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How to Wash Tote Bags: Tips for Spot Cleaning & Machine Washing

Kyrsten Ledger

Updated: May 16th, 2022

You can think of tote bags as the ultimate travelers. They go everywhere - to the beach, to the library, on road trips, and most commonly, to the grocery store. Because these bags are always on the go, it's no wonder why they get so dirty.

Luckily, it's really easy to clean tote bags. You just need cold water and a mild detergent to make it happen. Use this guide to get your tote bags washed, sanitized, and ready for the next big adventure!

Can You Wash a Tote Bag?

You can definitely wash a tote bag, and you should. Germs, bacteria, and viruses could be hiding inside of these reusable grocery bags.

Take a look at some interesting stats and figures when it comes to unwashed tote bags!

Wash a tote bag graphic Wash a tote bag graphic desktop

Statistics About Unwashed Tote Bags

  • Less than 1 in 6 Americans wash their grocery tote bags.
  • There are about 76 million cases of food poisoning in the United States every year. You increase the risk if you're putting groceries in an unwashed tote bag.
  • E. Coli, Salmonella, and Listeria are all harmful pathogens that can be found in dirty tote bags.
  • Bacteria is 10 times more likely to grow when you store tote bags in your car.
  • In a study, 50% of unwashed tote bags contained a bacterium called coliform, which is also found in fecal matter.

Washing tote bags is easy and definitely worth the time and effort. You'll rest easier knowing that there aren't any germs lurking inside.

Can You Put a Tote Bag in the Washing Machine?

Washing machine

Since most non-plastic totes can be thrown into your washer, they're super easy to wash. Make sure you use a mild detergent to clean your totes.

However, if your tote has any embellishments, including beads, buttons, leather, metal, sequins, or a water-colored print, you should hand wash only.

Washing machine

*Disclaimer: Quality Logo Products® is not responsible for any damage caused by washing tote bags. It's always best to follow the care tag or talk directly to the manufacturer before cleaning.

How to Clean a Tote Bag

It's time to clean your tote bags! Follow these easy steps to wash them in the washing machine.

  1. Treat stains using a mixture of liquid detergent and cold water. You can also use a mix of vinegar and baking soda for stubborn stains.
  2. Check to make sure your tote bag is colorfast before putting it in the washing machine.
  3. Wash the tote bag using cold water, a gentle cycle, and a mild detergent. Turn it inside out if it has a custom design or ink print on front.
  4. Hang the bag by each strap to air dry.
Step One: Pretreat Stains
Stained cloth

Treat stains on a tote bag using a mix of one teaspoon of liquid dishwashing detergent with two cups of cool water.

Is the stain stubborn? Try mixing a couple of tablespoons of vinegar with an equal amount of baking soda. Let the paste sit on the area for 30 minutes and blot with a clean towel.

Step Two: Do a Colorfast Test
Ink splotch

Colorfast means the colors in the material will not fade or be washed out. Since most fabric tote bags get their colors from dye, they run the risk of not being colorfast.

Here's how to test to see if your tote bags are colorfast:


  • Pick a spot on your bag that isn't super noticeable.
  • Apply laundry detergent to the area.
  • Dab the spot with an old white towel. It's important to use white so you can easily tell whether or not there was any color transfer.
  • If there is any color on the white cloth, you know your tote isn't colorfast. Hand wash instead.
Step Three: Toss in the Washer
Washing machine

Set the machine to cold water to prevent any shrinking. You should also use a mild detergent and no fabric softener or bleach. Turn the bag inside out if it has a graphic or custom design on front, and press start on a gentle cycle.

Step Four: Hang Your Bags to Dry
Cleaning wipe

Once the cycle is over, do not throw your totes into the dryer or leave them in the washing machine. Hang them up to air dry by each strap so they don't wrinkle.

Step Five: Use Antibacterial Wipes
Washing machine

Once the bag is dry, wipe the inside with antibacterial wipes. This helps get rid of any germs that are still hiding inside.

*Disclaimer: Quality Logo Products® is not responsible for any damage caused by washing tote bags. It's always best to follow the care tag or talk directly to the manufacturer before cleaning.

