Faux Leather vs. Real Leather - How To Recognise and Care For Genuine Leather Handbags
05 June 2023
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between real and faux leather? Or have you just purchased a new handbag and want to know how to keep it in perfect condition? You’ve come to the right place. As experts in leather since 1998, we’ve got all the answers to these questions.
Real Leather - What Does It Mean?
The terms ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ can be used to describe a material made from animal skins and hides. The reason we use these terms is to distinguish real leather from faux leather.
However, the word ‘genuine’ is known industry-wide as one of the five grades of leather quality. To understand the levels of the grading system, it’s important to understand that animal pelts have natural layers. These layers may be split (or not) in order to create different leather textures and qualities.
The grades of leather
Thought of as the highest quality of leather, full grain hasn’t been split, so it’s composed of its natural layers. That means it’s thick, durable and possesses natural characteristics, like unique colouring and the individual creases that come with each animal hide.
Similar to full-grain leather, top grain hasn’t been split. However, it will have been sanded or buffed in order to remove its natural textures and create a smoother look and feel. This results in a slightly thinner leather that’s easier to mould and craft into leather products.
As the name suggests, this leather has been split. Removing the top layer creates a soft, flexible suede. Without the protective top layer, this material requires extra special care to protect it from water and other elements.
As mentioned, ‘genuine’ can be used to describe any real leather that has been created using an animal hide. However, among leather industry experts, the term ‘genuine’ refers to a lower quality leather that’s very thin and is made from the bottom layer of the animal pelt.
Made using a mix of faux and genuine leather shavings from all other grades, which are then glued together. Bonded leather is a very low quality material. Unlike those of better quality, it’s not made using one piece of regular animal skin. And due to its faux content, it frequently cracks or peels with use. So while it is one of the cheapest leathers to buy, items made with this don’t tend to last very long.
To find out more about where leather comes from and how it is made, take a look at our guide.
What is Faux Leather?
An alternative to genuine leather, faux is a material made using an artificial PVC or polyurethane plastic base (PU).
One reason PU leather is used is because it’s much cheaper than real leather. This means items don’t cost as much to produce and are therefore less expensive to buy. It’s also used as a vegan-friendly alternative, as it isn’t made using any animal skins or hides.
You may also spot faux leather fabric being marketed as ‘sustainable’, which is not necessarily true. As it’s a plastic-based material, it actually takes much longer to biodegrade and releases damaging chemicals. For these reasons, it’s considered worse for the environment.
Radley London Materials
It’s possible for real leather to be made in an environmentally friendly way. When creating our handbags, we only use leather that’s been responsibly sourced from tanneries accredited by the Leather Working Group - a not-for-profit organisation that offers the world's leading environmental certification for the leather manufacturing industry.
Our gold-standard leather is always a by-product of the food industry, and none of our materials involve animal cruelty.
Additionally, we plan collections and products that minimise the waste leftover from cutting our leather panels. For example, we use one piece of leather to make both the bag and purse. And use loose cuttings to create matching keyrings.
Buying Well To Buy Less
When purchasing a new accessory, such as a genuine leather handbag, a wallet or purse, or even a leather jacket, it is important to consider the difference between real and fake leather. For example, you may want to think about how much you are looking to spend or how long you want your new accessory to last.
Here at Radley London, we’d always recommend spending a little more money and investing in the genuine option as you’ll be getting a far more durable material. That means your item will last longer and you won’t need to spend more money replacing it in a few years.
How Do You Know If A Product Is Made Of Real Leather?
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between a genuine leather handbags and one made of faux materials (unless you’re a member of our Design Team - our experts can always spot a fake).
Here are some tips that will help you to identify real leather accessories:
Real leather has a distinct smell that’s very different from that of artificial alternatives. When it’s real, it will have a naturally earthy, woody scent, whereas fake ones can smell artificial, like plastic or chemicals.
Leather has natural discrepancies. Just like fingerprints, no two animal skins are the same. It’s these irregular patterns and marks that signal the real ones from the fakes, and can help you to authenticate an item. On the other hand, artificial alternatives are patterned using a machine, which creates a very consistent pattern.
