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A member of the Wardrobe Oxygen community reached out asking me how to clean a white leather bag. They had purchased a winter white leather purse and they loved it, but noticed it was looking a bit dingy. She wanted to know the best way to clean a white or light-colored leather bag, how to remove stains, and if there are any products on the market or hacks to keep a white leather bag clean.
I remember I answered this very question a few years ago on Wardrobe Oxygen. So I returned to the archives to revisit my original advice for cleaning a white leather bag, did some research to see if any new hacks, tools, or products on the market have improved the leather bag cleaning process, and decided to update my advice!
I used to own a gorgeous off-white leather bag from Banana Republic, got it for an insanely low price on eBay. A year later I was embarrassed to carry it because it was so dingy and stained, mainly from propping a newspaper on it during my Metro work commute, but also from denim dye transfer and a few splashes of coffee. I even had some streaks of ballpoint pen, and with having a young child at the time, there was an unknown sticky pink something on the strap.
I used this off-white leather bag as a testing site, trying out a range of methods I found online, heard from friends, and found in books about cleaning most anything. Some worked better than others, and as you will read below, some did more harm than good. Learn from my experience, so hopefully you will have great success in cleaning your white leather bag.
How to Clean a White Leather Bag
My tips below for cleaning a white leather bag are specifically for leather. I have not tried these methods on suede, nubuck, or faux leather. I cannot guarantee good results on such materials.
Learn From My Experience, Do a Spot Test First
Before I share my tips on how to clean a leather bag, I stress the need for you to do a spot test. Not all leather bags are created equal, nor are they colored in the same manner. Some leathers are dyed, some are painted, and some have a finish or treatment on top of the dye or paint, and all of these factors can determine how the color will react to cleaning products and methods. Please try it on the underside of the strap, or if your leather handbag has a bit of white or light-colored finished leather on the interior, try it there.
I say this because as you read my tips below, you'll see I had a few that did affect the finish of my leather bag. I want to help, not hurt your situation so please, it's tempting to go all in but do a spot test, let it fully dry, and touch it, brush against it before proceeding with a more visible part of your beloved purse.
Methods I Tried to Clean a White Leather Purse
Soap and Water
A bit of dish soap (I used Dawn, which is so useful and is part of my favorite stain remover recipe) diluted in warm water can be applied to leather with a soft cloth if quickly blotted dry. I have also read that Castile soap can be used but have not tried it myself. I used well-used dishrags that were soft, and free of lint, or any abrasive finish. I dabbed one into the diluted dish soap solution and then patted it on the leather and had another in the other hand ready to immediately blot away any leftover moisture. I did this several times in the same spot to get the stain to release.
I found this method most successful with fresh dirt or stains. For example, I got newsprint on my bag on my commute home and that evening I used diluted dish soap and soft cloths and it took off all the newsprint. However, I had no luck with it taking off set-in stains, or harder to remove stains like ballpoint pen.
Soap and water, when erring on the side of too little soap, and not getting the bag soaking, did not damage the finish or dye of my white leather bag.
I read on many message boards that hairspray is a great stain remover. Just recently, I went to my hair stylist and ended up getting a bit of hair dye on my cream cotton jumpsuit. He sprayed it with hairspray, I threw the jumpsuit in the wash as usual and was floored to find the entire stain was gone, not even a shadow of it was left! I found this also works on leather.
Just like with the soap and water, you don't want this left on the leather. Have a soft absorbent cloth at the ready and spray and immediately blot the liquid away. I found this to be extremely effective on small and difficult stains. Hairspray took out ballpoint pen, but it wasn't as effective with allover dinginess or dye transfer from jeans.
Another hack for cleaning white leather is toothpaste. You want the kind of toothpaste that is white. No gels, no blue, no nothing. Apply a small amount and use a well-worn or a child's toothbrush (the softer the better) and gently polish in small circles then remove the paste with a damp cloth.
