How to clean sticky leather or vinyl?

There are a number of reasons why leather or vinyl may become sticky. Cleaning is worth a try, but tackiness often is a sign of a deteriorating material that may not be salvageable without niche products and much experimentation.

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What causes sticky leather?

Sticky leather could indicate any of the following:

  • body oil saturation on full-grain, semi-aniline or aniline leather. Learn more about pre-treating or extracting oil stains here;
  • excessive build-up of oil-based or silicone-based conditioners. Try cleaning with denatured alcohol or lacquer thinner;
  • or a deteriorating urethane finish on bicast (or bycast) leather. Bicast leather is split hide, meaning the lower, weaker half of the hide with no epidermis (skin surface) remaining. Urethane or polyurethane finishes are used to create a new ‘skin’ surface and are notorious for losing their shine and becoming sticky and / or delaminating, peeling and flaking like bonded leather. We have not found a fool-proof blocker to correct the issue. Leather Doctor claims to have an effective process here, but it’s not simple. Our recommendation is don’t invest too much in this material. It may be easier to find a full-grain piece second-hand that can be restored and will last much longer.

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What causes sticky vinyl?

Sticky vinyl indicates a plasticizer issue. Over time the oily plasticizers used in the production of PVC migrate to the surface. The issue may or may not be apparent until a new finish is applied which chemically reacts with the plasticizer. The solution is to clean the surface with denatured alcohol or paint thinner, and then apply a blocker that will halt the plasticizer migration. SEM® TacFree will do this, but we have not confirmed that our acrylic finishes are compatible with it. You may just want to utilize their products from start to finish in this case.


  1. What kind of “Conditioner” are talking about? I did the alchohol and mineral spirits. I agree that acetone can be dangerous, so I haven’t used that yet. I have ruined plastic with acetone.

    • Most leather conditioners out there are oil or silicone based and end up altering the leather’s pH (in the case of the former) or building up into a greasy slime that attracts dirt (in the case of the latter).

  2. So in other words… I just wasted 15 minutes of my life, reading an article that doesn’t answer the question of how to correct the problem? 🙄

  3. I just bought leather furniture. I had no idea that disgusting film that I’ve seen on vinyl can also happen to leather!!! How do I prevent it from happening?

  4. White vinegar will remove the tacky surface on Vinyl. Let it soak in for 5 minutes and scrub lightly with a sponge. Rinse and repeat. Rinse once more and let air dry. It works on old vehicle steering wheels and dash boards also.

    Bonus note: White viniger is what should be used to clean electronic surfaces damaged by alkaline batteries. The vinegar will neutralize the alkaline caustic. Use a toothbrush to scrub the surfaces then rinse with water. Dry thoroughly and let set for a day in a low humidity room before installing new batteries. FYI – during manufacturing, alkaline batteries are submerged in an low acidic wash, rinsed again and then blow dried before final packageing to remove surface caustics.

    • Great to know about batteries. White vinegar is always a safe starting point, but a stronger solvent is often needed. Household white vinegar is 90-95% water with a pH around 2.5 (acidic), whereas rubbing alcohol is only 10-30% water with a pH of 6-8, making it more netural.

  5. I’ve figured out the only solution to this problem that REALLY works! Sprinkle any talc powder (I use a foot powder!) and rub it is vigorously. It looks messy at this point…do it over a sink or outside. Now, use a soft cloth to rub the excess powder off. Keep doing this, the more you do, the more it looks like the original finish. The result is the tackiness is 100% gone.

    • Amazing solution, thank you! Beware though, many talcum powders are contaminated with asbestos and are considered carinogenic. Even asbestos-free talc can irritate the nose, throat and lungs, and chronic exposure can scar the lungs and lead to shortness of breath and cough, possible disability, and even death.

  6. I have my wedding album which is vinyl and has become very tacky for so some reason. I can’t even hold it because it’s so sticky. Does anyone know the best way for me to clean it without ruining the integrity of the photo album?


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