My search for truly safe leather furniture started out a little more optimistically then it ended. However, there are a few great options out there.
The only leather I can fully endorse as eco-friendly is chrome-free vegetable-dyed leather. This is made without the toxic metals and other harmful chemicals used in conventional leather.
The second best option is anything that is at least chrome-free.
First, I explain the many chemicals used in the production of leather, the jargon, and the greenwashing phrases. Then I have a short checklist of what I do look for.
Only a few brands in North America meet these healthy standards. If you are set on leather, consider these brands against the chemical risks in the mainstream options.
One reason there are not more brands that use this natural non-toxic method is that the leather is not as uniform as we are used to expecting. It’s also not cheap.
This post contains affiliate links. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Convention Leather Production
- Chromium/”chrome” is used in the tanning of leather. Chromium tanned leather is the most common and the most toxic. “Mineral tanning” can include chrome tanning.
- Mineral tanning (the opposite of vegetable tanning, and the default tanning if a brand doesn’t specify vegetable tanning) can also include aluminum sulfate (“alum”) and sodium or potassium sulfate, zirconium (complex aluminum compounds), and titanium. Alum and white tanning, as well as zirconium, are used rarely, only for specific types of leather.
- Formaldehyde can be used in the tanning.
- Heavy/toxic metals used in the dying can include cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, cyanide, barium, lead, mercury, and nickel.
- Some “azo dyes” produce amines classified as carcinogenic.
Three Types of Dyes
- “Aniline dyed” means the leather is dyed through and through without a topcoat. This can refer to vegetable tanned leather and chrome tanned. So while this doesn’t help to distinguish between those two types, this is usually preferable to a leather with a top coat dye. This should not have a protective layer or coating on the surface if it’s true aniline.
- Semi-aniline, also referred to as “Aniline Plus”, is dyed with a penetrating aniline dye and also contains a topcoat of polymer and dyes.
- Pigmented leather is the opposite end of aniline. It has a full coating on top. The natural grain is removed by buffing the leather grain surface. Then it is coated with multiple layers of pigment and a finish. It is embossed with a leather grain pattern in the final stages.
Coatings on Leather
- Leather, if not aniline, is often coated with polyurethane.
- Coatings can include cancer-causing hydrocarbons and organotin (a form of tin).
- Phthalates can be used in the coating.
Other Additives in Leather
- Preservatives/mildewcides can include pentachlorophenol, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dimethyl fumarate. Though they are banned in many countries.
- Biocides like chlorinated phenols can also be used.
What to Look for in Eco-Friendly Leather:
- Vegetable-tanned with tannins found in vegetables, tree bark, and other natural plant-derived sources (instead of chromium). (If a brand doesn’t specify vegetable dyed then it’s mineral dyed).
- No chromium tanning! (The most important part).
- Dyes are free of heavy metals.
- No azo dyes that produce amines classified as carcinogenic.
- Glutaraldehyde, also named Pentane-1,5-dial, is used as a tanning agent, it’s considered safer than the alternatives.
- Free of biocides including dimethyl fumarate.
- Certified by Oeko-Tex, the European Naturtextil IVN, or Cradle to cradle GOLD
Greenwashing Leather Claims!
“Water-based pigments” – says nothing about the safety of the dyes, treatments, or coatings.
“Aniline leather with a coating” – this is not a true aniline (aniline has no coating, semi-aniline has a coating). It also doesn’t say anything about the safety of the dyes or topcoat.
Brands of Non-Toxic Leather Furniture
Medley makes leather upholstered sofas, sectionals, chairs, and ottomans. They also have leather headboards for the bedroom.
They offer different leather options. As of 2023 they should still be offering the leather that is vegetable tanned with olive leaves. It is a mineral-free, totally natural tanning process that uses less energy and is much safer than chromium tanning. A+ from me.
They offer both aniline and semi-aniline.
You can use code MyChemFreeHouse5 for 5% off at Medley.com
EcoBalanza also goes all the way to make sofas that are as pure as they get from the foam to the textiles and everything in between. I go into more detail on what’s inside their sofas in my furniture post.
They make their leather sofas with EcoPell leather which is unsealed, vegetable-tanned, free of chromium, heavy metals, biocides, and every other unnecessary chemical.
You can see the whole process on the EcoPell site.
It is tested for frequently occurring contaminants including heavy metals, carcinogenic aromatic amines, and formaldehyde.
Based in Seattle, EcoBalanza ships throughout the US and beyond.
See my furniture post for more details.
Herman Miller, including Eames
Herman Miller leather is chrome-free which is the most important attribute I would look for in a better leather. Though they don’t mention that it’s vegetable dyed, so we should assumed it’s mineral dyed.
It does not have topical coatings.
They don’t say anything else about what is used in the processing and tanning of the leather.
All leather in IKEA products is chrome-free (chrome VI) since 2017.
Steelcase, Haworth and Kimball
These three companies are suppliers for commercial projects.
Steelcase uses chrome-free leather on select pieces. You will see them labeled as chrome-free and PVC-free on the website.
The leather comes from the company Cortina Leathers. This appears to be their Showcase Eco line which is described as biodegradable and low-VOC.
They do mention in some sections of the website that they also use a vegetable-tanned leather.
Haworth is another company supplying office and other commercial furniture to businesses.
They also use Cortina Leathers chrome-free leather. The items they can upholster in leather are listed here.
Kimball, last on the list, is similar to the other commercial suppliers. They create modern office furniture for businesses with a chrome-free leather option.
