Real leather, leather made from fruit and vegetable peels, faux leather, leather made from vegetable fibers, you name it – sometimes distinguishing leather from synthetic alternatives is really difficult.

Today’s ever-more innovative production processes deliver materials that are so similar to leather that they confuse the consumer when making a purchase.

When shopping online, it is paradoxically easier to distinguish whether a belt or bag is made of real leather or not: you only need to read the product description.

The same rule does not apply when it comes to purchasing in shops or other physical locations: labels are not always available (and they are not always complete). Then let’s not talk about what happens to those few conscious consumers who want to know more and are not satisfied with the ‘real leather‘ label but want to know by which tanning method it was obtained, whether with chromium salts or through vegetable leather tanning. As we all know, this detail makes a difference, not only for the environment but also for people sensitive or allergic to chromium.

The good news is that there are some ‘tricks’ to recognise which material you have in your hands and avoid any disappointment, cheating… or simply learning something new!

Let’s see together the tricks for recognising real leather from fake or synthetic leather!

Smell the skin

Put your nose in it, literally! The smell of real leather is unmistakable and distinctive, almost difficult to describe in words. Synthetic materials, on the other hand, smell of plastic, naphtha or (at best) absolutely nothing.

Looking at the leather

Real leather has two sides, the so-called grain side (the outer one) and the flesh side (the inner one). The key is to be able to see the flesh side, usually the inner one (look for the ‘reverse side’ basically). Once spotted, if it has gauze-like filaments, rest assured that it is fake skin. The upper layer, showing the typical pattern of cowhide conferred by the hair follicles, constitutes the grain layer, while the lower layer(s), which obviously have no grain, constitute the flesh side.

Real leather, being of animal origin, is always different: there will never be one piece of real leather that is the same as another. The opposite is true for a synthetic material produced industrially from scratch. 

To understand whether a jacket, bag or sofa is real leather, pay attention to the color. If it is real leather, the color is unlikely to be 100% homogenous but will be slightly darker/clearer in certain parts (these are small degrees of difference).

Besides the color, the grain is also uneven. Like humans, animal skin is made up of pores that are never uniform.

So, for those of you who feel more like Sherlock, get yourself a magnifying glass and carefully scrutinize the grain of the leather under the sunlight. If you notice that the pores do not follow a precise pattern and are placed randomly, then you are looking at a real leather product. Beware though! In the latest generation of synthetic leathers, this characteristic is simulated, so train your eye!  

When we speak of flaws, our thoughts generally go to something ‘negative’. It’s quite the opposite for leather, having flaws is a merit: they designate the authenticity of the product. Obviously, we are not talking about major defects, which are usually discarded during the processing of the product. Small defects can, for example, be caused by insect bites when the animal was still alive, or small scratches due to animal movements during grazing, etc. Furthermore, over time leather will absorb the traces of our experience, of our repeated gestures, small stains and marks that will not diminish but rather increase its value.

The water test

This test should be taken with caution and especially it’s not always feasible (certainly not when you are shopping).

The water test works especially well for suede items, such as a jacket or a pair of shoes: if it is real leather, the material slowly absorbs the drop of water; whereas the drop stays on the surface of faux leather. 

Most of the time, however, the absorbent property of real leather is camouflaged by processing in tanneries to make it water-repellent and prevent it from being ruined by the daily use (imagine how a real leather jacket would be ruined if it were not water-repellent on a rainy day!). 

Heat and pressure

Touch also plays an important role in distinguishing faux leather. Real leather is warm to the touch, unlike faux leather. In addition, faux leather is very thin: if the material is slightly folded, a trace of the fold remains. Real leather, on the other hand, is soft and returns to its shape naturally.

Similarly, if one ‘rubs’ the real leather, it warms up while the artificial leather remains cool.

Long live real leather

Needless to say, the most obvious difference that distinguishes real leather from faux leather emerges with time and after the usage that tests the resistance of the purchased item. Leather becomes softer and wears out slowly, bringing out the substrate of the leather grain (which enhances its beauty) to the fullest, while faux leather, on the other hand, literally ‘splits’ and becomes fragile and disposable.

EU Regulation

Within the European Union, the term “leather” is regulated*: only products made from real leather, and not those that artificially reproduce its appearance (e.g. synthetic materials, coated fabrics), can be called ‘leather’. What does this mean? It means that any article created from artificial material CANNOT be classified as a leather product, but must be described as imitation leather or faux leather.

(*Reference regulations: Directive 94/11/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 March 1994 ;there is also a guide to the labelling of materials and  to the correct classification of products)

In Italy, the use of oxymorons such as ‘vegan leather‘, a term of deliberate and instrumental misinformation for commercial purposes, has also been banned. The new law in fact expressly forbids the use of the words leather and hide to identify materials not derived from animal remains.

Is there a real leather label?

Labels, however, can be counterfeited, cut and reallocated to other products before sale… which is why, on their own, they are not sufficient to guarantee our purchase is real. 

Don’t blindly trust the labels, but only use it as further proof. 

Real leather is expensive

Quality has its price. Producing a real leather item or garment requires a lot of processing, which is why a real leather product cannot be cheap. From the selection phase to the packing and cutting phase, specialized labor and a lot of care is needed (unlike with faux leather products). Here is an example: as written above, real leather has imperfections that make it unique; sometimes, however, there are real defects (holes, excessive hardness, scars). The skilled tanners working with real leather must be careful and take these details into account in order to produce an optimal result. With faux leather, this is not the case, as it is produced synthetically and therefore without any defects: the company does not need to have specialized workers, it only needs machines that ‘print’ the product directly and automatically. 

Choosing a real leather product, therefore, means enhancing the human component of the production process that cannot be replaced by machines. 

Now you know how to distinguish real leather from synthetic and faux leather, don’t stop there: discover how to recognise real vegetable tanned leather with tannin and make your purchases sustainable!