Leather vs. Pleather: Which One is Better?

There’s nothing more I love in the summer than running around in a barely-there sandal. But there’s nothing worse than when those barely-there sandal burn blisters onto your feet. And the chances of that happening are much greater if those sandals (or any shoes for that matter) are not made of real leather.

Historically, shoes were made of leather or other natural fibers, such as woven fabrics or plant materials. These materials differed based on the shoe’s function and the wealth of the wearer. Early 19th-century aristocratic women wore thin slippers made of brocade that were too fragile to use outdoors, while maids and manual workers wore sturdy leather boots or wooden clogs. Egyptians molded braided papyrus into soles and attached rawhide straps to keep them on the foot; Africans sewed slip-on sandals from colorful leathers; Spanish made shoes from rope; and Slavic nations fashioned shoes from felt.

Events in modern history, such as shortage of materials during wars and new technological discoveries, changed the shoe landscape by introducing cork and other alternative materials. As the demand for shoes grew in our modern society, it became necessary to provide affordable shoes that were accessible to everyone. And man-made leather became the most popular material for manufacturing cheaper shoes.

Faux leather, or man-made leather, is a material that looks like leather, but is made by combining different chemicals. The two most commonly used are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). The first is made by adding plasticizers to PVC, which make it more flexible. The second is made by coating a fabric (usually cotton or polyester) with a flexible polymer and then treating it to give it a more leather-like appearance. When they were first used in fashion, the terms “pleather” and “faux-leather” implied that the wearer was too poor to buy genuine leather items, but man-made leather has become increasingly more common these days because it’s cheaper than leather, looks very similar, and is extremely versatile.

In my opinion, neither is good. The materials are given names like pleather or faux leather to make them seem more like the real thing, but the bottom line is that PVC and PU are plastic materials filled with chemicals, including petroleum and pthalates. Ever wonder why your feet burn, sweat, and feel uncomfortably hot in some shoes and not others? It’s all related to what the shoes are made out of.

The main reason many shoppers choose man-made leather over real leather is the price. Synthetic shoes are often cheaper than a comparable pair of leather shoes. But since man-made materials have become more popular and acceptable (especially since fake-leather has started being referred to as “vegan leather” – seriously?), designers and retailers have been getting away with charging the same or more for fake leather products as they do for real leather products. So when it comes down to price, would you rather buy a pair of real leather sandals for $60 or fake leather for $60? I think I’ll go for the real leather, thank you very much. The simple fact that I feel more comfortable when I know my feet aren’t surrounded by plastic is the main reason I purchase leather shoes. But there are other benefits as well:

Real leather shoes allow the feet to “breathe” more than faux leather shoes. Leather also flexes, stretches and molds to the foot, allowing it to move more naturally. Faux leather will cause your feet to sweat and feel uncomfortable as it does not allow air to flow as easily through the material. It can also cause blisters or rashes to form on the feet from friction and heat because the plastic materials will not soften with time.

Leather shoes usually last longer than man-made shoes. A well-made pair of shoes can last many years, especially if taken care of properly. Leather shoes don’t crack or tear as easily and keep their color much longer, so they’re a much better investment. Since classics never go out of style, it’s a good idea to purchase certain styles in leather, such as black pumps, black boots, and a simple pair of flats.

Although real and faux leather are extremely similar in appearance, they wear differently. Real leather holds up to the elements much better and has a more refined look as it ages. It doesn’t crack, peel or deteriorate if taken care of properly. Leather also doesn’t have the plastic-chemical smell that often accompanies faux leather.

When shopping for leather shoes, always look at the label. Check to make sure that both the upper and the lining are leather. If the lining is made of PVC or PU, it defeats the purpose of purchasing a leather shoe because it cancels out the breathability and flexibility of the leather outer. However, a fabric lining is often better in boots. I find that a padded fabric lining keeps feet warmer in boots than just a layer of leather.

Of course, everyone looks for different things when shopping for shoes. Some people prefer faux leather over real leather because of their beliefs. Others would rather spend less on shoes, especially if they don’t plan to keep the shoes for very long. It’s important to evaluate each purchase based on the intended use and how long you plan on keeping the shoes.