Quick Answer: PU leather made exclusively from synthetic material is vegan, but some PU leathers are made with genuine leather.
Let's learn more...
What is PU Leather?
PU leather is a term that gets thrown around a lot when you're looking for synthetic leather shoes, jackets and other vegan goods. You'll often see it in the titles and descriptions of products as you shop online.
So what exactly is PU leather? The answer is that it's frequently an all-synthetic faux leather made from polyurethane (or PU, as it's also called) or some kind of human-made material, in which case it's 100 percent vegan.
But here's the issue: Some PU leather goods are actually bi-cast leather. What this means is that they're split leather products made with both real leather and polyurethane.
So in reality, some PU leather products are vegan while others aren't, which is confusing, to say the least. If you see a vegan certification or buy from a trustworthy vegan vendor, you know that it's going to be safe.
But now you know that the vegan status of the product comes down to how the PU leather is made.
To be safe, look for products that are labeled "pu vegan leather" as shown above.
How Is It Made?
Vegan PU leather is typically made from a plastic material like PVC or polyurethane (you probably won't see natural leather alternatives called PU leather).
To make the faux leather, the PVC or polyurethane is attached to some kind of fabric backing.
When it's made with actual leather, the fibrous part of the leather is layered with a coating of polyurethane.
The best way to tell if a PU leather product is made with genuine leather or with plastic materials only is to do your research. As previously mentioned, a vegan-certified company is a safe bet.
If you're shopping online, visit the manufacturer's website to look for a list of all the materials used in the product.
Unfortunately, you probably won't be able to tell with a vintage item. But if you have your doubts about whether a newer item is vegan, contact the manufacturer directly and you should get a definititive answer.
What's PU Leather Used In?
PU leather is used in quite a wide range of things, from household furniture to clothing and accessories.
Here are some typical household and personal items you might find PU leather in:
Basically, any time you come across a product that looks like it's made from leather, it might be made from PU leather.
How It's Different From Real Leather
Other than the actual makeup of PU leather, there are lots of ways in which it differs from genuine leather, including in appearance, feel and even smell.
Not all PU leathers will look and smell the same, but you can usually distinguish them by some key particulars.
How It Looks
PU leather can have a shinier appearance than real leather, but not always. It may also be smoother in texture, unless it's of a higher quality—there are vegan PU leathers made to closely simulate pebbled or grainy leather.
There can also be something about it that just looks synthetic but is hard to describe. Perhaps it looks too uniform or perfect in texture.
Again, the higher the quality of the PU leather, the more difficult it will be to tell it apart from genuine leather, sometimes to the point that you can't see any difference at all.
In general, if you look closely, you're more likely to see the differences. From a little farther back, any PU leather will look like the real deal. Its job is, after all, to imitate leather.
Close up of artificial leather
How It Feels
PU leather tends to have a certain plasticky feel to it. It's not that it feels exactly like plastic under your fingers, but it's usually super smooth and may not be as soft (or as course) as leather.
PU leather may also be stretchier. Though leather does have flexibility, it has its limits. If you can, try stretching the material just a tad and see if it seems to have an artificial stretch to it.
How It Performs
One of the advantages of PU leather is that it's water-resistant. Since the plastic materials don't absorb water, if you scatter a few drops on them, they won't soak in like they would with real leather.
In term of strength, real leather typically outperforms PU leather, but it also depends on how thick the PU leather is and how much reinforcement it has.
At the same time, there are plenty of delicate leather products that can easily puncture and tear. So you see, this aspect of the differences between PU leather and real leather is not always straightforward.
How It Smells
PU leather often smells a little like plastic or faintly like chemicals, whereas genuine leather may have an earthy smell.
However, not all PU leather will have an odor strong enough to really detect. Usually, the cheaper products are the more pungent ones.
If you have a vegan PU leather item that smells funny, air it out in the breeze. Over time, it should become less fragrant.
How to Care for It
PU leather is much easier to clean than real leather. Most often, you just need to wipe it with a damp cloth or clean it with a gentle cleanser.
Real leather, on the other hand, can easily become stained, and the more delicate items can collect water spots.
You need to oil genuine leather products to keep them from drying out and cracking. You can also apply some kind of vegan conditioning oil to PU leather, which can extend its life.
If you've found a leather product that seems pretty cheap for what it is, there's a good chance that it's PU leather.
PU leather is less costly than genuine leather, which is one reason that so many manufacturers opt for. This tends to be good news for vegans, who have greater access to all-polyurethane bags, boots and clothing.
Other Vegan Leather Alternatives
Many times, vendors selling vegan products listed as PU leather will go into some detail about their makeup, explaining that they're 100 percent polyurethane or PVC. But this isn't always the case.
Because it can be impossible to tell vegan PU leather from the non-vegan type, sometimes looking for a certifiably vegan material instead is the safest route. And fortunately, there are lots of alternatives.
Cork is becoming more widely used than ever as a sustainable, all-natural faux leather, and wallet brands like Corker
Made from cork bark, this natural waterproof material can look just like leather, but it can also offer elegant patterns from the bark that real leather can't hold a candle to.
The cork bark is harvested from the trees every several years during an active growth period. It's renewable, sustainable, tough and aesthetically pleasing.
This type of vegan leather comes from teak tree leaves, creating a resilient, yet supple faux leather.
As you might imagine, the accessories made from teak leaves retain their leaf patterns. The result is a one-of-a-kind, stunning look made by nature.
Piñatex is one of the latest inventions in natural faux leather. It's made from the cellulose fibers of pineapple leaves and makes an excellently sturdy material.
Since Piñatex comes from waste materials and requires no land or water to make, it's a fantastically sustainable material for vegan shoes, wallets and bags that's very kind to the earth.
Would you buy a mushroom leather jacket? You should, because MuSkin mushroom leather clothes and accessories are gorgeous. This material is one of the hottest vegan leather alternatives on the market right now.
Mushroom-based leather is highly renewable, biodegradable and fashionable. It's not waterproof, but you can easily treat it to repel the rain.
PU leather is a confusing term because it sometimes refers to 100 percent synthetic leather and other times refers to a leather-based product coated in polyurethane.
You can't know for sure if PU leather is vegan unless there are clear indications (it's sold as a vegan product by a reputable or vegan company, or the exact product materials are listed for review).
Consequently, it may be the best course of action to contact a manufacturer if you aren't sure about a certain PU leather product.
It is, however, much easier to tell the difference between PU leather and genuine leather as there are identifiable markers of sight, smell and touch.
If you can't be sure about the veganness of a certain PU leather product, you can always look for an alternative item made from vegan materials like cork, tree leaves and even vegetable matter.
A rich diversity of vegan leathers are taking off in the fashion world, which is great for vegans. And it's great for the planet, too, as manufacturers are looking into new ways of providing quality faux leathers that are not only vegan, but also renewable and sustainable.
Ultimately, PU leather may be phased out more and more, particularly in high-end vegan products.