Why is neatsfoot oil bad for leather?

Neatsfoot oil has long been used to condition and soften leather goods like shoes, jackets, baseball gloves, saddles and tack. It’s made from rendered bovine leg bones and tissue and was originally derived from the feet and lower leg bones of cattle, hence the name “neatsfoot.”

Over the years though, concerns have been raised over the use of neatsfoot oil on leather. Modern leather tanning and manufacturing processes are vastly different from those used decades ago. Leather goods today often utilize different types of leather and treatments. This has led some to question whether using neatsfoot oil could actually damage or deteriorate leather over time.

In this article, we’ll look at why some experts argue that neatsfoot oil should be avoided for conditioning leather goods in many cases. We’ll explore how neatsfoot oil is made, what it does to leather on a chemical level, and alternative conditioning products that may be better options for leather care.

What is Neatsfoot Oil?

Neatsfoot oil is rendered from the feet, shin bones, and knee joints of cattle. These bovine parts contain high levels of natural oils and fatty acids. To make neatsfoot oil, the feet and shin bones are crushed and then simmered in water. The rendered fat is skimmed off the top and purified.

The resulting oil is a yellowish or light brown color, with a distinctive scent. It is composed primarily of oleic acid and natural esters, which are emollients that soften and lubricate. Neatsfoot oil has a density slightly less than that of water.

Key components of neatsfoot oil:

– Oleic acid – A naturally occurring fatty acid that makes up around 20% of neatsfoot oil. It is a penetration enhancer that allows the oil to permeate into leather.

– Natural esters like isopropyl myristate – Esters give neatsfoot oil emollient properties to soften and lubricate leather.

– Vitamin A and E – Anti-oxidants that can help extend the shelf life of neatsfoot oil.

– Triglycerides – Glycerol fatty acids that provide lubricating effects.

The natural fatty acid and emollient content of neatsfoot oil is what enables it to soften, condition, and waterproof leather. It has been used for centuries for this purpose. But despite its long history of use, there are drawbacks to using neatsfoot oil on modern leathers.

How Neatsfoot Oil Interacts with Leather

To understand why neatsfoot oil may not be optimal for leather care today, it helps to look at how it interacts with leather on a chemical level.

Leather is primarily composed of the structural protein collagen. Tanning infuses collagen fibers in hide with tannins, plant-based chemicals that stabilize the proteins. This prevents decay and makes leather durable yet flexible enough for products.

When neatsfoot oil is applied to leather, the oleic acid, esters, and other components penetrate into the leather and coat the collagen fibers. This lubricates the fibers allowing them to flex and move without fracturing. The fatty acids also pack closely together forming a hydrophobic barrier that repels water.

This is why neatsfoot oil makes leather more pliable, while also making it water resistant. But there are some issues with this interaction:

– **May damage finish** – Neatsfoot oil can break down some modern leather finishes that help protect the leather. This leads to drying and cracking over time.

– **Attract dust** – The oil residue left on the leather surface can make it attract more dirt and dust.

– **Discoloration** – On lighter color leather, neatsfoot oil can cause yellowing or dark spots.

– **Short term effects** – The softening and water resistance effects are temporary and repeated applications are needed.

– **Oxidation** – Exposure to air can cause neatsfoot oil to become gummy or rancid over time.

The main concern is that neatsfoot oil may prematurely break down modern leather finishes. let’s look more at how leather and the tanning process has changed over the years.

How Leather and Tanning Methods Have Changed

While traditional vegetable tanning is still used for some leather, in the 1920s chemical tanning methods were introduced. Chemical tanning vastly reduced the time needed to tan hides, from over a year down to several hours or days.

Chemical tanning makes use of chromium salts, aldehydes, or other compounds. The most common is chromic sulfate which produces chromium-tanned leather. It accounts for around 80% of leather today.

Chromium-tanned leather is:

– Softer and more pliable than traditional vegetable-tanned leather
– More stretchable and less prone to damage when flexed
– Generally a light greyish color until finished and dyed

Finishing further improves resilience and durability. Finishing steps include:

– Dyeing and surface treatments
– Water or solvent-based acrylic, polyurethane, epoxy, or other resin coatings
– Polymer impregnation of the leather
– Final wax polishing

These finishing steps fill pores, create a protective surface film, and add color. This protects the leather from abrasion, water, stains and sunlight exposure.

That’s why applying neatsfoot oil can be problematic. It may degrade and dissolve modern leather finishes, removing some of the protective qualities and leading to accelerated wear and deterioration.

Potential Damage from Using Neatsfoot Oil

Here are some of the potential adverse effects that can occur when using neatsfoot oil on leather goods:

– **Removal of finishes** – The oleic acid and esters may dissolve away protective acrylic, epoxy or polyurethane-based finishes.

– **Drying out** – Without its protective coating the leather is more prone to water loss and drying out, leading to stiffness and cracking.

– **Discoloration** – Chemical changes to the leather and finish can cause fading, darkening or spotting.