While this is super effective on ballpoint pen, blood, Sharpie, and other stubborn stains, I found the toothpaste hack damaging to the finish of my leather bag. I am glad I tried it on the inside as even with a soft toothbrush and being gentle, the leather was lighter where the toothpaste was used. This may be better for truly white leather products.
Like hairspray, rubbing alcohol is a popular product to use to remove stains from leather. Using a Q-tip, you tap around the edges of the stain and work your way in, to prevent the alcohol from making the stain bleed. Use clean Q-tips to clean up the liquid.
I tried this, and it totally ate away the finish of my white leather bag. It was dried out (which is to be expected using rubbing alcohol), but the center the finish was worn away so much that even with a leather conditioner, there was still a spot.
I think the rubbing alcohol method would work better on natural colored leather, or distressed styles where a subtle spot slightly lighter or darker wouldn't be so obvious.
Chamberlain's Leather Milk
Speaking of leather conditioners, I already had a bottle of Chamberlain's Leather Milk and used it all over my white bag after my science fair project of stain removers. I had used this product before on thrifted leather coats, our leather couches, and boots with success and knew it wouldn't make the condition of my white handbag worse. I also like that Chamberlain's is natural, non-toxic, chemical free, and smells nice too.
While Chamberlain's Leather Milk won't remove the heaviest of stains, it did gently clean my entire white bag so it looked newer, fresher, crisper, while also making it softer and hiding any damage from the less-successful stain removing hacks.
Do know when applying Chamberlain's Leather Milk, your light-colored leather items will look darker. And if the leather is older and has been exposed to the elements or oils for a while it may naturally darken. But I found when the product dried on my year-old bag, it did not darken the white leather at all. Just spot treat as with any other stain removing product, and know older leathers may slightly darken with use.
Other Methods for Cleaning a Stained White Leather Handbag
Since writing this and testing out cleaning methods on my white bag, I have learned of other methods for removing stains. Some of them sound pretty great, so I thought to add them here. If you have tried any of these do let me know the results from your experiment in the comments!
- Equal parts Cream of Tartar and lemon juice (fresh lemon juice seems to be gentler and doesn’t smear as much as bottled) gently rubbed into the stain, left for 10 minutes. Use a rag damp with diluted soap to remove and buff dry with a soft cloth. This is a great method for removing scuffs from white shoes as well as smudges on white leather bags and other accessories.
- An alternative I've seen is baking soda instead of Cream of Tartar. This doesn't seem as widely recommended, so if you choose to go this route, spot test in a very inconspicuous place.
- DIY leather conditioner: mix together one part linseed oil, one part baby shampoo, two parts white vinegar, and eight parts warm water in a spray bottle. As with the soap and water method, dampen a soft cloth with the mixture and apply to the leather, and then use a separate dry soft cloth to buff away the mixture. This can be used to clean and also refresh leather bags, boots, and furniture.
- Methylated spirits and shoe polish: I appreciated this tutorial from 84th and 3rd that shared how they restored a white leather handbag with these two ingredients.
What Not To Use to Clean a White Leather Bag
Now that I've shared a variety of products that you can use to clean a white leather bag, I want to warn you of some products that may seem logical but can really cause damage.
- Baby Wipes. Baby wipes can dry out leather, and the scents and moisturizers can actually cause damage. Keep the cleansing wipes to the faux leather and microfiber bags in your wardrobe.
- Bleach. Bleach will not whiten white leather, it will only dry it out and yellow the finish.
- Magic Erasers. Magic erasers, even when used gently, can be too harsh for leather and eat away the color and finishes.
- Hair Dryer. A hair dryer will not speed up the drying time of a leather conditioner or any cleaning method; it will dry out the leather and cause it to crack. Patience is a virtue!
I hope this helps! If you have a hack for cleaning white leather bags that isn't mentioned here, please share in the comments. I also look forward to hearing from you if you have tried any of these methods and whether or not they worked for you. Good luck!