How To Clean Your Motorcycle Leathers

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Some aspects of motorcycling are always a pain in the ass. Things like oiling your chain. Or cleaning your boots. Or even cleaning the damn bike.

But other aspects become part of a ritual – rituals that mark the start of the riding season or celebrate the end of a successful one.

For example, I enjoy taking the liners out of my textiles at the end of the summer and giving them a wash. There’s something satisfying about cleaning shitty gear and getting it ready for winter.

And perhaps my all-time favourite chore is taking all the liners out again as summer approaches, running them through the washing machine, and hanging them out on the line to dry in the lovely, summer-smelling sun.

For those few blissful months, liners aren’t required. It marks the start of summer and signifies that adventures are upon us.

But if you’re a rider who prefers leathers over textiles, to clean said motorcycle leathers will likely be on your love/hate list – along with boot cleaning and chain oiling.

As with all jobs of this nature, cleaning leathers is often best done with a beer in hand. Carve out a Sunday afternoon, choose a playlist on Spotify, and flip the lid off a beer.

Take your time, get into your happy place, and do a proper job!

rider on BMW - clean motorcycle leathers
Image: Vander Films

How To Clean Your Motorcycle Leathers: Take Recommendations With A Pinch Of Salt

If you look on any number of websites or forums, you’ll come across people who use all sorts of tips and ‘hacks’ to clean their motorcycle leathers. And you know what? Good for them! 

But don’t be tempted to try them. Just because someone swears by salad cream doesn’t mean you need to try it. After all, if salad cream was so amazing for motorcycle leathers, they’d be made by Heinz, not Alpinestars.

The same goes for people who suggest using products meant for other leather items – like leather sofas, leather car seats, or horse riding saddles.

Not all leather is the same. And just because your favourite boot cleaner brings your riding boots up like new, it doesn’t mean you should use it on your motorcycle leathers. Specific leathers require specific products.

So keep it simple. Ignore the hacks and suggestions. And stick to products specifically designed for motorcycle leathers.

motorcyclists wearing held leather clothing
Image: Adam Rhodes

Little And Often

You can keep the tedious process of cleaning motorcycle leathers shorter by keeping on top of them throughout the season.

A quick wipe down every few weeks to remove dead bugs and whatever else has become stuck to them will go a long way.

Some people recommend baby wipes. And if you choose to go down this route, try to find the most sensitive ones you can find and use them gently.

Alternatively, use warm water and a simple pH-neutral soap on a soft rag or cloth. But don’t use microfibre cloths as the fibres can erode the surface coating.

But what about when it comes to the proper cleaning? Well, you’ll find a few simple steps below.

motorcyclist on suzuki - clean motorcycle leathers
Image: Vander Films

1: Sort Out The Rancid Liner!

This has never really been a problem for me. I’m not a sweaty person, and I wear base layers all year round, even in summer – regardless of whether I’m wearing textiles or leathers.

Because of these two facts, I can get away with simply removing the liner, chucking it in the wash, and letting it dry.

Job done.

But if you’re sweatier in nature or dislike wearing base layers, you may need to work a little harder.

Many people like to spray it with Febreeze. Personally, I’m not a fan. I don’t like the thought of it on leather, and I don’t particularly like the way it smells, either.

And Febreeze is like taking painkillers for a toothache. Whilst painkillers take away the pain for a while, they don’t sort out the underlying cause of the toothache.

To remove stubborn odours or skanky build-ups, you need a product that will break down the accumulation of salt from your sweat.

The best thing to do is remove the liner and wash it. Whilst drying, turn your leathers inside out (make sure you remove the armour first), and apply a de-salter to the inside.

Follow the instructions advised on your chosen de-salter, and allow to fully dry before turning your leathers the right way round and re-inserting the armour and liner.

biker wearing dainese
Image: Jusdevoyage

Related: Tips For Riding Motorcycle Tours In The Heat

Step 2: Clean The Exterior Of The Leathers

Now your leathers are clean on the inside, it’s time to tackle built-up grime on the exterior surface.

As you would expect, leathers are pretty robust. And they need to be to deal with bugs splatting on them on the autobahn, baking sunshine bouncing off them in the summer months, and for protection should you come off.

But despite their ruggedness, delicacy is required when you’re cleaning them.

Whilst bugs, road salt, dirt and grime can wear down the polyurethane outer skin, the wrong products can be equally destructive. Or worse.

Ideally, you want to avoid waxes and silicones as they can dry out the leather. Similarly, bypass animal products which can discolour it.

