What is PU Leather, and Is PU Leather Vegan?

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PU leather comparison

In short, 100% synthetic PU leather is vegan, but many products that say they are made from PU leather are actually not vegan.

I understand that sounds confusing.

The problem is that overtime, somehow “bicast leather” has become interchangeable with “PU leather”, at least with enough people to matter. There’s a big difference between the 2:

  • 100% PU synthetic leather – Fake leather made only with polyurethane (PU). Always vegan.
  • Bicast Leather Contains actual leather, and just has a coating of PU on top of it. Never vegan.

The rest of this short post will clarify a few common questions that most people have after learning the above, and how you can avoid animal products when buying PU leather.

What is PU Leather?

PU Leather is a type of faux leather. By definition, PU stands for Polyurethane, a plastic polymer derived from petroleum. Polyurethane is a versatile product used to make many things: tires, gaskets, insulation panels, condoms, hoses, and many more.

While it may not be the best thing for the environment, no animals are directly harmed to make it.

How Is PU Leather Applied?

It can be applied as a coating on top, or for certain products it’s the only material needed altogether.

Actual PU leather can be made with PU alone, or it can be made by applying a coat of PU on top of a backing like cotton or polyester.

There are some cases where PU is applied on top of regular leather, although it’s not common. Most of these products still label them as leather and not PU leather however.

How Can You Tell PU Leather Apart From Actual or Bicast Leather?

Although modern versions of PU leather look similar to genuine leather, there are a few differences that make it possible to tell PU leather and actual leather apart:

  1. PU leather is significantly cheaper usually.
  2. Real leather smells different. Smell a few and it will become obvious.
  3. PU does not absorb water, but leather does (Most PU leather products are waterproof). Splash a few drops of water on it and it should be obvious. This only tells you if there’s a PU coating, though, as there could be real leather beneath.

Ways to Spot Vegan PU Leather Products

It’s hard to know if a product labeled as “PU leather” is actually PU leather, or bicast leather in disguise.

If you want to take no risk, look for products that say they are made from vegan leather.

It’s easy to find clearly-labeled vegan leather products online these days. It might limit your selection a bit, but that’s the price you pay.

typical vegan leather product description

The other best sign for an actual PU leather product is that it will say “100% synthetic materials”.

Beyond that, you’re taking a risk.

If you’re doing in-person shopping, you can try to use the above clues to tell what type of material it actually is, but even that is not 100%.

Only you can decide what level of risk, if any, is acceptable for you.

You can find a wide variety of vegan products made from fully synthetic PU leather, ranging from vegan work boots, to clothes, to purses, to camera straps.

Is PU Leather Lower Quality Than Actual Leather?

The quality of PU leather depends on how it was made.

High quality PU leather matches up really well against the real thing in terms of durability and appearance.

However, there’s a lot of cheap, low quality PU leather out there that won’t last nearly as long.

Cheap PU leather is likely to peel, whereas high quality leather is unlikely to peel for many years.

That’s why you should buy from reputable manufacturers, and not just the cheapest stuff you can find on Wish or AliExpress.

What About the Environmental Impact of PU Leather?

Since it’s made from plastic, that naturally makes PU leather unsustainable in the long run and not particularly good for the environment.

The ideal option is to just buy less.

Assuming you do need a bag or jacket or whatever, consider trying to buy second-hand products to reduce the environmental impact of your purchase.

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.

5 comments

    • It’s typically used interchangeably, although they are technically 2 different materials (just used in almost the exact same way).

      Here’s a good summary if you want to learn more.

  • Hello Dale. Would you know if there are popular brands out there that make use of synthetic leather patches for their denim products (jackets, jeans, and shorts)? The only brand I know that will be switching to vegan labels is Levi’s (PETA bought shares from the company for this reason). I don’t know how soon this will happen though. But yeah, I’m wondering if your are aware of brands that are already using vegan leather labels for their clothing.