Soft to touch
Typically, artificial leathers will feel stiff, whereas real ones are softer to touch.
The water test
As it’s a natural material, leather will quickly absorb liquid that lands on it. However, synthetic ones are made using plastic that won’t absorb moisture. You can easily test this out on your products by putting a few drops of water on the surface and seeing if it’s absorbed.
Patina is a natural process that happens to leather as it’s exposed to sunlight, dirt and other environmental factors over time. It’s a coveted effect that will give your item a unique, characterful look and it’s one reason why there’s a huge market for vintage leather goods. But patina only happens to real skins, as they’re natural materials that absorb elements. As faux leathers are artificial, they won’t develop a patina over time.
While these tips will clearly demonstrate the difference between real and a low-quality faux leather, manufacturing techniques are constantly improving, which can make it harder to tell the difference between the two.
Rest assured that any leather Radley London accessory has been crafted using the real thing: a natural high quality skin that will stand the test of time. Did you know we also make fabric handbags, crafted using recycled materials that used to be plastic bottles? We call it our Radley Responsible collection.
How To Care For Genuine Leather Handbags
If you’ve invested in a beautiful handbag, you’ll want to take good care of it. Not only will caring for it keep it looking clean and fresh, it will also help to preserve it so your accessory lasts even longer.
Ideally, a frequently used leather bag should be cleaned around every six months. While there are professional cleaning options available, the costs can add up and you’ll have to go without your favourite handbag for a few days.
Luckily, you can clean a leather handbag at home.
To remove light stains and dirt, dish soap can be used. Simply dip a clean cloth into soapy water and use that to wipe the surface. This is a super quick and simple solution for cleaning your bag. You could also use ‘saddle soap’, which is a cleaner developed specifically for leather, but if you don’t have any, simple dish soap will also do the job.
However, for harder-to-remove stains, or to treat your leather to preserve its condition, you’ll want to look into getting some specific care products.
There are different care products available, each one with a slightly different effect, but all with the same purpose of protecting your leather items. Here at Radley London, we know how much you love your handbags (because we do too). That’s why we’ve created our own leather care items, each one specially formulated for use on Radley London styles.
Using a wipe, such as our Leather Protection Cloth, is a quick and easy way to protect your accessory. Formulated for use only on Radley London leathers, it will preserve the quality of your handbag by creating an invisible barrier to minimise the effects of everyday dirt.
This cloth should be used on new bags, or can be used on older accessories after they’ve been cleaned using our cleaner.
Designed to remove water-based stains and dirt. Our Leather Cleaner will keep your handbags looking fresh and clean. Simply apply it to a clean cloth, rub in circular motions over the stain and then wipe away.
After using our cleaner, we’d recommend using our Protection Cloth to further preserve the quality of your accessory.
These creams are formulated to condition and moisturise leather. While they can enhance the durability of your items, using a cream is not a necessary step in the leather care process.
How To Store Leather Handbags
As leather is a natural material, there are certain ways it should be stored.
As it’s a skin, it needs to ‘breathe’, which means it shouldn’t be sealed in an airtight container.
They should be kept away from moisture, as the slightest bit can cause mildew or mould.
Avoid keeping it in direct sunlight, as this exposure can discolour it.
As it’s flexible, these accessories can lose their shape over time. Bags should be stuffed before putting it into storage.
So, to store leather handbags at home, you need to be kept in a cool, dark and dry spot.
Every Radley London handbag and purse will come padded with silica gel packets and a fabric dust bag. And we’d recommend keeping hold of all of these bits. Using a dust bag will keep your item away from sunlight and dust, while the silica gel will protect it from moisture. And if you’ve wondered how to keep the shape of your handbag, we’d keep the paper stuffing that our bags come with - filling your bag when it’s not in use will stop it from losing its shape.
Now you know how to tell the difference between real and faux leather. But if you still want to learn more about it, head to Radley Stories to read our Leather Guide. Or, if we’ve put you in the mood to invest in a beautiful genuine leather handbag, take a look at our new-in styles.