– **Increased dirt absorption** – Loss of finish allows more dirt and grime to penetrate into the leather.

– **Less flexibility** – As the leather dries out it becomes more rigid and prone to cracking when flexed.

– **Loss of water resistance** – Water, snow, salt and spills are more readily absorbed without protective finishes.

– **Short term effects** – Neatsfoot oil may condition leather briefly but repeated application is needed as the effects wear off.

– **Rancid oil smell** – Oxidation causes neatsfoot oil to smell bad over time.

– **Attracts dust and particles** – The residual oil coating attracts more dust and dirt to the item.

The result is leather goods that become dried out, cracked, misshapen and faded with heavy use compared to proper care. The deterioration is accelerated by the repeated use of neatsfoot oil.

Types of Leather Prone to Damage from Neatsfoot Oil

Here are some specific kinds of modern leathers that experts advise you should not use neatsfoot oil on:

– **Finished leathers** – Leather goods with acrylic, polyurethane or epoxy finishes will be degraded by neatsfoot oil. This includes shoes, boots, jackets, gloves, watch bands, etc.

– **Very soft leathers** – Chrome-tanned and extremely soft leathers have less natural oils and are more prone to drying out from neatsfoot oil. Examples are garment leathers for jackets or skirts.

– **Light colored leather** – Neatsfoot oil is likely to darken and discolor lighter tan, brown or natural leather shades.

– **Smooth leathers** – Soft, smooth leathers with no natural grain pattern tend to absorb oil deeper and develop more discoloration.

– **Exotic leathers** – Leathers from reptiles, fish, or birds often utilize different tanning and finishing methods than bovine leathers.

In general, any high-quality leather goods from reputable brands will use modern tanning methods and finishes. Applying neatsfoot oil risks damaging the qualities that make the leather durable, soft, and weather-resistant.

When Neatsfoot Oil May be Appropriate

Neatsfoot oil does still have some applications for leather care in certain circumstances:

– For breaking in brand new baseball gloves, softening stiff leather.

– On leather saddles, tack, and horse equipment that gets heavy use and outdoor exposure.

– For very dry, neglected old leather that needs reconditioning.

– On unfinished vegetable tanned tooling leather.

– On rough suede leathers and garments.

In these limited cases, neatsfoot oil can help soften and waterproof worn or extra rigid leathers. But use caution even here – test a small hidden area first for any discoloration or damage to finishes before applying it to the entire item.

Better Options for Modern Leather Care

To safely clean, condition, and maintain leather goods today, experts recommend using specialty leather care products instead of neatsfoot oil. Some better options include:

**Leather conditioners**

– Lanolin-based formulas that replenish oils.
– Beeswax conditioners that soften & protect.
– Emulsions and creams with jojoba oil, vitamin E, and aloe vera.
– pH-balanced products that won’t harm dyes.

**Leather cleaners**

– Mild saddle soaps to gently clean.
– Sponges, wipes, and leather shampoo bars.
– Products without acids, alcohols, or oils.

**Protectants and polishes**

– Waterproofing sprays and balms.
– Polishes with carnauba or beeswax to protect finish.
– Silicone-free sealants.
– Acrylic finishes and varnishes.

**Other tips**

– Use microfiber cloths to reduce abrasion.
– Spot clean stains instead of washing entire item.
– Use leather sealants on scraped or stressed areas.
– Avoid heat, allowing leather to dry naturally when wet.

Reputable leather care companies like Leather Honey, Chamberlain’s, Lexol and Bickmore specialize in products that clean, condition, and protect finished leather items. Following their directions can keep leather supple and extend its life.

With quality leather shampoos, balms, creams and waxes the need for neatsfoot oil is eliminated. They lubricate and replenish oils without leaving greasy residues that degrade finishes. With regular care, high-end leather goods will last for many years.

Key Points

– Neatsfoot oil can damage and dry out modern leather goods, deteriorating items prematurely.

– Most leather today is chrome-tanned with acrylic, polyurethane or epoxy protective finishes.

– Neatsfoot oil can dissolve those finishes, leaving leather prone to cracking and fading.

– Use neatsfoot oil cautiously only on unfinished leathers in need of extreme reconditioning.

– For day-to-day conditioning, specialized leather care products are safer and more effective.


While neatsfoot oil has been traditionally used for generations to soften leather, its use on modern leather goods should be avoided in most cases. The chemical tanning and finishing methods utilized today fundamentally change the composition of leather items.

Applying neatsfoot oil can dissolve protective finishes and cause accelerated wear and deterioration of leather over time with repeated use. Only in certain circumstances of reconditioning rough or unfinished leathers may it still have some applications.

For conditioning and protecting fine leather goods, specialty leather care products are vastly superior. Using the right gentle cleaners, conditioners, polishes, and protectants recommended by manufacturers will keep leather supple and durable for many years without degrading finishes the way neatsfoot oil can. Following proper care methods can extend the lifetime of quality leather while maintaining its beauty and feel.

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