Leather, whether that’s from cow, sheep, or any other animal, is one of the most versatile textiles ever made. It’s stylish, comfortable, and durable. Taking care of it is a must so it can last you for a long time.
When it comes to deep cleaning paraphernalia, two items are always mentioned: mink oil and saddle soap. The question is: which of these two do you need?
Saddle soap and mink oil do similar things: both conditions the leather, nourishing the fibers and restoring it to its (almost) brand new state. However, these are used for two different purposes.
The former is for cleansing the shoe’s surface. Aside from its coloring properties, the latter waterproofs the textile especially during the winter season.
If you haven’t heard of these before, read on.
By the end of this, you’ll have more information as to how you can use these items to your advantage and, in the process, make the most of your leather shoes, bag, or jacket.
Related: Best Chippewa boots
What is Saddle Soap?
Saddle soap was named as such because it was originally made for cleaning horse tack (aka equipment used for equine) such as the saddle, stirrups, reins, harnesses, and so on. But because it worked so well, cowboys started to use this for their boots.
What’s In It?
Knowing the ingredients of a particular product makes you understand how it works. While saddle soap is primarily a cleanser, a lot of brands go out of their way to add more to their products.
Manufacturers have a specific blend for their leather cleansers but most of what’s available today will have the usual:
The Cleaning Agent
As aforementioned, the primary use of soap is to cleanse. The job of this particular ingredient is to loosen the dirt – dust, grease, and bodily fluids – from the fibers of the textile so that it can be washed off easily.
Sodium Tallowate is a mild cleaning agent that is also found in a lot of bath soaps and laundry detergents.
Because cleaning agents are usually harsh, manufacturers add conditioners to soften the material and prevent it from drying up. Some companies use just one specific item while others use several to make their blend more potent.
Glycerin, made from natural animal and vegetable fats, is a favorite moisturizer that is also used in a lot of body lotions.
Lanolin, derived from sheep’s wool, is also an integral part of the blend. This is also mixed in cosmetics and other skincare products.
Neatsfoot Oil is also a great moisturizer. This comes from the feet and shin bones of cattle.
The Waterproofing Agent
Leather is water-resistant to a certain point. However, wear and tear tend to strip that away, making the textile susceptible to moisture. The water-proofer creates a barrier, covering the microscopic fissures in the fibers and preventing water from penetrating them.
Beeswax is the best water-proofer since it creates that protective coating and gives the textile a nice shine.
The following are considered minor ingredients but are just as important:
A Carrier or the Liquid Base
Any kind of cleansing product needs this to dilute all the other ingredients. More often than not, manufacturers use water for this.
This stabilizes the ingredients so that you come up with a well-mixed solution that won’t separate.
This is a must-have in products that contain ingredients that may spoil. And saddle soap definitely has those like Neatsfoot Oil and Beeswax.
How is Saddle Soap Used?
- Take a lint-free cloth or a microfiber rag and wrap that around your finger.
- Dip it into a bowl of warm water to make it slightly wet before dabbing a bit of the soap in the container.
- Gently rub the soap onto the surface of the textile to lather it up.
- When the cloth gets too dry, dip it in water and the soap once more.
- Once the whole surface is coated, wipe it clean with a damp cloth.
- You can do a second round of lathering if you feel it’s not completely clean yet.
Saddle Soap’s Bad Rep
Some say that using this is not advisable because some ingredients can cause quicker degradation of the leather.
Lye, a common component in soaps, is a caustic alkali that absorbs the moisture in materials, causing those to dry up and crack. Neatsfoot oil is also said to weaken the strands of threads over time which may be the reason for stitches on the midsoles coming off.
What is Mink Oil?
This oil has been derived from the layer of fat removed from the mink pelt before it is made into fur coats and hats. It is said to be rich in palmitoleic acid that is very similar to human skin oil, that’s why it is used in a lot of skincare products.
Its resemblance to human sebum is precisely why many deemed it right to use this to condition leather. Aside from its moisturizing capabilities, it also seals the leather to keep moisture out and darkens old and faded textile, making it look new.
Be forewarned: mink oil does darken leather by four to five shades. So if you want to condition your boots or jacket without darkening it, use another product.
Rumored Possible Alternatives
Some people think that any oil will work to moisturize the leather, which some may have heard from stories or have tried. But there are a few good substitutes for this, especially when it’s for conditioning your boots or bag.
Macadamia Nut Oil
This has the same amount of palmitoleic acid as our featured ingredient at 17%. However, this should not be applied directly on leather items because it could spoil in a month or two, making your shoes or jacket smell off.
