Faux Leather vs Real Leather: How To Tell The Difference

When people shop for new leather furniture, they often get confused about the different terms used to describe leather upholstery. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in people buying something that might seem cheap but also won’t give them the long-lasting enjoyment they expected. One of the more common questions we hear from potential buyers is how and why they should choose between real and faux leather. So, to help you better understand what you’d be spending your money on, I’ve put this guide together that goes into nine important details.

Main Differences Between Faux And Real Leather

OK, so the fundamental difference between real vs. faux leather is obviously the fact that faux leather isn’t made using an animal hide. It’s generally not even made using any kind of animal product. But it’s a lot more helpful to look at the differences by breaking them down like this.

1 – Cost

It should come as absolutely no surprise that a top or full grain leather is going to be considerably more expensive. Between the preparation and tanning process, it takes a lot of time, effort, and manual labor to create leather upholstery. Even with modern chrome tanning techniques, real leather is going to be more expensive, even when it comes from cheap Chinese imports. And once the tanning is complete, it takes a lot more effort to find the right size pieces of animal hides to combine into the furniture upholstery material. It also takes a lot more manual effort to securely stitch different parts of real leather into the right shape and size. There’s simply nothing cheap and easy about making real leather furniture. Faux leather fabrics, on the other hand, use cheap synthetics and binding materials to create a fabric of any size or shape. It’s also much thinner and easier to work with once it gets to the point where you need to stitch pieces together. Now, if you compare an American-made faux leather sofa or chair to a real leather one, you’ll easily find that real leather is two to three times as expensive. That might sound crazy, but when you factor in durability and all the other benefits, then you’ll likely end up with furniture that lasts easily five times as long.

2 – Durability

Real leather, especially the full grain type, gives you exceptional durability. A high-quality American-made real leather sofa that gets the right care and maintenance can easily last 25 years and longer. And with the right kind of aniline dye and full grain finish, the patina effect could make it last for 35 years and more. These would not be uncommon timeframes for people to enjoy their real leather upholstery. Faux leather fabrics, on the other hand, will start to show signs of wear and tear very quickly. While they don’t tend to fade in the sun, faux leather upholstery tends to be thin and have a layer of paint sprayed on. That means that friction with clothing will slowly wear down the paint, and unlike bonded leather, there isn’t anything dark underneath the paint to make it less obvious. What you also end up with is simple things like a long fingernail or the buckle of a watch, causing scratches that become very obvious. All those small scratches add up, and it’s pretty much impossible to fix them. We have had customers who, after just 3 to 4 years of living with a PU leather sofa, have given up and decided to make the right investment in real leather upholstery.

3 – Feel

This is a part of the real vs. faux leather debate where you need to experience both types to be able to tell the difference. Let me start with faux leather here, as it’s the easier one to explain. When you run your hand over PU leather, you’ll likely experience one of two things. Either it’s completely smooth, like a highly varnished and polished table. Or, you might feel some slight roughness from a printed grain effect. Now, some people might think that this printed grain effect makes it a lot more difficult to tell the difference. But I can categorically tell you that once you’ve felt full grain leather, you’ll immediately know the difference. See, real leather will have a warmer and softer feel to it, and the grain pattern won’t be as obvious to your fingers.

4 – Smell

This is another area where you should be able to easily tell the difference between real and synthetic leather. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of owning a brand new real leather jacket or piece of furniture, then you know that real leather has a very distinct smell. Between the natural smell of the animal hide and the tanning substances, you’ll always get that wonderful leather smell. This is also a smell that will last for many years, even if it gradually fades a bit with natural aging. But with faux leather, you’re only going to smell synthetic materials, and this includes some pretty strong smelling bonding agents. It’s very much a strong smell of solvents, and it can be that strong that people have to keep windows open for several days when they first receive a new PU leather couch. It does fade, but it’s not a particularly nice experience.

5 – Cleaning And Care

When it comes to regular cleaning and maintenance, there is a big difference that you have to factor in with real leather. It’s an organic material, and you’ll need to use a mild soap with a damp cloth to keep it clean. You’ll also need to apply a leather cleaner and conditioner with a microfiber cloth at least once a month to make sure it doesn’t dry out and start to crack. On the other hand, faux leather is pretty much low maintenance. You can easily keep it clean, and it’s less likely to attract stains. In most cases, wiping it down with a damp cloth is enough. One final thing I would mention is that you don’t want to use abrasive cleaners with harsh chemicals on either type of upholstery. This will scratch and fade the surface and make it look very ugly.