Did you know?

You can protect your fabric tote bags by adding a tablespoon of salt to your washer. The chloride helps lock in color.

Washing machine

Can Tote Bags Go in the Dryer?

Washing machine

Cotton and canvas tote bags may shrink in the dryer, even on a low heat setting. It's much better to air dry your bags after washing so you don't destroy the fabric.

Which Tote Bag Materials Are Safe for the Machine?

Always check the care tag first, but as long as they're free from embellishments, the following tote bag materials are usually safe for the washing machine:

  • Canvas
  • Cotton
  • Microfiber
  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Polypropylene
material canvas

Canvas

material cotton

Cotton

material microfiber

Microfiber

material nylon

Nylon

material poly

Polyester

material polypropylene

Polypropylene

Which Tote Bag Materials Are Not Safe for the Machine?

Do not put tote bags made from these materials into the washing machine. You should wash them by hand instead using cold water and a mild detergent.

  • Jute
  • Leather
  • Neoprene
  • Paper
  • Plastic
  • Polyurethane
  • PVC
  • Vinyl
material jute

Jute

material leather

Leather

material neoprene

Neoprene

material paper

Paper

material plastic

Plastic

material polyurethane

Polyurethane

material pvc

PVC

material vinyl

Vinyl

Should You Wash New Tote Bags?

Wash brand new tote bags in the sink to avoid color bleeding. Use cold water and ½ cup of mild detergent. Air dry at the end.

Do you want to wash a brand new tote bag? Skip the machine for the first cleaning and follow the tips in the infographic below!

Do don't chart Do don't chart desktop

It's best to use the sink to wash a new tote bag in case the dye runs. You can wash the bags in the machine in the future as long as they're made form a safe material and are free from embellishments.

Bag and plant

Will Tote Bags Shrink When Washed?

Bag and plant

Tote bags won't shrink in the washer if you use cold water. They will shrink in the dryer due to the heat, which is why you should always air dry.

Keep in mind, it's a bad idea to soak your tote bags. If they're left wet for too long, mold or bacteria may end up growing. Always wash your bags in a small load and hang up to dry immediately afterward.

Can Insulated Bags Be Washed?

Do not put insulated bags in the washer. The machine could destroy the PEVA lining that's found inside. Follow the same steps you'd follow to clean a cooler. This includes:

icon rinse

Rinse out the inside using a hose.

icon soap

Mix 3 drops of dish soap, 1 cup of baking soda, and warm water in a bucket.

icon sponge

Dip a sponge in the bucket and use the solution to wipe down the inside of the insulated bag.

icon rinsehose

Spray it down again with a hose to remove the soapy mixture.

icon bag

Let the insulated bag dry with the top open to reduce the risk of mold and mildew.

Person shopping

How Often Should You Wash a Tote Bag?

Person shopping

Do you use your tote bag to carry groceries? Aim to wash it at least once a week. You should also wash them if you use them at the beach, on a hike, or in any other outdoor environment.

How to Get the Smell Out of a Tote Bag

Let's say you used your tote bag to carry a garlic clove and a few onions home from the grocery store. Now it smells kind of weird!

Try any of the following to get rid of a stinky odor inside your tote bag:

tote-bag icon 1

Baking Soda

Sprinkle a cup of baking soda into your tote bag and let it sit for 30 minutes. Hold it over a garbage can to remove the grains afterward. You can then use a handheld vacuum to get rid of any remaining particles.

tote-bag icon 2

Essential Oil & Warm Water

Fill up a spray bottle with warm water and sprinkle in 15 to 20 drops of your favorite essential oil. Spritz it into your tote bag. This is a quick solution that you can do any time your bag is smelly!

tote-bag icon 3

Lemon or Lime Rinds

You don't have to throw away leftover lemon or lime rinds. Use the peels to deodorize your tote bag! You can leave a few at the bottom of your bag overnight and then remove in the morning.

tote-bag icon 4

Newspaper & Vanilla Extract

Do you still read a newspaper with your morning coffee? Get your news and then ball up the paper and soak it in vanilla extract. You can leave the wad in the bottom of your tote bag to get rid of any musty odors.