Once you’ve decided on a cleaner, follow the instructions to the letter! Generally speaking, less is more when it comes to applying leather cleaner.

You don’t want to saturate your leathers in product. The best way to avoid this is by applying the cleaner to your soft cotton cloth/rag – rather than to the leathers.

Using small circles, gently work your way across the entire surface of the leathers. And as mentioned at the head of this post, take your time. It may take a while, so concentrate on doing a good job rather than how long it’s taking.

Finally, keep an eye on your cloth. If it starts getting full of grease and grime, rinse it in warm water before carrying on.

biker on honda fireblade - clean motorcycle leathers
Image: Louis Moto

Step 3: Let Your Leathers Dry

If you want to preserve your leathers in the long run, the best thing to do at this stage is to let them dry for 24 hours.

You’re probably getting bored by this point, anyway. And you’ve done such a good job up to this stage that there’s no point undoing your good work by rushing into the conditioning.

Conditioning products work best when applied to dry leather. But the application to wet leather risks pushing any residual dirt into the leather where it will deteriorate further.

Don’t apply fake heat, either. Putting leathers in a tumble dryer will ruin them – as will using an iron, a hair dryer, or draping them over a radiator.

Stick them on a hanger, and leave them to dry naturally for 24 hours. 

Step 4: Condition Them

At this stage, you have a nice, clean liner, and the exterior surface has been cleaned before the entire thing is left to dry naturally.

When you start researching leather conditioners, you’ll see there are tonnes to choose from. Whichever you choose, follow the guidelines and instructions to the letter to avoid damaging the leather.

As with the cleaning step, take your time when applying the conditioning product. Your leathers have spent hours in weather ranging from freezing cold to baking heat. If you think of it like skin, you can concede it probably needs a little TLC.

Rub it in, making sure to get into all the cracks, crevices, and stitching.

biker wearing leather jacket and black helmet
Image: Jordan Brierley

Related: 10 Best Gore-Tex Motorcycle Boots (Men’s & Women’s)

Step 5: Let Them Dry (Again)

When you oil your chain, you don’t do it the minutes before a ride. Generally, you do it at least 24 hours in advance so the properties of the lube can soak into the chain.

When you condition your leathers, we’re aiming for the same thing.

Once you’ve lovingly applied the conditioner, you need to leave your leathers to rest and soak up the goodness before you take them out into the world again.

Keep On Top Of It (But Don’t Over-Do It)

As mentioned above, you can make this entire process easier by keeping on top of it throughout the season.

Using a pH-neutral baby wipe, or even a dedicated wipe for motorcycle leathers, you can give your leathers a quick wipe down occasionally to prevent excessive build-up of crap on the surface.

You can also wash the liners throughout the year to prevent the build-up of salt – preventing the need for a de-salter later.

But whilst you may give them the occasional wipe-down, they absolutely do not need conditioning every week.

In general, once a year is fine for the average rider. If you ride a lot, or if your leathers take a beating in extreme weather conditions, you can consider doing it every 6 months.

Either way, don’t over-condition!

biker on suzuki looking back - clean motorcycle leathers
Image: Vander Films

How To Clean Your Motorcycle Leathers: Conclusion

Most people don’t buy cheap leathers. And that’s because most people know just how important they are to their safety should they have a tumble.

So if you’ve spent so much money on them, you may as well spend a little time looking after them.

Like a fine wine, leathers get better as they age. And like fine wine, they become more complex and satisfying.

Never take the easy option of stuffing them in a washing machine or tumble dryer. Take your time, do a good job, and use the correct products. Then your leathers will look after you for many years to come.


FAQs

Can I wash my motorcycle leathers in the washing machine?

No! The motion of the washing machine will almost certainly begin the deterioration process of the leather and stitching. And washing detergents will be too harsh.

Can I use household cleaners to clean my motorcycle leathers?

Ideally, you need to stick to dedicated cleaners for motorcycle leathers to prevent harming the leather or degrading its properties.

I jetwash my adventure kit. Can I jetwash my leathers, too?

Jetwashing motorcycle leathers isn’t a wise choice. The power of the jet could force dirt, grime and water into the leather, causing it to swell and deteriorate from the inside. The pressure could also pull away stitching at the seams.

Can I tumble dry motorcycle leathers?

Whilst many people do, the best option is to let them dry naturally for 24 hours after cleaning. Also, allow them to dry after conditioning.

How do I clean smelly motorcycle leathers?

If the liner is removable, wash it in the washing machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Also, consider using a de-salter to remove salt build-up on the interior surface.

Top image: Vander Films

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