What Is Synthetic Leather?

synthetic-leather Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Moment Open/Getty Images

Synthetic leather, also known as faux leather, vinyl or leatherette, is a manmade fabric made using PVC or polyurethane (PU) that is treated and dyed to resemble real leather. Synthetic leather is a cheaper, a more versatile and an ethically friendly alternative to real leather, which is made from tanned animal hides.

Invented in the early 20th century, synthetic leather only became popular in the 1960s as the manufacturing process was improved.

Synthetic leather is often used in the fashion and upholstery industries for a wide variety of items, including shoes and jackets, luggage and wallets, car interiors, particularly seats, electronics cases and sofas.

The two main types of synthetic leather are PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is made by adding plasticizers and dye to PVC to make a flexible fabric in a natural color, and PU (polyurethane). The latter is much more widely used and is made by coating cotton or polyester with a polymer, which makes the synthetic leather breathable, ideal when used in garments. It is then treated to make it look like real animal hide with pore patterns and dyed to the color required.

Synthetic leather is durable, stain resistant and cost effective. It is considered to be just as attractive as real leather, although the "real leather smell" and lustre that many people love about real leather cannot yet be replicated.