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It's no secret that real leather is a noble, robust and extremely desirable material these days. In a concern of durability and resistance, brands use real leather (in its different forms) to offer quality products that will last a lifetime.
However, this comes at a cost, and that cost is quite significant. In addition, the expansion of animal welfare considerations has led brands to think about "vegan" alternatives, allowing them to offer similar products while guaranteeing that no animal materials have been used.
As a result, many alternatives have emerged in recent years, like PU leather (polyurethane leather) so that today it is sometimes difficult to find its way, some brands taking advantage of this vagueness to scam consumers. There are many types of "leather" on the market but do you know their main differences? Some say that PU leather is a very poor quality material, others see it as an interesting option.
In this article, we will analyze what PU leather is, its advantages and disadvantages, its concrete applications in the industry and the methods you can use to recognize it in the blink of an eye.
Are you ready? Let's dive into it! Here is what you'll discover in this guide:
Video Explanation: What is PU Leather?
📷 Credit: Thanks to btod.com for this useful video
What is PU Material?
In the comments of our previous posts, we have often been asked if PU leather real leather? PU leather is a synthetic leather and therefore a type of fake leather. It is an artificial imitation of real leather, designed mainly from polyurethane, a plastic polymer derived from petroleum, with the aim of reproducing the appearance and main advantages of leather, at a reduced cost and without using animal materials.
Polyurethane is a man-made polymer (it is not found in nature) that has extraordinary characteristics, being a durable, flexible material that resists well to time and wear. It has become ubiquitous, thanks to its versatility and its use in a wide range of different sectors: wetsuits, gaskets, tires, insulation, hoses and even in condoms.
This material is not new though. It was invented in 1937 by Otto Bayer (pictured here) and a colleague from IG Farben in Leverkusen, Germany
Prof. Otto Bayer in 1952 demonstrating his creation (from 1937), the polyurethane,.
What is PU Leather?
Now that we have seen the source of PU leather, we must uncover its main characteristics. The most common way to obtain this popular PU leather is the application of a layer of polyurethane on a base, also artificial, usually made of polyester, to provide strength and resistance to the final product.
However, sometimes PU leather is used in combination with real leather remnants as a base, to obtain what is called "double-cast leather" or "bicast leather".
In the end, PU leather resembles real leather and offers a similar texture, although it is recognizable by its smell, its lightness and its lack of resistance to tension and torsion. However, it has many advantages, which we will examine later, such as its resistance to water or sunlight for example, explaining for the latter, its extensive use in the construction of interior furniture or car accessories.
Is PU Material Always Vegan?
PU leather, in its original form is indeed a 100% vegan leather, because it is only composed of a mixture of different artificial chemicals (polyester, polyurethane).
However, there is now a wide variety of PU leather, and not all of them are made only with chemicals. To try to be exhaustive, here is a list of the different leathers, often (wrongly) labeled under the term "PU leather":
Many of these leathers are not artificial leathers and come from different manufacturing techniques, using animal materials:
- Bicast Leather: It is a leather made from a split leather base covered with an embossed layer of polyurethane or vinyl.
- Split Leather: The skin of the animal is divided into several layers, the leather of a cow can reach 10 millimeters thick. The resulting layers are referred to as grain split or top grain split and flesh split
- Bonded leather: bonded leather is a mixture of genuine leather and faux leather, made from scraps and fibers of genuine leather, mixed with an artificial binder, most often polyurethane, and then bonded to a paper backing. most bonded leathers are only 10-20% genuine leather.
- Corrected Grain Leather: corrected grain leather is a natural leather that has undergone intensive treatment (sanding and polishing) in order to eliminate as much as possible the natural imperfections of the skin (scars, grains, veins)
This is a major problem because it creates confusion in the minds of customers. Some brands offer bonded leather products as natural leather products. The multiplication of terms and types of leather create a confusion that many actors take advantage of to promote the characteristics of real leather on products that are in fact mainly artificial.
To put it in a nutshell, only 100% PU leather is a vegan leather. All other leathers, use at some point in their manufacture products of animal origin and can not be considered as vegan leathers.
How is PU Leather Made?
The History of Artificial Leather
Various methods of manufacturing artificial leather were developed between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. One of the first breakthroughs in this field was the German "Presstoff" (also called Preßstoff or Pressstoff). This artificial leather, developed at the beginning of the 20th century, was mainly made of paper pulp and was widely used by the German army during the Second World War, replacing leather, a rare material at the time because of rationing.
This durable and versatile artificial leather was widely used in many areas: straps, horse harnesses, belts, visors. It replaced leather in all its applications, except for those where the material could be put to a severe test (by time and use), as in the field of footwear for example.
Another example of 20th century artificial leather was developed in the UK by Rexine Ltd of Hyde, calling their product "Rexine". It consisted primarily of a fabric covered with a mixture of cellulose nitrate, alcohol, pigment and camphor oil. Once mixed, the result was embossed to resemble the texture of real leather.
Offered at a reduced cost (1/4 the cost of real leather), it quickly became ubiquitous in industries that required large quantities. For example, it was used to cover the seats of British cars and wagons in the 1920s. For the little anecdote, rexin is attributed to the propagation of the fire in the 15:48 West Riding express from King's Cross near Huntingdon in 1951.
