t a bad thing to have these chemicals in a leather cleaner.2
Vaseline also restores the shine and sheen of the leather, at least initially. But – as we mentioned before – it requires constant reapplication to maintain that sheen. Proper cleaners also restore a leather’s luster but can preserve it for far longer than Vaseline. In fact, with most leather cleaners, you are only recommended to condition once or twice a year.
Before you use Vaseline, you should do a little more research to make sure you’re comfortable with the advantages and disadvantages.
What are good alternatives to Vaseline?
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There are numerous products on the market that are superior to Vaseline when it comes to preserving leather. Any number of excellent cleaners and conditioners on the market will provide the same short-term benefits without causing long-term damage. There are also more and more all-natural products coming to market as well.
We’ve taken a pretty in-depth look at leather cleaning products in our article on the best leather cleaners and conditioners, so check out that resource for a comprehensive look at the top-rated protectants on the market.
The long and short of it? Lots of products are out there from a variety of companies. Auto-care specialists with well-rated leather cleaners include Armor All, Griot’s, and Turtle Wax; other leather-cleaner manufacturers include Weiman, Lexol, and Leather Honey.
These products all cost more than Vaseline, but not by much – perhaps a few dollars. For that small upcharge, you’re getting a safe, tested chemical formula that is intended to clean, enhance, and preserve leather. Considering the leather in your car must endure severe usage – constant use, massive temperature swings, and repeated full-sun exposure, among other things – you want a quality cleaner.
Don’t just do it to spoil yourself, either. If you preserve the leather in your car, the extra cost and time spent doing it will pay off when it comes time to trade-in. You’ll almost certainly get more money for your trade if the leather seats looked pristine rather than cracked, dry, brittle, and aged.
Don’t forget that leather isn’t synthetic (though many types of leather do wear plenty of synthetic coatings). Leather is a hide, and preserving it properly requires the careful selection and application of specialized products. Though Vaseline is cheap and convenient, it ultimately does more harm to leather than good, and for that reason opting for a specialized cleaner and conditioner has been, and will remain, the preferred method of choice.
Ride Digest uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
- McCrady, Ellen. How Leather Dressing May Have Originated. Abbey Newsletter. 1990; 14(1). Accessed 27 Sept 2021.
- Compo, Mel. Does It Matter If Your Leather Conditioner Has Petroleum? StrideWise.com. Accessed 24 Sept 2021.