Standing in the shoe store with the salesperson trying to convince you of the superiority of patent leather over regular leather is not the time to start wondering about what the differences between the two really are. Understanding how patent leather and leather are related, and what makes them different, can help you make wise purchases and build your confidence that you've made the best choice for your needs.
Leather includes any animal skin that has been tanned, a process of soaking the skin in an acidic solution that preserves and softens it and makes it easier to work with. Most leather is made of cow skin, although the skins of pig, deer, sheep and other animals can also be used. Leather can be used to make clothing, shoes, purses, gloves, upholstery and book bindings. There are many different types of leather, each with a different finish. Some popular forms include suede, nubuck and napa leather. Leather can be colored during the tanning process, so leather products are available in many colors, including tan, brown, white, red and gray.
Patent leather is made of leather, but it has been coated in plastic, varnish or lacquer to make it shiny. The coating on patent leather is thinner than 0.15 millimeters and it typically doesn't obscure the beauty of the leather underneath it. Often, the surface is left smooth, but it can also be embossed, crinkled or crushed. Patent leather is frequently used to make dance shoes and children's shoes.
Both regular leather and patent leather should be kept free of dust. Some types of leather need oiling, conditioning or polishing, depending on the finish. Patent leather should be wiped clean and sprayed with a cleaner to keep it free of dirt and debris. Polishing, oiling and conditioning are not required with patent leather. Be careful not to buff patent leather or you could cause it to lose its shine.
Sometimes stores and manufacturers market shiny synthetic leathers as patent leather. These might be labeled as patent leather, but they are not true examples of this material. Synthetic patent leather products tend to be cheaper than actual patent leather, so some people purchase them as an inexpensive substitute. People who prefer not to use animal products might also choose synthetic leather products. Leather with a coating thicker than patent leather is sometimes called patent laminated leather.