6 – Sustainability

The primary reason people choose PU leather is that it’s technically also classified as vegan leather. That means it doesn’t contain any animal hide or other animal products, for that matter. There’s also the matter of real leather being more manufacturing intense. That means that real leather has a higher carbon footprint than most faux leathers. So you could certainly make a case for PU leather being more environmentally friendly and cruelty-free. But, you have to offset that by two things. Faux leathers contain a lot of chemicals, plastics, and other synthetic stuff. And those are mostly not recyclable. Secondly, real leather will easily last more than five times as long. So, you realistically need to multiply the carbon footprint of faux leather by five to compare it to real leather.

7 – Appearance

The first thing you’ll notice with real leather is that when you closely examine the surface, there will be natural imperfections. These include scratches, insect bites, and stretch marks from when the animal was alive. But you’ll also have natural patterns that aren’t perfectly repeating and will rather be completely random. With faux leather, you’ll either see a complete absence of any kind of texture where it’s a completely smooth surface. Or you’ll see an artificial grain pattern, and this will have a repeating texture as it’s not randomly printed. Basically, real leather has a much more unique appearance than faux leather.

8 – Upholstery Backing

This is another major difference between faux leather and the real stuff. If you check the back or underneath of real leather furniture, you might be able to see the edge of a piece of leather. You’ll notice that it’s made of animal leather all the way through. With faux leather, you’ll notice a woven fabric backing that provides a structure for the synthetic material to attach to. It’s a dead giveaway that something is PU leather, and that’s what you’ll see if you have any kind of a more significant scratch.

9 – Comfort

The final part of the real vs. faux leather debate is the comfort differences. What I’d first highlight is that if you haven’t sat on a faux leather chair for more than a couple of minutes before, then you should try and sit on one for about 30 minutes. What you’ll notice is that it feels a lot warmer, and you’ll even start sweating through your clothes. It’s worse if you sit on faux leather with bare skin. Animal leather, on the other hand, is breathable and therefore much more suitable as furniture upholstery for any item that you think you’ll be spending a lot of time on. It’s far more comfortable and relaxing to sit on.

What Is Faux Leather?

Faux leather is just a clever marketing term used to make fake leather sound more appealing. Some will argue that it’s an advertising trick to make you think you’re getting fancy French leather. Either way, it’s an entirely synthetic material made using chemicals, plastics, and stuff like polyvinyl chloride. They are generally safe and will create a leather-like effect. But it all changes when you look at the durability of many faux leathers. As mentioned above, you simply cannot recreate the wonders and toughness of nature with plastic materials. So why then do manufacturers choose to use it for furniture upholstery? One reason is that it’s cheap to produce in large quantities. But it’s also possible to market it as vegan leather for people who prefer to have cruelty-free PU leather. Faux leather can also be treated and coated with a protective top layer that makes it fade-resistant. That means it’ll withstand a lot more UV exposure than real leather, even when it’s maintained properly.

What Is Real Leather?

If leather is made from animal hides, then it’s classed as real leather. That includes full grain leather, top grain leather, split leather, genuine leather, and bonded leather. There are obviously major differences between these types of leather, and the manufacturing process of each of them results in very different quality. Here at Leather Furniture USA, we only partner with manufacturers that use the highest quality top and full grain leather upholstery. The reason for this is that no other real or synthetic types of leather come anywhere close to the durability and visual impact that they make on furniture. You can find out more about these leather materials on our dedicated page here, but I’ll give you a quick explanation here. Full grain leather is a type of upholstery where manufacturing processes leave the outer grain layer untouched. There’s no sanding or shaving it down to a completely smooth surface. The result is the toughest type of leather that retains all the natural shades and imperfections that make every piece of furniture completely unique. Top grain leather does sand down the outer grain layer to create a smoother surface and a material that is a bit easier to work with. While it loses some of those tough fibers, manufacturers often apply a protective layer to help make it more water and stain-resistant. Both work perfectly great for furniture, and our entire collection uses either one of these materials to make sure you get to enjoy your purchase for as long as possible.

Investing In Real Authentic Leather Furniture

Hopefully, the above information has made it clear what the differences in real vs. faux leather are. While there are some good reasons to buy fake leather, e.g., as a vegan, I strongly suggest that you consider the lack of durability. If you’re not happy buying a real leather sofa or chair, then consider buying fabric upholstery instead. But if you would like to see some amazing American-made real leather furniture, then browse through our catalog today. And don’t hesitate to use the contact screen or number to speak with one of our customer service team members. We look forward to hearing from you.

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