Polyurethane leather (PU) leather is an artificial form of leather made from thermoplastic polymers. It has a similar look to real leather but does not involve any animal products. The durability and weight of PU leather are lighter, and the material is completely synthetic.
For instance, PU leather is what makes up the cover of car seats and faux furniture. But how sustainable is this ‘vegan’ leather? Is it accessible, and a replacement for leather in the long run? Let’s find out!
What Is PU Leather Made Of?
PU leather is made from polyurethane and selected base material. Polyurethane is a lamination or a lining that’s applied to another base material. The most commonly used base materials include cotton, polyester, nylon, and rayon.
On the surface of these base materials, a roller is used to apply a sheet of polyurethane to make it look like genuine leather on the outside.
However, this is not to be confused with Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) leather. The process of making PVC and PU leather is very similar. It uses the same base materials, except the PVC leather fabric is a mix of different materials.
It includes polyvinyl chloride, plasticizers to soften the material, and lubricants to add flexibility. This mixture is combined to be applied to the top layer of the base material.
Is PU Leather Eco-Friendly?
Now here’s where we address the fact that real leather is not just a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. It also leaves behind an enormous carbon footprint and environmental impact. Did you know that real leather had a deadly environmental impact of about 7 times more than faux leather?
So what about real leather is dangerous? The culprit is not the raw materials but rather the tanning process of forming leather. A process known as Chromium tanning is used, which is a known cancer-causing agent and is harmful to humans, animals, and the environment.
The chromium used is discarded as solid or liquid waste and contaminates water and soil. Humans and animals eventually consume these and are at risk of cancers and birth defects.
Based on comparative evidence, faux leather does have less impact on the environment than real leather. Of the types of faux leather, PVC leather is fashioned into a variety of products and is accessible and affordable. This form of leather is also resistant to stains, and easy to clean and maintain.
But PVC is infamously termed ‘a very dangerous type of plastic’ and here’s why. PVC contains dioxins that are linked to developmental and reproductive issues and are released when burnt.
The process of making PVC leather also uses phthalates to make it softer and malleable. These phthalates are known cancer agents and disrupt hormonal pathways in humans.
On the other hand, PU leather is more sustainable compared to real leather and PVC leather. The reason is that it requires fewer resources compared to leather made from animal skin.
Some environmental benefits also include the usage of less land, chemicals, water, and energy. In fact, new research hints at the possible usage of biodegradable polyurethanes as an emerging alternative.
How To Identify PU Leather?
As the name suggests, faux or fake leather such as PU leather is modified to look similar to real leather. As a consumer, It is best to know how to discriminate between the two. This can help you make accurate, cost-worthy purchases when you are shopping for leather.
The primary thing to look for is the expense. The price tag attached with the material shows the expense, and in most cases, a less expensive one indicates faux leather.
To specifically identify PU leather, the smell that it accompanies is to be noticed. Real leather accompanies a distinct, oaky smell. PU leather has a plastic or chemical smell as it is made from cheaper material.
One can even try a water test. Genuine leather absorbs water, but PU leather is water resistant. It is advised to try these on smaller scale items, and not on items that you do not own.
From the surface, PU leather has a patterned or textured look that is similar to all parts of the material. Genuine leather has imperfections and grains, showcasing a vintage look. This aesthetic is not replicated in PU leather, as it looks uniform, patterned and almost ‘too perfect’.
The flexibility of leather is another distinct feature to notice. Real leather is soft, flexible and grainy, while PU leather cannot be stretched and is not as soft. Real leather also has visible pores on the material and feels ‘breathable’ and warm. These characteristics are not seen in PU leather.
Is PU Leather Durable?
Designs made from PU leather are usually known to last around three to five years. This depends on the maintenance and the quality of the PU leather. The longevity of PU leather is extended based on the maintenance process. The leather made with PU material is usually thinner and is more prone to wear and tear.
An additional reason why PU material is less durable is that it does not retain moisture. The lack of moisture is the reason why PU material is prone to any cases of tearing or cracking.
PU leather also maintains a uniform look and feel and does not become softer or gain luster over time as genuine leather does. Real leather develops grain and imperfections over time. But, PU leather has an ideal, patterned look that stays for years.
Is PU Leather Washable?
Washing or dry cleaning PU leather is a part of the maintenance process. It is recommended to use a microfiber cloth, or soft cloth to wipe down the surface of PU leather. One can use warm water or gentle detergent to wipe the surface.
The fabric obtained from PU is softer, flexible, and breathable compared to other forms of faux leather. Hence, it is commonly used to make clothing, upholstery for furniture, and materials that have contact with human skin.
Based on the type of furniture, clothing item, or material that the PU leather is used for, tags with instructions for cleaning the materials are attached. To remove stains from PU leather, use a soap or cleaning solution on the stain, and wipe with a damp cloth.
Is PU Leather Expensive?
PU leather is generally less expensive than real leather. Due to the cost of production being less, and the type of material used, once PU leather enters the market, it ends up costing less. Depending on the amount of leather, the usage of material, and the source, the cost of PU leather varies.
