Is Leather Flammable? We Find Out.

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Leather is one of the most resilient materials on planet Earth, which is why we see it all around us in wallets, purses, jackets, shoes, cars, our homes, cinemas, airplanes, etc.

The list of applications for this miracle material is practically endless.

While it’s most celebrated for its physical toughness, you may be curious as to whether there are any other reasons for its ubiquity in both the classical and modern world, say, perhaps, fire resistance.

The ability to stand inert in the face of fire and intense heat would certainly be another feather in the leather cap, improving the safety of countless products and buildings.

So, is leather flammable, or do its merits start and end with steadfast staying power?

Does Leather Burn?

Technically speaking, leather is flammable, but here’s the thing…it takes an insane amount of heat to ignite it. In fact, it takes such intense heat to set leather on fire that we still label it as a fireproof material.

This molecular unwillingness to cop out when there’s fire all about is a big part of the reason why it’s used in so many commercial settings, such as cinemas and airplanes.

If you have an old leather item or garment that you no longer use, as long as it’s safe to do so, you can test its heat resistance by holding it over a flame.

Try as you might, you will not be able to ignite it.

Natural leather is even far more resistant to fire and heat than most FR (fire resistance) treated, specialist fabrics, but that’s not to say that it comes out of a fiery situation unscathed.

What Happens When You Try to Set Leather on Fire?

Leather may not burst into flames when hit with an ember, but it will react. If you put a flame to a leather hide, it will first blacken, then gently shrivel and contract.

You’ll also notice an unpleasant smell reminiscent of burning hair.

Even if you hold the fire to leather indefinitely, it still won’t ignite. The chances are that it will simply continue to blacken and shrivel.

Why Doesn’t Leather Set on Fire?

Leather is, of course, just skin, and skin is full of pores that absorb moisture. When a hide is harvested from an animal, despite being separate from the body, this absorption ability remains intact.

Although our leather couch may feel like it has a dry surface, it’s actually deeply moisturized, and this high moisture content is one of the reasons that leather faces fire without igniting.

After the tanning process, leather can also have up to a 25% fat content, which is another reason it can handle the heat.

As you’ll have noticed, if it’s not cared for correctly, leather can lose its smooth, soft feeling and become dry and cracked. This means that the moisture content has dwindled, leaving it far more susceptible to ignition.

What Is the Flash Point of Leather?

As I mentioned earlier, while leather is incredibly fire-resistant, it’s not entirely inflammable. The autoignition point of well-maintained leather is between 200–212° C (392–414° F). 

It will shrink when heated to around 199° C (390° F), after 10 minutes or so.

Bear in mind these are generalizations. The quality of the leather and the tanning method used during its preparation can have a significant effect on its fire-resistant properties.

For example, the chrome tanning process involves the application of chromium salts, which dehydrate the leather more than vegetable and chrome-free tanning methods.

Leather

Is Synthetic Leather Flammable?

Sometimes synthetic and genuine leathers are combined to make hybrid products, but for the most part, synthetic leathers are composed of one of two materials: polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride.

Polyurethane is an indispensable material in countless industries. It’s used to make skateboard wheels, surfboards, automotive components, electrical components, seals, gaskets, carpet underlay…you name it.

You’ll probably know Polyvinyl chloride by its abbreviated title, PVC. It’s used to make window frames, medical devices, storage bags, drainage pipes…tons of stuff.

What these two substances have in common is that they’re both plastics, and most plastics in production today are derived from petroleum, which means they are indeed flammable.

If you put a flame to your PU or PVC jacket, it will first melt, producing an awful acrid smell, and will eventually catch fire.

If someone is unsure whether they’ve received a genuine or synthetic leather item, they might put a flame to the surface and see how the fabric reacts. It’s a risky gambit, as you may ruin the item, but you’ll get your answer, that’s for sure!

Will My Leather Couch Burn?

Generally speaking, the leather used for upholstery is normally quite a bit thinner than the leather used for making garments or objects such as wallets or purses. As such, leather couches aren’t quite as resilient when it comes to fire and heat.

If a lit cigarette is dropped on the surface and left to smolder, it will leave a significant blemish and may even burn a hole, but your couch won’t set on fire.

If your leather couch has taken on some scarring due to an incident with a cigarette, you can revive the area using a heavy filler and some re-coloring balm.

The problem with leather couches is that they’re also made up of lots of wood and cushioning, two highly flammable materials, so even if the outer layer is standing up to the heat, it will eventually combust internally.

Is Leather Flammable? Summing Up

There you have it, folks; good quality natural leather will ignite at exceedingly high temperatures, but it’s generally seen as a flame-resistant material.

The reason it doesn’t combust as easily as most other materials is that it’s made up of lots of tiny pores that absorb and hold moisture; however, if not properly maintained, it can dry out and crack, diminishing its fire-resistant properties.

Vegan (synthetic) leather, on the other hand, is made of petroleum-derived plastic, which is highly flammable, so, vegans, good job, but be wary of open flames when donning your leathers.

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About David

With over 12 years experience in the fire protection industry, David is our resident Safety & Security expert. He's also a plumber with years of experience in HVAC systems, welding extraordinaire and spends his weekends thinking up gardening projects.

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