Care and maintenance: Leather wallets and handbags

Leather is a natural product. By the time it is processed, treated, dyed, and stitched it may look unnatural in a very pleasing way, but the same characteristics that make it so attractive can also make it tricky to clean.

Color selection

Mom is always quick to point out that light colors will look grubby much sooner than dark ones. This should not stop anyone who really wants that white purse, but take a moment to consider that an item in use every day will look nicer for longer in a darker color, and then decide to consider that a purchasing factor—or not.

Are you really going to turn down everything that isn’t black? We didn’t think so.

Daily use

Handbags and wallets get a lot of handling and exposure to the elements. It would be difficult, not to mention pointless, to try and draw a line between reasonable and unreasonable use. Most women know exactly what their handbags cost and very few would intentionally abuse them. However, if it’s possible to do any of the following things even some of the time, they will prolong the life and appearance of the leather:

  • When possible, try to avoid placing your bag on the ground, which causes wear and tear on the base and corners. Hang it on a peg or the back of your chair instead.
  • Avoid long or repeated exposure to direct sunlight, which can cause some leathers to fade or discolor. This doesn't mean you can't wear the bag outdoors, but try to avoid leaving it on a beach blanket or car dashboard for hours at a time. 
  • Try to keep the item dry. Water marks can be permanent. If your wallet or bag falls into the pool or gets soaked in a sudden downpour, empty it and allow it to air-dry completely. Then condition it to restore the leather (see next item).
  • Treat the leather with mink oil or a leather conditioner. To ensure acceptable results, test the cleaning product first on a small or inconspicuous area, such as the inside of a flap, and allow it to dry completely before applying to the entire piece with a soft clean cloth. You may want to do this periodically just as a routine maintenance measure. It can’t hurt and will help preserve the luster.


No matter how careful you are yourself, accidents happen. Unstable dyes in clothing (such as denim) can rub or soak into your leather backpack. Another bar patron can spill his drink all over the bag you hung on the back of your chair. A blotch of salad dressing on the restaurant table can end up on your wallet. An uncapped pen can leave unwanted decorations on your favorite purse.

Sometimes you can’t do a thing about these accidents but it rarely hurts to try.

  • On a fresh stain of almost any sort, you can use a soft clean cloth to apply a minimal amount of plain water with a tiny bit of liquid dish soap. Rinse all soap off and allow to air-dry.
  • If you can catch them quickly, fresh ink marks can sometimes be rubbed off with a clean pencil eraser.  
  • Once a stain has set, a dry cleaner who specializes in leather cleaning may be able to help.
  • On darker leathers, ink marks and oil stains are often best left alone and allowed to wear off over time.