In some cases, a natural leather base is layered with a dried PU plastic mixture on top. This is known as semi-synthetic PU leather.
On the other hand, having a plastic coating over a base cotton or fabric material forms fully synthetic PU leather. The type of PU leather also contributes to the overall cost.
It is generally sold in yards or meters and is more affordable as it is one-third the cost of real leather. It is also available at a variety of prices and differs across countries.
Is PU Leather Strong?
The durability of PU leather is dependent on the quality and cost. Scratches and scrapes are usually withstood by PU leather, which makes it a great addition to the faux leather we see in house furniture.
The ultraviolet radiation and stains that can damage and fade genuine leather are also withstood by PU leather. It is easier to cut and sew for usage in different materials.
But compared to real leather, PU leather is more vulnerable to puncture and tear and lacks the lustre that genuine leather holds on to for a longer time.
Is PU Leather Comfortable?
PU leather is considered to have more breathability compared to PVC leather and is one of the reasons why the majority prefer the former. However, the texture does not completely mimic the real feeling of leather and may accompany a plastic, hard feeling when used for furniture.
To make PU leather comfortable enough to use as handbags and clothing items, the base is changed. Flexible fabric such as cotton is used as the base in such cases. It is then embossed with polyurethane on the top, making it softer and more flexible.
Such modified forms of PU leather are used in the fashion industry to make jackets, dresses, and other clothes. But in the end, it is real leather that is more breathable, comfortable, and humidity-resistant than PU leathers.
Is PU Leather Waterproof?
PU leather is water-resistant and does not absorb nor soak water as genuine leather does. This makes it resistant to spills or light rain and is the reason behind using PU leather for outdoor and water sports gear and clothing. The polyurethane coating on top of the leather provides resistance to moisture.
Yet, PU leather is not entirely waterproof. The water resistance is due to the amount of polyurethane present, and with inclusions of base materials such as cotton, rayon, polyester and so on, the water resistance is compromised. When the base is mostly polyurethane, the water-resistance increases.
How Do You Maintain PU Leather?
Compared to real leather, polyurethane leather requires less maintenance. But, as it is less durable, it needs to be cared for in the right manner.
Using products that have been designed for genuine leather is not recommended. These products may contain oil or wax that can damage the PU leather coating.
For routine maintenance, it is recommended to use a dry or a slightly damp, lint-free cloth to wipe PU leather. Using cleaning solutions that are specifically designed for PU leather, and regular maintenance every three to six months can extend the durability of PU leather.
Pros And Cons Of PU Leather
There is a rise in ‘vegan alternatives’ for real leather, in the current era. Now more than ever, it is time to educate ourselves on durable, sustainable options that don’t have to involve slaughtered animals.
PU leather costs less than genuine leather due to the ease of manufacture, is vegan, and is sustainable due to the usage of fewer resources compared to real leather.
PU leather is majorly used in furniture and is a non-toxic material that is resistant to peeling or cracking easily. Maintaining PU leather is easier, as it isn’t affected by climate and temperature, is resistant to oil and has antibacterial properties, ensuring an anti-mould surface.
For routine maintenance, wiping down the material with a damp cloth on a frequent basis or on the spot with a stain is sufficient.
However, the aesthetics of PU leather may be a letdown for consumers wanting the exact look and feel of genuine leather. PU leather can look fake, or synthetic. It is not as durable and may develop scratches over time if not maintained well.
The products used for maintenance are specific, and they do not develop the lustre that real leather develops over time.
PU leathers are also not completely eco-friendly, as plastic-based leathers degrade like other plastics, taking about 500 years to decompose. They may even lead to the release of micro plastics, which is currently infesting our ecosystem at an alarming rate.
The manufacturing process of PU leather also uses toxic chemicals such as dimethylformamide. These have been linked to cancers and birth defects in humans.
So what boxes does PU leather tick? It is a cruelty free, non animal based form of leather. It also has lesser manufacturing impact compared to real leather.
Real leather may win over faux leather such as PU leather in some factors. But, the carbon footprint, the threat to the environment, and the cruelty towards animals takes a huge toll on the ethical standards we live by.
It is important to look at perspective before deciding to switch to a “sustainable alternative”, when the option at hand is paper or plastic. PU leather may have less manufacturing costs, and may be cruelty-free, but is damaging to the environment in other ways.
They are also used by marketing campaigns that emphasize the ‘vegan’, ‘alternative’, and ‘cost effective’ parts of PU leather.
As a customer who wants to contribute to making conscious choices for the environment, it’s always better to research and make a suitable choice. The choice at hand can include two things. It can either contribute to being against animal cruelty by choosing PU leather. Or it may include switching to sustainable, but expensive choices such as cactus or mushroom leather.
Hence, we always recommend going the extra mile by researching upcoming, sustainable faux leather alternatives. Examples include plant-based leathers, materials that can biodegrade, and repurposed or recycled materials.
See also: What Is Mushroom Leather?
Main image credit: Matt & Nat PU Leather Handbags