Real leather and faux leather sofas look a lot alike; so much so that you may be wondering how to tell the two materials apart when making a furniture purchase. The materials tag offers reliable information about the composition of the entire sofa, and your own senses come in handy if the tag is missing or not accessible.
Look for a tag on the sofa that lists what materials are used in the sofa. If the tag states "full-grain," top-grain" or "genuine leather" and uses no other leather terminology, the sofa is most likely made of real leather. Don't be fooled by the many types of fake leather that still contain the word leather in the name. Some terms indicating the leather is not real are: faux leather, leatherette, bonded leather or blended leather. Bonded and blended leather do contain tiny fragments of leather, but the upholstery is mostly synthetic, consisting of a fabric backing beneath the fragments and a spray-on coating that textures the material so that it looks like actual leather on the top surface.
The Sniff Test
Real leather has a distinctive smell that is noticeable no matter whether the leather is top quality or a lesser grade of hide. Sniff the sofa in various areas; if it doesn't smell like leather at all or if it smells like chemicals, it is most likely not real leather. Do not base your determination on the aroma alone, though. If even one small part of the sofa is made from leather, you'll notice a leather scent.
Look at seams or areas where the upholstery shows exposed edges, even if it means lifting a corner of the sofa to look underneath. If all the seams look a little too smooth and neat, or if a cut piece of the material shows a mesh-like surface on the bottom side, the material is not genuine leather. If still unsure, look at the texture and coloring on the upholstery. If the material looks as though it has a repeating texture or grain to it, it is most likely man-made. Real full-grain leather is a natural material that shows variations and flaws, unless the leather is dyed dark, shaved or sanded to hide imperfections.
Real Leather... In Part
Some manufacturers use real leather for the seat cushions, back and armrest areas, covering all the areas nearest your body. The other areas use some form of faux leather designed to match the color and texture of the real leather. This type of pairing is called leather match_._ If examining a sofa in a store, ask the retail representative if the sofa is real leather throughout, and not a leather match in some places. Sometimes the materials tag lists matched leather as "L/M."
When narrowing down your options for where to purchase leather furniture, research several potential retailers to determine the one most likely to carry the real thing. Shops that sell blended or faux leathers without fully disclosing the information may show a few reviews online reflecting this information. Likewise, shops that pride themselves in carrying only real, quality leather products openly state so on their websites and in their advertisements.
A sofa made entirely of leather costs more than a similar sofa made of faux leather, matched leather or bonded and blended materials. Look at several leather and faux leather sofas in the store to compare prices. If the price seems too low on a sofa labeled as leather and the furniture has no visible flaws or damage, it may not be real leather.
Kathy Adams is an award-winning writer. She is an avid DIYer that is equally at home repurposing random objects into new, useful creations as she is at supporting community gardening efforts and writing about healthy alternatives to household chemicals. She's written numerous DIY articles for paint and decor companies, as well as for Black + Decker, Hunker, SFGate, Landlordology and others.