Sea Buckthorn Oil
This has even more palmitoleic acid at 19-29%. But other than being used for its health benefits, there aren’t a lot of people who rub this onto their footwear – and that’s probably because it can be a bit pricey.
As aforementioned, this is used as a moisturizer in saddle soaps and conditioning products. It may not be rich in palmitoleic acid like the first two but this has been used in tanneries since time immemorial as a coloring, conditioning, and waterproofing agent.
If you need a quick fix for emergencies, this may work. However, you should take note of its strong smell and its possibility of going rancid, which will ruin the leather in the long run.
Prepared Leather Conditioners
To be honest, this is the best alternative to mink oil – particularly if it contains our featured ingredient. Kiwi, that popular shoe polish brand, adds this oil to a lot of its products.
How is Mink Oil Used?
- Take a damp lint-free cloth or a microfiber rag and wrap that around your finger.
- Dip it into the container (if it’s waxy) or wet the rag with a few drops (if it’s liquid)
- Gently rub wet cloth onto the surface of the leather in circular motions.
- When the cloth gets too dry, add more of the oil.
- Once the whole surface is coated, take a horsehair brush and scrub.
- If you feel you need a second coating, go ahead and do another round.
Mink Oil’s Bad Rap
Some are not too impressed with this conditioner. They even say that it can soften the fibers of the textile too much that it becomes floppy to the point of degradation.
There are also reports that Mink Oil, just like Neatsfoot’s, rots the threading in shoes and bags – especially if it is made of cotton. And although this takes longer to go rancid compared to similar products, some insist that it will still go off and ruin your shoes or bag.
Tackling the Naysayers
Understandably, some will have issues with our featured ingredients. They may have had bad experiences with one or both in the past.
But it’s also possible that they gave these a try without understanding the proper application. Here are some tips to maximize the effectiveness of both mink oil and saddle soap, without endangering your treasured leather possessions:
- Use a small amount of the product and spread it thinly and evenly.
- Do one coat first and allow the product to seep in. Usually, that’s enough.
- Wipe the excess off with a damp cloth. Dried excess product will block the surface and prevent the material from ‘breathing’ properly.
- Use this for deep cleaning only – and do that once or twice a year only.
- Take note of the expiration dates.
Mink Oil Vs. Saddle Soap – What Should You Get?
To be honest, both are must-haves. It’s hard to choose one over the other because their purpose is completely different.
To demonstrate the importance of these two, let’s go over the process of deep cleaning leather footwear:
- Prepare your boots by stuffing them with crumpled newspapers so they won’t get bent and folded while you’re working on them.
- Brush the visible dirt like crusted mud off. Wipe it with a damp cloth.
- Wash your shoes. THIS IS WHERE YOU NEED SADDLE SOAP!
Wet a piece of lint-free rag, dip into the tub of the soap, then rub onto the surface.
- After wiping the soap off, let the shoes dry.
- Condition your shoes. THIS IS WHERE YOU NEED MINK OIL!
Dribble a few drops of the oil onto a microfiber. Gently rub this onto the surface.
- With a horsehair brush, scrub your shoes until shiny.
Invest in Your Shoes. Invest in Cleaning Paraphernalia.
As explained earlier, you can use alternatives to these two items, especially when you’re in a rush and need to do a quick clean. But if you want to protect your footwear and make it last, get yourself these two. Here are some reliable brands which you can get.
The Best Saddle Soaps
Unless noted, most of the products listed below are in wax or cream form and comes in a small tin.
- Kiwi, 3 oz
- Fiebing’s(Yellow or White), 12 oz
- Fiebing’s Glycerin Bar, 7 oz (orange bar soap)
- Bickmore Plus with Lanolin, 6.5 oz
- Otter Wax, 2 oz
- Farnham’s Easy Polish Glycerin Soap, 32 fl oz (comes in a spray bottle)
- Bentley’s Glycerin Liquid Soap, 32 fl oz (also in a spray bottle)
The Best Mink Oil (or Leather Conditioners with Mink Oil)
- Fiebing’s Paste, 6 oz (wax or cream in a tin can)
- Sof Sole, 3.5 oz (also in a tin can)
- Red Wing Heritage, 3 oz (also in a tin can)
- Gel Gloss Conditioner, 8 oz (in bottle)
- Job Site Waterproof Liquid, 8 oz (in bottle)
Do yourself a favor (including your footwear, tote, or jacket) and get these two items as soon as possible. Make sure that you follow the steps and tips mentioned above so that you can make the most of these products. It can help you maintain your leather products and make them last longer.
Steve Oddvar Vicantas is a professional electrician and building inspector who loves writing about work boots, work safety, and everything in between. He is also a part-time blogger when he has spare time.