Difference Between Leather and Polyurethane

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: October 07, 2023

       

Difference Between Leather and Polyurethane

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Introduction

Who does not love leather? It is one of the most durable and versatile materials commercially available. Leather has been a part of people’s lives for centuries. It plays a predominant role in almost everything people own, be it clothing, sports equipment, tools, or footwear. Leather has become as ubiquitous as Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1981. However, some people feel squeamish about using animal skins and have been looking for an alternative.

Such people are in luck as 100% polyurethane (PU) leather is an excellent alternative as it is vegan. However, some PU leather types have natural leather as the base. These are called semi-synthetic leather. So, people must check the tags to make sure what they are buying has a base material that is not leather.

Leather Vs. Polyurethane

Original leather is made of animal skins and hides tanned or treated chemically. Polyurethane is made of thermoplastic polymer; it is applied as a finish on a base fabric material that may or may not be leather. 100% PU leather usually has a polyester base. Therefore, the primary difference between leather and polyurethane is that the former is natural, whereas the latter is faux/synthetic.

Difference Between Leather And Polyurethane In Tabular Form

Parameters of ComparisonLeatherPolyurethane
DurabilityLeather products last for decades if well cared for. It does not chip, flake, or peel.Things made of polyurethane tear or puncture easily.
AppearanceNothing beats the look of authentic leather. Moreover, leather ages well and gains a soft sheen called patina due to use and exposure, which is the main reason people find it appealing.Polyurethane leather looks fake/phony, and its color fades with use. It lacks patina, making it less appealing than natural leather. However, it is available in a wide variety of colors, unlike real leather.
BreathabilityIt is a breathable material, making it extremely comfortable to wear clothing and accessories made using it.It is not a breathable material. That means apparel made using it will not adjust to the body heat, making wearing it a hellish experience.
AffordabilityPremium leather is a luxury item, and hence not so affordable.PU leather is much more affordable, as its production process is not as complex as leather production.
MaintenanceLeather products require high maintenance. People may steam it to remove wrinkles but should not even think about ironing it. Moreover, leather clothing should be stored in breathable cotton garment bags. A plastic one will trap mildew, ruining the material.It requires much less maintenance. No wonder people flock to PU leather. Who would not want something that looks similar to authentic leather but does not require royal treatment and is less expensive?
CleaningMostly, leather is not washable, meaning people have to rely on professionals to clean clothing, bags, and so on made using it.Polyurethane leather is easy to clean. Machine washing has made people’s lives so much more comfortable.
BiodegradabilityLeather takes around 25 – 40 years to biodegrade.Polyurethane is a type of plastic. Therefore, it takes around five centuries to biodegrade. (Poor earth! People are trying to save animals by going vegan, but using PU leather harms the earth.)

What Is Leather?

People’s beloved leather is obtained by tanning skins and hides of cattle, sheep, equine animals, pigs, goats, hogs, buffaloes, seals, alligators, etc. Some manufacturers slaughter animals to obtain leather (why? Those creatures are so cute; how could anyone even think about harming them?). The animal slaughtering practice to produce more leather is what sent people running in search of an alternative. However, people still love how durable and stylish leather bags, belts, shoes, boots, and clothing are.

Cattle hides constitute 65% of commercially available leather. Sheep and goatskin make up 13 and 11% respectively, whereas pigskin constitute around 10%. The trouble is some religions prohibit the use of leather from certain animals. For example, a Hindu will avoid cattle skin or hide as if it is the plague, and Muslims will not buy leather made from pigskin. These religious restrictions increase the demand for ostrich and deer leather, leading to their slaughter.

Shell Cordovan is a leather used in shoemaking for its mirror-like finish. Moreover, it does not crease.  The problem with this leather type is that it is found only in the underlayer of equine species. Stingray leather is used to make wallets and belts. Reptilian skins are also highly sought after for their distinct patterns.

Investing in leather is good, as it lasts for decades. But, it is pitiable that animals need to be slaughtered for the pleasure of humans. People do not have to worry if the leather is obtained from dead animals. However, there is no way of determining where the leather comes from and how manufacturers obtain it. Mislabeling is another despicable practice that prevents people from knowing precisely what they are buying.

That being said, people are unable to get over their obsession with leather because of how good it is. Leather offers excellent protection from wind, heat, rain, and cold. People may feel that leather jackets are on the bulkier side, but the jackets’ bulkiness protects them from road rashes (skin injuries caused by abrasion with road surfaces). Anyone who played the PC game Road Rash knows how easy it is to topple off one’s bike when riding at high speed.

Leather clothing, helmets, and cowboy boots have become iconic. Therefore, people find it hard to let go of their leather fetishism. Most punks favor leather over other fabrics; however, some are against the use of leather and fight for animal rights. But fashion is not the only field in which leather dominates. Leather plays a significant role in sports, too. Its flexibility allows it to be molded and shaped into protective gears and balls. Baseball gloves, cricket balls, and footballs are some examples of equipment made with leather.

Leather Production Process

The three common production stages of leather are as follows (a fourth stage, finishing, is not always included in the leather production process):

Preparatory Stage

This stage includes soaking the skin or hide, removing hair, liming, deliming, bating, bleaching, and pickling. Liming involves soaking leather in an alkaline solution to remove interfibrillary proteins to prevent the leather from becoming inflexible. Deliming is done to deswell the leather and lower the pH value of liquors used in the bating process.

