Is PU Leather Vegan?

The term “vegan leather” is an obvious contradiction, and yet it’s one you hear a lot. What exactly does it mean, and how do you know it when you see it? PU leather is one of the more confusing types of faux leather to decode, since it can be quite convincing. It also isn’t always vegan (that is, completely synthetic). There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding PU, but there don’t have to be. With the right information, it’s easy to know what you’re looking at and make informed shopping decisions. 

What is PU Leather?

“PU leather” is an umbrella term that refers to several different types of faux leather. They all include some amount of polyurethane, but not all are animal-free. Polyurethane is an extremely versatile thermoplastic polymer that can be transformed into many different products. One of the most common PU applications is faux leather. PU leather is one of the highest-quality leather alternatives, lasting longer and feeling softer to the touch than vinyl or PVC leather. 

True 100% Polyurethane leather is considered vegan, since no animals are involved in the process of making it. A sheet of polyurethane is simply dyed, stamped for a leather-grain look, and applied to a fabric base (usually polyester). 

Types of PU Leather

PU leather falls into 2 main categories: split/bicast leather, and 100% polyurethane faux leather. One includes some leather and the other does not, and it takes a careful eye to tell which is which. 

Split Leather

True PU leather is often confused with split leather, a type of fabric that is part-polyurethane, part cowhide. Also known as bicast leather, split leather is typically made with the leftover hide from leather-making. This lower-grade, fibrous hide is dipped in polyurethane to strengthen it and improve its appearance. It is then stamped and dyed to look like top-grain leather again. 

100% PU Leather

It can be hard to tell the difference between split PU leather and 100% polyurethane fabrics. This has led some people to believe that no PU leather is vegan. However, true hide-free PU is very common and does not include or use any animal products. 

As well as being technically vegan, PU leather is also more eco-friendly than most mass-produced leather. Hide has to go through an intensive curing and tanning process before it looks like what we know as genuine leather. Often, this process includes harsh, even poisonous chemicals. These can – and often do –  leach into the ground and affect water sources near tanneries when not handled carefully.

Making true PU leather takes fewer steps and less water and energy resources to make. Because it can be produced so quickly and easily, vegan PU leather is an extremely affordable leather alternative. If you’re considering buying products that are cruelty-free or that have a lighter impact on the planet’s resources, 100% PU is an excellent option.  

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Vegan and Hide Leather?

The only way to truly be sure that you’re getting 100% vegan leather is to see it on the label. However, there are generally a few telltale differences: 

  1. Grain and Pattern

    While many vegan leather fabrics are very good at fooling the eye, you can often spot a regular pattern if you look closely enough. Animal hide has natural flaws, and it will develop a patina over time from scratches. Vegan leather, on the other hand, will always have the same look and finish. 
  2. Scent

    Synthetic and animal leather smell very different from one another. While genuine leather will smell like hide and the chemicals it was cured in, PU and other synthetics have a plastic-like smell. This scent goes away over time, but you can usually detect it on new products. 
  3. Water Resistance

    Although it isn’t a good idea to water test a product you haven’t yet purchased, the way a fabric responds to water can tell you a lot about what it’s made of. Leather generally doesn’t hold up well when it comes into contact with water. It can get soaked easily and permanently damaged. Vegan PU leather, on the other hand, is quite water resistant (in many cases, completely waterproof). It can come into contact with water time and again without suffering any damage. 
  1. Price Tag 

    At the very least, the price of an item can usually tell you if you’re buying “genuine,” top-grain hide leather or not. Real leather is usually several times the retail price of faux leather. However, this won’t tell you if the product is entirely vegan. If you really want to be sure how a product was made, always check the label and/or speak with whoever is selling it to you. 

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