My search for truly safe leather furniture started out a little more optimistically then it ended.
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.
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 couple of 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.
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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 refer to chrome tanning.
- Mineral tanning (the opposite of vegetable tanning) can also include (alum) aluminum sulfate 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 likely 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 Leather:
- Vegetable-tanned with tannins found in vegetables, tree bark, and other natural plant-derived sources (instead of chromium).
- 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 or the European Naturtextil IVN.
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. 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 describe their leather as a natural grain, lightly buffed, aniline leather.
It has a water-based finish, consisting of pigments and resins combined to produce a soft waxy feel and a semi-matte surface sheen.
The leather is color corrected to create a consistent look and feel and is sourced from South America.
This description of the leather is of a semi-aniline leather. It does not say anything about chromium, heavy metals, and other specific coatings and additives.
I really like Medley for fabric upholstered sofas, which you can read more about in my non-toxic furniture and sofa post. But they are not hitting the mark for me on the leather which should be chromium-free and vegetable dyed.
EcoBalanza 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. This is the safest leather around.
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.
Pine Street Natural Interiors
Pine Street Natural Interiors is a company very dedicated to going as eco as you can get.
They make furniture upholstered in EcoPell vegetable tanned leather, the top of the line healthy and safe leather.
They are located in Sausalito, CA.
Herman Miller, including Eames
Herman Miller leather is chrome-free which is the most important attribute I would look for in a healthy leather.
It does not have topical coatings.
They don’t say anything else about what is used in the processing and tanning of the leather.
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 business.
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.
Natural Leather Conditioners/Oils
Leather furniture makers recommend not using drying oils on leather as they will harder the leather too much – that means no hemp, walnut, linseed or tung.
Most non-drying oils are also not recommended because they will go rancid. That includes doing it yourself with olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, mayonnaise, peanut butter etc.
Should You use Refined Coconut Oil?
Refined coconut oil is better than drying oils. Refining removes most of the coconut scent and the parts that go rancid, but it still is not a “drying oil”, so it will not polymerize and harden the leather.
Clarkes makes a great pure refined coconut oil with no other ingredients. I have used this oil for multiple purposes.
Many leather experts recommend against all oils on leather as it can stain them over time. This is especially risky on sofas, couches and large items. I would avoid using this on furniture.
If you have an aniline or vegetable-dyed leather piece be sure to check with the manufacture’s instructions to find the most natural product that will also work well on their leather.
Obenauf’s Leather Conditioner uses beeswax and propolis and unidentified plant oils. It’s specifically created for leather, but like always I would still check with the brand of the leather piece you are conditioning before using a natural product.
Jojoba oil is an interesting option. This is technically not an oil, it’s a wax in liquid form. It does not go rancid and the odor is light. Many claim it works well on leather. I’ve used it on wood, stone, skin, and hair.
EcoPell Leather Refresher
Two of the brands in this post use EcoPell leather and they make a leather refresher that is based on lanolin and olive oil. If I were to invest in furniture made with this leather I would definitely go with the product that is specified for it.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 7 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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