Your everyday bag, whether it’s a sporty nylon backpack, classic canvas tote, or a sleek leather carryall, takes a beating while in use. Constantly handling it, setting it down on the ground and other dirty surfaces, using it to carry food and drink that can spill and/or leave odors behind are examples of how regular use can leave a backpack or tote bag really dirty.
Cleaning an everyday bag is actually very easy — truly, the hardest thing about it is remembering to do so! With the help of experts, we’ve broken down the best way to clean backpacks made from synthetic materials like polyester or nylon, canvas and cotton tote bags and leather backpacks and totes.
We also consulted with experts to offer instructions on how to wash a bag by hand, which can be helpful to know in the event your lunch explodes in your bag, leaving you with a big mess that needs to be cleaned ASAP.
How to wash polyester and nylon backpacks
Most polyester and nylon bags can be machine-washed. To achieve the best results, follow these tips.
- Prior to laundering, unzip all compartments and shake the bag to dislodge dirt.
- Cut any loose threads and remove any detachable straps or parts or decorative items like pins or ribbons.
- Use an enzymatic stain treatment product to remove built-up dirt and grime.
- Place the backpack in a protective washing bag to prevent damage to straps and zippers.
- Wash the backpack using cold water and the delicate or gentle wash cycle.
- Reshape and air dry the backpack after washing.
When applying a stain treatment to a backpack, focus your efforts on the handles and bottom corners of the bag, where dirt and grime build up over time, making the bag look dingy. An enzymatic stain treatment like Zout is best for removing dirt stains.
If the backpack will be washed in a top-loading washer with a center agitator, or in a load with other items it can catch on, place it in an oversized mesh washing bag or inside a pillowcase to protect straps, zippers and other small parts from snagging in the wash.
Air dry the backpack flat on a mesh drying rack or on a clean towel. Balling up a hand towel or towels and stuffing them in the bag while it dries can help to reshape it and speed drying time by absorbing moisture from the backpack’s interior.
How to wash canvas and cotton totes
Just as with backpacks, most canvas and cotton tote bags can be machine-washed, following the same instructions. Always air dry cotton and canvas tote bags.
It’s worth noting that lightweight canvas and cotton tote bags will come out of the wash wrinkled; some of those wrinkles will ease out as the bag dries, but if the bag doesn’t look the way you’d like post-laundering, run an iron over it to restore its appearance. Using spray starch will give the bag an even crisper look and help keep it from getting wrinkled while in use.
How to clean leather backpacks and totes
Cleaning leather backpacks and tote bags cannot be done in the washing machine, but the process is straightforward and not terribly time-consuming.
The founder of Jason Markk, Jason Angsuvarn, explains how to use his brand’s signature leather cleaner, which works on leather shoes, bags, belts, jackets and other accessories. “Use a soft bristle brush with our RTU Foam cleaner to keep the leather clean and conditioned,” he says.
Apply the foam to the brush and gently but firmly brush the foaming cleaner onto the bag, paying special attention to the handles and bottom corners of the bag where dirt and grime build up.
After cleaning, use a soft light-colored cloth to wipe the cleaner off the leather and buff the bag.
Another option for caring for leather goods is to use a combination leather cleaner and conditioner. To use it, apply a small amount of the cleaner to a soft cloth and rub the cleaner and conditioner into the leather using a circular motion. Then, switch to a clean section of the cloth and buff it away.
How to wash bags and backpacks by hand
There are times when it can be helpful to know how to clean a bag by hand — such as when a major spill in an everyday bag happens (or when you just cannot make it to the laundry room!).
Jacqueline Sava, the founder of Soak Wash, a no-rinse detergent that makes washing clothes and accessories by hand easier because it takes the rinsing step out of the process, explains how to wash items by hand, including lightweight tote bags and backpacks.
First, she says, “Always, always read the label before you wash anything. Being a stickler for care instructions won’t just keep you from accidentally ruining an item you love (always a bummer), you’ll help it last longer so you can use it (and love it!) for years to come.” Then, follow these steps.
- Fill a basin with cool water and a capful — about 1 teaspoon — of Soak Wash. Ensure there’s enough water to submerge the item and move your hands through it.
- Let the item soak for 15 minutes (longer is okay).
- Remove the item from the water, and gently squeeze or press out the water; wringing or twisting can damage the fibers.
- Roll up the item in a dry towel, jelly-roll style, and squeeze to remove water.
- Lay flat to dry, on a towel or drying rack. Avoid putting wet clothes on wood, as the water can stain the wood and the wood can stain the wet item.