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Synthetic vs. Leather Work Boots

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The primary consideration in buying any kind of boot for construction work is whether the job requires safety footwear. 

Occupational Safety and Hazard and Health Administration and American Society for Testing and Materials standards may dictate the factors driving that decision. Once an employer establishes that, workers may have a better focus on considering the benefits and drawbacks of choosing between leather or synthetic boots

Leather Boots

Leather boots are sourced from animal hides such as cowhide, buffalo, sheep, deer, crocodile or ostrich. The animal skin is tanned using vegetable dyes for a nature look or chromium salts for a brighter color and to make it water- and rot-resistant. Leather comes in different types: aniline is the most original leather and is the smoothest, lightest, most fragile and has natural color and odor. Semi-aniline leather is somewhat less smooth; a coating on its surface alters its color, texture and odor. 

Pigmented leather is the most treated type, coated with a strong layer creating durability but removing the original color. Full grain leather, the most expensive and highest quality, uses only the top animal skin layer. It has creases, unique color, is the toughest, ages well and is the most valued. 

Top grain leather uses the next layer of the animal skin. Bonded leathers are created from the collection of shavings of all other leather grades, which are collected, grounded up and mixed with an adhesive liquid. 

Split-grain leather is made from the flesh-facing portion of a cattlehide, is thinner and softer than full-grain leather. While not waterproof or as supportive as full-grain leather, it is lightweight and more breathable. It is often used with nylon or mesh to reduce the boot’s overall weight. 

Nubuck leather is made from the hide’s outside portion, is similar to full-grain leather, and buffed to resemble suede. It is considered durable, supportive, water- and abrasion-resistant. Genuine leather is considered a poor grade of leather, typically made from leather scraps or leftovers. 

Wax and oil treatments make the hides softer and more flexible and over time, mold to the foot’s shape and become more comfortable. The thicker parts of the hide are used for soles and straps; the thinner and delicate parts for the uppers.  

Leather work boots are considered more durable and wear and tear resistant. As leather is constructed from natural material, it offers more breathability than synthetic boots and is less prone to sweat and moisture accumulation

In moderate water exposure, leather boots are more water-resistant, which can be amplified with waterproofing agents to maintain that status; otherwise, they can be damaged by excess water or sweat. Leather boots offer optimal cushioning and support. The boots’ surface may be uneven, have cracks and more marks on them than synthetic choices. They can be polished for a high shine and are easily repaired. The additional care adds to the lifecycle costs of the boots, but ultimately, the boots last longer.  

Synthetic Boots

Synthetic work boots are typically constructed from nylon, polyester, acrylic, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), cotton, polyurethane (PU) or artificial fabrics. They may be made from a plastic base, then treated with wax and dyes. Leatherette combines a fabric base and a plastic covering in a wide style and color range. 

PU and PVC leather are the two pleather types. Naugahyde is a waterproof vinyl-coated fabric similar to genuine leather as the boots are made from the skin of the Naugas, but only after the animals shed their skin. 

Because of the materials of which they are constructed, synthetic leather boots might be rigid, though may be considered lightweight. They often have a smooth and lustrous finish. In contrast to leather, they may not be as durable, flexible nor offer the same level of breathability, thus may cause feet to sweat more in warmer weather.

Their water-resistant capabilities depend on the materials used to make them but they can offer good protection in wet climates and are considered stain- and abrasion-resistant.  

Maintenance on synthetic boots is simple: they can be wiped clean with a damp cloth or mild soap and water. Synthetic boots usually cost less than leather work boots at the onset, but may not last as long, with their color and shine fading after extensive use.  

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