The Manufacturing Process
Source: Gurera, Dev & Bhushan, Bharat. (2018). Fabrication of Bioinspired Superliquiphobic Synthetic Leather with Self-Cleaning and Low Adhesion. Colloids and Surfaces A: Physicochemical and Engineering Aspects. 545. 10.1016/j.colsurfa.2018.02.052.
The process of manufacturing pu leather is now well established and used throughout the world, across multiple industries. This process uses a large amount of chemicals and in particular petroleum derivatives. The manufacturing process of PU leather is divided into 4 main steps:
- The first step consists of pouring a polymer solution on a paper base, covered with a layer of silicone. The mixture is passed between heated rollers to make it compact and uniform.
- the second step consists in pouring a second solution of polymer, with an emulsifier, or "riser", then to pass the whole in the oven, which makes swell the second layer of polymer.
- the third step consists in gluing on top of the 3 layers previously obtained, a layer made of a mixture of cotton and polyester, adding strength and solidity to the mixture.
- The fourth step consists of pouring a resin solution on the whole, before passing it under a press in order to recreate the natural texture and grain of real leather.
What are the Pros & Cons of PU Leather ?
Different types of leather, different properties: what to choose? It is quite normal to hesitate between real leather and synthetic leather, each having its advantages and disadvantages. Let's take a closer look at the advantages of PU leather
The PU Leather Pros:
Here are the main advantages of PU leather compared to genuine leather:
- ✔ PU leather, due to the origin of its materials and its manufacturing process, costs significantly less than natural leather (especially if it is of high quality).
- ✔ PU leather is a waterproof material and by its non-porous nature does not absorb water, which facilitates its maintenance but also its cleaning. You can walk around for hours in the rain with a light mind.
- ✔ PU leather, when it is 100% PU leather, is a vegan leather, not using animal materials and therefore responding to obvious ethical considerations.
- ✔ PU leather is very easily customizable, in terms of shape, texture, thickness or colors. The only limit is your imagination (and your budget).
- ✔ PU leather is not an organic material, it does not change or degrade over time. It does not require the same care as real leather over time.
- ✔ PU leather is made of polyurethane, an extremely strong and durable material, guaranteeing the durability of the material over time.
- ✔ PU leather offers better resistance to the sun and its UV rays than real leather, which is why it is often used on products often exposed to the sun.
The PU Leather Cons:
Here are the main disadvantages of PU leather compared to genuine leather:
- ✖ PU leather is an artificial material. The rendering can therefore often look "fake", making the difference with a real quality leather obvious.
- ✖ PU leather is waterproof, which is a quality but also a downside because this artificial leather is not breathable at all.
- ✖ PU leather is made of petroleum polymers, which can cause chemical and plastic odors that are often unpleasant.
- ✖ PU leather is made of polyurethane, a solid material but not very stretchable, which means that it tears quite easily over time, due to the friction and twisting that the product undergoes
- ✖ PU leather is not a natural material. Therefore, it does not evolve over time and does not develop the beautiful patina of genuine leather, a sign of quality and authenticity.
- ✖ PU leather is not always vegan, as it is sometimes mixed with real leather leftovers, making it a not as ethical option as one might think.
- ✖ PU leather requires a lot of chemicals to make it, as well as the use of fossil fuels. Moreover, PU leather does not degrade or decompose, which makes it a less eco-friendly material.
How to Recognize PU Leather?
These days, the answer will probably be found on the label of the product you are buying. As we have seen above, you can be sure that it is a synthetic leather if the following terms are annotated: "bicast" "bonded" "PU" "reconstituted" "split" etc.
But sometimes, some goods do not have this information. So it's best to know how to tell the difference between the different types of leather. Don't worry, there are different techniques to easily tell the difference between real and synthetic leather.
- The Overall Look 👀: look at the grain of the leather. If it is "too perfect", too clean, and has an unnatural sheen, you are probably dealing with a synthetic leather. Genuine leather is soft, has some imperfections (veins, scars, marks) and an authentic and heterogeneous grain.
- The Smell👃: smell your product. If it smells strongly of plastic, or chemicals, you are probably dealing with a synthetic leather. This plastic smell is especially present when the product is new. If you are dealing with second hand products, the smell will probably have faded and it will be more difficult to tell the difference.
- The Price 💰: real leather is significantly more expensive than PU leather. If you find a backpack for 20€, be sure you are dealing with artificial leather.
- The Water Test 💧: if you have doubts about a product you just bought (don't do this test in a store), pour a drop of water on the surface of the material and wait a few minutes. If the drop has not been absorbed, it is artificial leather. Genuine leather will absorb the water in a few minutes.
- The Friction Test 💪: this test can be done on a purchased product. Fold the leather between your fingers and observe what happens. A genuine leather will keep a trace of your action while an artificial leather will regain its shape more easily.
We have tried to present PU leather in the most objective way possible. This innovative material is now used in many sectors and has many advantages. It is a material that allows brands to offer products of average quality at prices defying all competition.
In our humble opinion, full grain leather remains a material to be favored (unless you have ethical considerations against it), because even if it requires a larger initial investment, you can be sure that it will last over time, allowing you to consume less and better, and to wear a quality accessory!
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