tote-bag icon 5

Dry Coffee Grounds

Speaking of morning coffee, you can use dry grounds to make a tote bag less stinky. Fill up a bowl with the ground and set it in the bottom of the tote bag. You should definitely try this deodorizing solution in insulated bags.

tote-bag icon 6

Tea Bags

Unused tea bags are a great way to deodorize shoes, luggage, and tote bags. Place it at the bottom of the bag while you have it in storage. You can then remove when you're ready to use your bag.

tote-bag icon 7

White Vinegar

For a mild odor, you can spray the inside of the bag with white vinegar. Dilute it first in warm water so the smell isn't too vinegary.

tote-bag icon 8

Dryer Sheets

Dryer sheets are the easiest way to get rid of a bad smell in your tote bag. Just leave a few at the bottom of the bag. This is an especially great idea if you use your tote to carry smelly gym clothes.

Bag hanging

How to Store Tote Bags

Bag hangings

Remember to always store tote bags in a cool, dry space. This will prevent bacteria, mold, or mildew from growing on the bags while they aren't in use. You should also make sure they're flat so they don't wrinkle in storage.

The best storage option for tote bags is to hang them on a hook. This prevents any musty smells from accumulating over time. You can help the bags keep their shape by stuffing them with tissue paper.

The Bottom Line

You wouldn't go a week without washing your dirty socks, shirts, and underwear. Tote bags should go in your laundry bin as well. Whether you wash them in the machine or spot clean by hand, it's definitely worth your time and effort!

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

4 random promtional products 4 random promotional products tablet
Kyrsten Ledger

Kyrsten Ledger

Kyrsten's vast knowledge of promotional giveaways and marketing has led to several hit articles. She has also published work for PPB Magazine, a publication from the Promotional Products Association International.

References

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Cleaning Reusable Bags. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cleaninginstitute.org/cleaning-tips/clothes/fabric-care/cleaning-reusable-bags

Dennis, T. (2010, June 28). What's in Your Shopping Bag? Bacteria. Retrieved from https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/sns-green-bacteria-in-shopping-bags-story.html

Greene, P. (2018, March 13). How to Clean a Canvas Bag. Retrieved from https://totebagfactory.com/blogs/news/how-to-clean-canvas-bag

How to Conduct a Colorfast Test and Avoid Color Bleeds. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.shoutitout.com/en-us/tips-and-tricks/how-to-conduct-colorfast-test-and-avoid-color-bleeds

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Less Than 1 in 6 Americans Frequently Washes Grocery Totes. (2012, April 03). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120403135957.htm

Lewis, M. (2009, July 07). How to Test for Colorfastness. Retrieved from https://www.hunker.com/13422637/how-to-test-for-colorfastness

Marlowe Leverette, M. (2018, March 4). Is This Shirt Colorfast and Does It Matter? Retrieved from https://www.thespruce.com/is-this-shirt-colorfast-2145883

Mitchell, C. L. (2018, July 8). How to Prevent Fabric Color Transfer, Bleeding, and Fading. Retrieved from https://dengarden.com/cleaning/How-to-Prevent-Fabric-Color-Transfer-Bleeding-and-Fading

Patel, A. (2012, April 26). Bacteria In Reusable Bags: 7 Tips to Keep Your Totes Clean. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/26/bacteria-in-reusable-bags_n_1455723.html

Peterson, C. (2018, March 21). The Easiest Ways to Clean Your Reusable Bags. Retrieved from https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/cleaning/tips/a14300/cleaning-reusable-grocery-bags/

Thompson, N. (2017, August 14). Four Conditions for Bacterial Growth. Retrieved from https://healthfully.com/four-conditions-for-bacterial-growth-4774869.html

Kerr, J. (2016, May 13). Please Clean That Ratty Looking Tote Bag. Retrieved from, https://www.racked.com/2016/5/13/11602092/cleaning-tote-bag>

WikiHow. (2021, November 22). How to Remove Odor From Bags. Retrieved from, https://www.wikihow.com/Remove-Odor-from-Bags