Not a furniture company, but Volvo uses chrome-free leather for its leather seats. (Chrome-free is the most important thing to look for in leather).
PS. Non-toxic leather conditioning oils that won’t do long-term damage are here.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
Jack Murphy says
Do you know of any U.S. companies that make fabric (not leather) sofas and recliners without DMF? I went to La-Z-Boy, and the manager said (with a smirk) “We use DMF packets in everything. It’s even in our packaging for home decor, lamps and other furnishings.” When I said that DMF has been banned in other countries, the manager became irate and said, “So what, a lot of countries haven’t banned it.”
Laura Couvillon says
I appreciate you so much!!! I am in the deep research of buying new living room furniture. I called Medley to ask some questions. As of Jan 2023, the rep told me their leather comes from an Italian company named Crest. They do use chromium in the tanning process. However, they have “leather archives” from which you can order. There are several options in the archives that are vegetable tanned with olive leaves.
Just wanted to share! Thank you again for your amazing, incredible website!
What are your thoughts about IKEA leather couches? (e.g. https://www.ikea.com/us/en/p/morabo-sofa-grann-bomstad-gray-green-metal-s09317858/#content). They say that they are chrome free, but otherwise it’s hard to tell what dyes were used etc.
Thank you for all this immensely helpful information!!!
IKEA never reveals more than what is on their website. I added them to the post for being chrome free.
PLEASE.. can you Help my husband and I find a brand within our budget. Had to send back Upholster furniture now 14 months ago! it was closing my throat and smell was in my bedroom, our skin and even in my car! I hoped it wasn’t my mattress because it’s the best I’ve had & I’m 64! After 2 weeks the smell was Completely Out! We lost close to $600 in shipping ..but our health is much more important. I don’t care for Burrow or Medley. They’re not what we’re used to having. We want to go leather and that’s in our price range Sofa & love seat.
Thank You and Happy New Year, Susan & Jeff
Medley is so expensive!!!! Seems like your average millionaire can’t create a clean non toxic home. my goodness.
Thank you for this article. Do Natuzzi Editions top grain leather sofas meet your “toxic” definition? The sales people don’t know & their website doesn’t specify. Thanks.
I have an invalid husband who is very chemically sensitive. He lives in a recliner including sleeping in it. His is now broken and we’re suffering! He’s a big guy and I live in a very small coastal city in NC. Any suggestions for where to get a recliner for him?? Thanks and God bless.
there are some recliners in the main sofa post
I’m wondering if 100% nylon faux leather with polyurethane topcoat is more or less toxic than semi-aniline leather?
Polyurethane faux leather is great, very benign. Much better than a conventional real leather. On par with one of the naturally treated leathers imo.
Thank you for this article. What about Natuzzi editions leather sofas? Thank you
Do you have any info on Z gallerie leather couch? We have one and it has no added flame retardants and they state it complies with prop 65. It’s also made of half PU foam. Should we worry about kids and baby around the couch? My baby did lick the couch without me seeing it but usually she won’t ever do that.
Your baby is going to lick a lot of stuff. It’s okay. We can’t live in a vacuum.
Corrine, thank you so much for your highly informative articles you are a true gift to the human community.
thank you so much
Hi, thank you SO much for the incredibly helpful info. Do you know if faux leather or vegan leather is less toxic than normal leather? Do you have any vegan leather nontoxic reommendations/links? Thank you so much!
Hi yeah in the sofa post I talk a little about PU leather which I really like. I would say it’s less toxic than the highly treated leather for sure.
Rajat Bhardwaj says
You did a great job on this article. Keep posting content like this.
I recently bought furniture which is supposed to be leather supposedly made in America I never got a booklet with it I don’t know what it is beyond what the storekeeper said it’s supposed to be top grain leather but I don’t know how it was processed the brand name on it is cheers. Trying to figure out what it was processed with I do have a lot of allergies that’s why I didn’t buy polyester I’m allergic to polyester. If this thing is toxic I will find a way to return it and start over it was very expensive. Please help thank you
Adrian Catarzi says
I bought a new leather recliner and after a month, I developed a rash (Hives) which my dermatologist believes comes from the chair; i.e., I’m allergic to whatever was used to initially treat/tan the chair.
Is there any treatment that will “rid” the leather of its toxic (in my case) nature?
Having been recently diagnosed with a chromium allergy, I can answer this. No. the allergens are there to stay. I’d use a throw on top of it, or make sure your skin does not come in contact. An allergist can easily diagnose and help you narrow down your allergen.
Louise Locker says
Can you buy EcoPell Leather to re-do a chair? The website for it is not available or working anymore.
Thanks for being the lifesaver you are.
Albert Müller says
I would like to give some short coments on what has been said about leather so far:
What would you like to do with the hides from the meat industrie? Recycling?Leather?
Most dyes in Textil and Leather are AZO dyes – that does not mean, that they are canceroganic! There is a list about the cancerogenic amines – 28 out of a few hundred listed in Textil and Leather!!!
Vegetable tanning – worst water treetmant in terms of BOD and COD. Mimosa the most used vegetable tanning agent comes from south america where a three is cut fore. Some also comes from south Africa. Try to explain the carbon footprint and the impact on nature. Of course all with OEKO – TEX certification. Coconut oil? thats realy funny if you look to wat happens with the forest in asia. Sorry, I have to stop here this drives me crasy!!!
Thank your for this. Very informative!
Sandra Elam says
Corinne – Thanks for this very useful article. I’m going to use this information when I buy a new leather sofa. I wanted to buy you a coffee, but the link does not seem to be working. Blessings, Sandra