PU Leather Vs. Faux Leather: The Difference Explained

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When you hear about “fake” leather, the 2 most common terms are “PU leather” and “faux leather.”

There are a few different types of faux leather. However, all PU leather can be considered faux leather.

I’ll explain the differences between different types of artificial leathers in this post.

The Single Difference Between PU Leather and Faux Leather

In short: “Faux leather” is another name for “artificial leather”, which is an umbrella term that many types of artificial leather fall into, which includes PU leather.

If there are no animal materials mixed in, “vegan leather” is another appropriate term. These types of materials are used for all sorts of clothing products – belts, boots (here are some examples of vegan work boots), bags, etc.

PU leather is simply a type of faux leather.

The 2 Main Types of Faux Leather

But there are multiple kinds of faux leather, all made from various plastic materials. The 2 most popular are:

  • PVC leather – The first type of artificial leather, made from polyvinyl chloride. It’s not super popular any more.
  • PU leather – The most popular type of modern artificial leather. Not all PU leather goods are vegan, since sometimes animal materials are mixed in. 

PU leather comparison

So PU Leather is a type of faux leather (the most popular one). If you see a product that is made with “faux leather,” it likely is made of PU leather.

Hopefully that clears things up.

Now we can look at some common questions about these materials.

What is PU Leather, and Is PU Leather Vegan?

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.

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.

What is Pleather, Vegan Leather, and Faux Leather Made of?

Both PVC leather and PU leather are mainly derived from petroleum. In other words, they’re mainly made of just plastic.

A few other materials are typically added in during the manufacturing process, particularly for PU leather.

If you’d like to see a typical process from start to finish, here’s a quick video:

It might just be the chemical engineer in me, but I think that’s pretty neat.

Is Faux or Vegan Leather Durable?

The durability of vegan leather has a lot more variance than regular leather.

Some vegan leather is high quality, and very durable.

Other faux leather is thin, not very durable, and just feels “cheap.”

It all depends on the manufacturer, since artificial leather can be made in a variety of ways. Just expect to pay more for the high quality vegan leather.

Is Vegan Leather Waterproof?

Because vegan leather is mostly made of plastic, it’s typically waterproof.

PVC leather is typically entirely plastic, making it completely waterproof.

PU leather on the other hand, always has an outer coating of polyurethane, so in theory it should also be waterproof. However, if a product is poorly made, it’s possible to become less water resistant over time.

Is Faux Leather Just Plastic?

It can be, but isn’t always.

PVC leather is almost always just plastic, which is a big part of why it’s not that comfortable, and isn’t super popular any more.

PU leather on the other hand, typically coats non-woven fabrics (that aren’t always plastic) in plastic. So it’s mostly plastic, just not entirely plastic in most cases. If you watched the video in the above section, you might have noticed that they added cotton to a particular layer, plus a non-plastic dye.

Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?

The biggest negative of vegan leather is that it’s mostly made from petroleum, like all plastic products.

That alone makes it fairly unsustainable, and it doesn’t biodegrade well.

Since many vegans are also environmentalists, it’s not too surprising that many vegans try to avoid even vegan leather if an alternative is available for what they’re looking for.

Is Vegan Leather Breathable?

PVC leather is not very breathable. It often feels sticky and uncomfortable, especially in hot temperatures.

PU leather, on the other hand, can be made to be more breathable, depending on the manufacturing process.

However, it’s still not a particularly breathable material compared to real leather or other materials.

Is Vegan 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 or Faux 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. I've spent over 6 years as a freelance nutrition writer and researcher. During this time, I've tested over 50 vegan protein powders, and over 100 other types of vegan supplements.