Bating involves treating the leather with hen or pigeon manure to make it soft and supple (makes one almost wish one never knew about the leather production process). Bleaching aids in removing stains, and pickling (curing with salt) helps extend the leather’s life.

Tanning

Tanning involves treating the animal skin or hide using tannin, chromium sulfate, and (less frequently) aldehydes, zirconium, iron salt, aluminum, or a combination. This process involves organic and chemical compounds that are harmful to the environment. Drying the tanned leather in the sun converts chromium (III) compounds into hexavalent chromium, which is highly toxic and, along with other compounds, is responsible for several diseases.

However, tanning is a necessary part of the production process, as it increases the leather’s hydrothermal stability and ability to retain size even after wear and tear. Tanners let scraps of leftover leather soak in vats of water for months. The resulting mixture is boiled to drain water and retrieve the leather, which has by now become glue (who knew glue could be made out of leather?).

Crusting

Crusting involves drying and softening the leather. It may include shaving, dyeing (dyeing the leather using the desired color), whitening, splitting, and shaving. Sometimes, manufacturers treat finishing as a sub-process of crusting. If finishing is required, tanners apply a surface coating on the leather to give it a more polished look. Finishing may involve glazing (to change the surface texture), tumbling (for smoothing the rough surface), coating, brushing, buffing, etc.

Types Of Leather

Leather is classified according to its grades. The various types of leather are as follows:

Top-Grain Leather

This leather contains the grain (outer layer of the hide). Its fibers are densely packed, which is the secret to the leather’s durability and strength. Thicker leather may also contain the underlayer corium. Full-grain leather (Russian leather is an example) is the highest or premium quality leather and is a top-grain leather type.

Split Leather

This leather is produced using the corium left after the grain is removed. Bicast, patent, and suede leather are the split leather types. Patent leather has a glossy finish, while suede is softer, as it is produced from the skins of young animals.

Genuine Leather

Genuine leather does not mean authentic leather. It merely means the product contains leather in some countries, whereas in others it is the same as bicast or bonded leather. It is not a high-quality product, but is more affordable than true leather.

What Is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane leather is not real leather; it is merely a type of plastic. Manufacturers add the term leather to polyurethane for marketing purposes (though semi-synthetic PU leather has some leather in it). People began considering using PU leather, as they became more aware of animal ethics – arguments about the right way to treat animals.

Sometimes, bicast leather (a type of split leather) is immersed in a layer of polyurethane and presented as PU leather. Bonded or reconstituted leather is a mixture of shredded leather and polyurethane bonded together. People have to check whether the material is 100% PU leather before purchasing. Otherwise, they are still using true leather (to a reduced extent), which is not their intent. Polyurethane may pale in comparison to natural leather in many ways, but it is perfect for certain purposes.

PU leather is more sunlight-resistant, which is why it is widely used in making auto upholstery. Most cars’ leather seats are not made of leather but plastic. However, since Polyurethane leather looks and feels like authentic leather, most manufacturers stick to using the term ‘leather seat’; after all, it sounds more impressive.

PU leather is a great option for furniture, too. Who needs an authentic leather sofa when one barely uses it for a few years? The sofa will last at least a decade, but what good will that do if people grow bored with the design and need something else? In such cases, PU furniture it is better to opt for PU furniture. People will feel no guilt whatsoever when they throw it out or give it away after a few years.

Leather shoes and clothing can be quite heavy. Those who want something lighter can buy sandals, boots, flip-flops, jackets, and other clothing made using polyurethane. People with friends who think it is hilarious to push them into the pool when they least suspect it will benefit a lot from PU leather products. After all, Polyurethane leather is more waterproof than top-grain leather. Moreover, people who love leather but cannot afford it or do not want to use it as an animal lover opt for Polyurethane. People only need a mild detergent and a sponge to clean most stains (stronger ones may damage the fabric).

Main Difference Between Leather And Polyurethane (In Points)

  • Polyurethane leather is lighter than top-grain leather.
  • Natural leather does not smell like chemicals or plastic as polyurethane leather does.
  • Some people consider PU leather to be more environmentally friendly (even though it is a type of plastic) compared to leather, as the chromium tanning process of real leather causes pollution.
  • The top-grain leather production process is chemical-intensive and needs a lot more resources compared to polyurethane leather production.
  • PU leather is less flexible than authentic leather.

Conclusion

Ultimately, original leather will always emerge as the undefeated champion when compared to polyurethane leather. Faux leather can be fashionable, but natural leather is durable and fashionable. Therefore, people need not think twice before purchasing something made of authentic leather if the expense is not a concern.

Those looking for a pocket-friendly alternative and something that does not harm animals may opt for polyurethane leather. People will find one in whatever color they need, no matter what they buy. This availability of numerous options is helpful to those who like to have fun mixing and matching different-colored outfits and accessories.

References

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leather
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanning_(leather)
  • https://steelhorseleather.com/blogs/the-journal/what-is-pu-leather
  • https://www.thelaundress.com/blogs/how-to/leather#
  • https://www.btod.com/blog/what-is-pu-leather/
  • https://www.panaprium.com/blogs/i/polyurethane-leather#
  • https://home.howstuffworks.com/green-living/pu-leather.htm
  • https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-difference-between-pu-leather-genuine-kevin-ke/
  • https://www.peta.org/features/leather-industry/

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"Difference Between Leather and Polyurethane." Diffzy.com, 2023. Tue. 05 Dec. 2023. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-leather-and-polyurethane>.



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