How To (Easily) Tell If A Couch Is Real Leather

Oakburn Leather Sofa with Wood Base

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With the advent of new innovations in the furniture space, it can be challenging for a consumer (with little leather experience) to tell the difference between real leather and some of the newer faux or vegan leather couches on the market.

And often, some manufacturers are not upfront with materials used to make a sofa, intentionally masking the true materials used to design their furniture, while advertising it as 'genuine leather'.

So, how can you tell if a couch is made of real leather? And not composed of some faux, man made material?

To tell the difference between real and fake leather furniture, use your three senses - smell, touch and feel.  Real leather should feel smooth when your touch it, and stretch like skin - let's not forget this the hide of an animal we are dealing with!

Real leather also has a distinct smell, whereas fake leathers have a chemical, plastic oriented smell. Lastly, inspect the furniture to look for imperfections (a sign of real leather) and not perfect patterns of grain, which are indicative of a sofa using fake, man made materials. 

Everybody knows that leather is a durable and luxurious material. However, you can't always tell if the furniture is real leather just by looking at it.

There are many different ways to test the authenticity of a piece of furniture's leather material.

In this post, we dive further into how you can identify fake or real leather couches or other pieces of furniture in your home.

Now, one quick aside is that leather types make a world of difference! 

There is a vast difference between FULL grain cowhide and what is known as "genuine leather".

As a consumer, you want to focus on TOP Grain leathers (Full Top Grain Leather and Top Grain leathers).

Moving down in terms of leather grades, you next get to Split Leathers - which are often known as "Genuine Leather" or Bicast Leather (sometimes also referred to as Bycast) and combine the leftover 'splits' of the cowhide and, in some cases, use a combination of leather and plastic materials. 

Bonded Leathers are even worse and made from leather scraps, in combination with polyurethane to create a leather-like material, sometimes known as reconstituted leather or blended leather.

It is more like the 'particle board of the leather world,' as one leather expert has called it.

One word for Bonded leathers - AVOID.

Lastly, 'Faux' Leather is entirely synthetic and made from PVC and other chemical compounds. 

The low price, mass leather furniture manufacturers, are VERY GOOD at marketing these HORRIBLE leather imitators with very misleading terminology. 

We recommend TOP Grain leathers when purchasing a new leather sofa and especially avoid any Bonded or Faux Leather furniture pieces.

One key thing I should mention is that you NEED to analyze the materials from the retailer if considering any furniture purchase.

Most reputable retailers are going to provide everything we need to make an intelligent decision. The lingo, however, is going to differ wildly from store to store.  You might see Full Grain Leather, you might see Top Grain Leather, you might see Full Top Grain leather, and ultimately if you see any of those mentioned, it's probably the case that the leather used is relatively high quality. 

If they are using an artificial leather alternative or even a 'vegan leather', it will be pretty apparent from the label on the furniture. Vegan leathers are made from synthetic materials that will not hold up to wear and tear the same way that a real leather sofa will.

Okay, if we have done our homework reading the label, we should have a better idea of what sort of materials our furniture is made from. 

Let's get back to how we tell the difference between a real or fake leather couch.

There are three main ways to test whether a natural leather sofa is real or not.

A Real Leather Sofa Has An Indistinguishable Smell 

Leather is a material used for thousands of years, and the smell it emits can be considered one of its best qualities.

Leather emits a highly distinct smell that many people consider to be pleasant or even arousing. Thus, one of the most well-known ways of identifying a real leather sofa is via the scent, something that can linger even after years of ownership.

I have heard, however, that some manufacturers will spray their furniture with artificial scents that mimic the smell of real leather, so beware of something using an artificial fragrance.

Ultimately, though, if your nose is good, you will likely pick up the artificial smells used in fake leather sofas that consist of man made materials and in many cases different forms of plastic. 

Does Fake Leather Burn?

I’ve heard an additional method used to determine the legitimacy of an article's faux-leather surface is a matchstick. When lit up against the item in question, it is likely made of artificial materials and not real leather if the material starts to catch fire.

I haven't yet conducted this test, and I might do this soon, so hopefully, I can post a video soon. For now, here is an old video discussing this very fact. It all makes a lot of sense to me, however, since plastics will burn and most fake leathers are made from polyurethane, a flammable material.

A Real Leather Sofa Is Soft And Real Hides Are Easily Identifiable

A sofa in a showroom might be tough to asses for those without leather experience. However, leather is easily distinguishable from faux leather, just based on the backside of the hide itself.

Now, you can't see a leather hide on a finished leather sofa, but the showroom can most likely show you a sample. This is a pretty good video, where a consumer bought a bonded leather sofa and it peeled like crazy, something quite familiar with junk, bonded leather sofas. 

The back to the leather should have a rougher, grainy, suede like feel, which don't forget that this is the hide from a cow; a fake, faux leather product will have a smooth, man made backing to it. You could ultimately inspect the back of the leather on the cushions if they unzip as well.

Identifying Fake Grains With Bonded Or Split Leathers

Real leather comes from the hide of a real animal, in most cases, especially in the case of leather sofas it is from a cow. Thus, when we think about the hide of a cow, these naturally have an irregular texture, often with many imperfections such as scars or bug bites. This is especially the case with aniline leather sofas. 

With bonded or faux leathers, the manufacturers will stamp or emboss a grain pattern into the material in question to try and recreate the grain on an authentic cowhide leather. This embossing tends to come across as 'too perfect' and is easily distinguishable in most cases from a real leather sofa. 

Here's a bonded leather office chair made with an artificial or embossed grain. Hopefully, you can see that this is an outer surface grain look that has been applied and is not inherent in the material of what might be a genuine hide.

bonded leather chair

And here's a real full grain leather ottoman, where we can see more AUTHENTIC imperfections and marks, which indicate to me that it would be certainly a real leather piece. Note, my kids have also made quite a few spills on this piece and little damage has been done. 

full grain leather

This is also a good piece which discusses more on bonded leather. I can guarantee you probably have something in your home made of bonded leather in your home!

It’s important to know that not all leather is created equal. There are different grades of leather, and many manufacturers will try and use confusing terminology to confuse buyers.  

It can be hard to tell the difference between top grain leather and more inferior bonded or even faux leather products.

Knowing how to tell if a leather couch is real or not can certainly make you an informed consumer and make an intelligent purchase decision for your home or office space. 

I hope this post was helpful and that it leads to you avoiding some of the terrible products that exist on the market!

If you have any questions about this blog post, please email me at

About the author Tom

When I started shopping for a leather couch two years ago, I was confused and overwhelmed by the information available to me. I decided to launch Best Leather Couches in order to create the best resource for shoppers looking for a new leather couch. I hope you enjoy the site. Feel free to drop me a line anytime at

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