What Is Protein Leather?

Did you ever wonder why even expensive headphones don’t use real leather for their ear pads? With the rise of artificial leather and its use in various products, it is important to know what kind of synthetic leather is suitable for a particular application and whether you should buy it.

Let’s learn a bit more about protein leather, and understand its properties.

What is Protein Leather?

Protein leather is an artificial leather,  a fabric intended to substitute for the many types of leather. A slang term for protein leather is ‘Pleather’ which can also refer to plastic leather as well. The phrase “protein leather” originally referred to an artificial leather that combined protein powder with a resin to form a durable pliable sheet of material that looks and feels remarkably like leather.

pleather portfolio
Image used with permission from Clickthing under a CC BY 2.0 license

In recent years, the term Pleather has been used by manufacturers to refer to a polyurethane product made by bonding the plastic to a fabric backing usually cotton or polyester. It is often used as an inexpensive substitute for leather. Pleather is usually embossed to look like leather grain or “top-grain”.


The original protein leather, used in car seat covers and some headphones, has a high durability. It’s estimated to be roughly double the durability of leather. Because of the fabric backing, it is resilient and supple enough to withstand normal wear. With good care and maintenance, car seat covers made of high-quality pleather last for several decades.

pleather seats in a 1929 DeSoto
Image from VanDerBrook Auctions licensed under CC BY 2.0 license

On the other hand, cheaper pleathers made from only PVC or polyurethane without fabric backing tend to crack and split within a few months.


When it comes to shopping for leather, you want to be able to distinguish real leather from artificial leather. Real leather can feel coarse, smooth or anywhere in between, depending on the quality. Leather is also flexible and soft and has a distinct smell. If you can examine the reverse side of the leather, it should have a soft textured feel like a suede feel.

On the other hand, pleather may feel smooth and have a similar feel to plastic. Due to the manufacturing process, protein leather will have pores that are in a consistent pattern, while real leather will have inconsistently-placed pores. Protein leather also tends to be stretchier than real leather.

Products Protein Leather is Commonly Used For

Protein leather is used for upholstery, clothing, and fabrics. It also has other uses where a leather-like finish is required but the actual material is cost-prohibitive, unsuitable, or unusable for ethical reasons. Popular uses include car seat covers and headphone ear pads.

Advantages of Protein Leather

Protein leather has a similar look and feel to genuine leather, while also being more affordable. It is preferred by some people because no animals are harmed to produce it. Because it is made by a machine, it can have consistent colors and a uniform appearance throughout, resulting in a uniform product. High-quality pleather can last for decades due to its high durability.

Disadvantages of Protein Leather

Pleather also has some disadvantages, such as low-quality pleather having a shorter lifespan than that of real leather. It cracks and splits much easier than real leather and becomes more uncomfortable over time, while leather gets softer and more comfortable. It does not develop a patina like real leather. It is not breathable like leather, so it can get uncomfortable when you sweat. It can smell unpleasant and get sticky when it’s hot. When used for clothing, it is thin and does not keep you warm compared to real leather.

faux leather jacket
Image from Deranged Designs”

How to Care for Protein Leather

To care for your pleather items, follow the cleaning instructions provided by the manufacturer. To clean the protein leather surface, use water and soap to gently remove dirt. If deeper cleaning is needed, alcohol-based cleaners or bleach may be used, but only after testing the cleaner on an inconspicuous area. Do not use conditioners and cleaners intended for real leather products they may harm the pleather.


Real leather and protein leather are completely different in manufacturing process and in terms of their properties. While they may look similar, a close examination reveals the differences in appearance, feel and smell.

Protein leather cannot replicate the natural smell of real leather. Instead it will have a chemical smell derived from the plastics used. It is also completely water repellent, while real leather will absorb water unless it is waterproofed. Protein leather does not develop a patina with time, it is not breathable, and is cool in cold seasons and hot in warm seasons. Some kinds of pleather can last a long time while some tend to show wear quickly.


Both real and protein leathers have many advantages. While real leather lends a warm, personal touch to your items, protein leather can be a cheaper alternative. You should carefully consider which characteristics are most important to you and then make the purchase.

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