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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Stephanie De Luca

Here’s How to Clean All the Gross Stuff You Left at the Office for a Year+

published Aug 9, 2021
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If you made the shift to working from home last spring, you might soon be returning to your desk for the first time in more than a year — either to work from the office again, or to grab your stuff before you commit full-time to the WFH life. Either way, that first-time-back visit is going to come with it’s own unique challenge: figuring out what to do with all the stuff you left at the office. 

While certain belongings may simply require a good dust-and-disinfect, other belongings — like, uh, those moldy food containers still sitting in the fridge — might need a little more love.

Alex Varela, general manager of Dallas Maids, has a simple-but-helpful suggestion for addressing gross office messes: Use common sense. If you can effectively disinfect, launder, or wash something (even in the dishwasher!), don’t throw it away just because you’re grossed out. If the item has a clear expiration date or appears risky or no longer useful (say, dead or rotting plants or a moth-eaten blanket), then you might need to toss it. 

Need a little more guidance? We’ve got you. Here are our best expert-backed suggestions for how to deal with the most common belongings you may have left at the office. 

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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Stephanie De Luca

Coffee Mugs

Whether your desk or travel mug is still half-full of year-plus old coffee or you left it at the office empty, it’s still worth disinfecting because, well, you drink from it. 

If your mug has dried milk or other stuck-on gunk, Roman Peysakhovich, CEO of the national office cleaning company OneDesk, suggests combining two tablespoons of baking soda and a tablespoon of water into a bowl. Apply the paste, which will act as an abrasive on your mug, to a sponge and thoroughly clean any residue. 

Then, it’s disinfecting time. Justin Carpenter, owner of the home and office cleaning company Modern Maids, suggests soaking empty mugs in water and bleach in your kitchen sink for 15-20 minutes. Then, run it through a cycle in the dishwasher to remove any bleach before using it.

Reusable Water Bottles 

Same principle here: Empty the water bottle, then follow Carpenter’s bleach-and-wash instructions to kill any lingering germs. 

If you’d rather not use bleach or your bottle still has a lingering musty smell, grab some white vinegar, combine it with water, and let it sit overnight. Then, put the water bottle in the dishwasher for a normal cycle or hand-wash. It shouldn’t smell like vinegar after you wash it!

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Stephanie De Luca

Food Storage Containers 

Storage containers, especially if they held old, moldy food, are a breeding ground for bacteria and other germs. “Gross spoiled food can contaminate the air flow in the entire fridge, so even if you didn’t leave something for very long, others’ food could have contaminated it over the course of the pandemic,” says Annie Ray of the commercial cleaning service Buildingstars.

Gross, right? Luckily, that doesn’t mean you have to replace your food containers. Here’s how to address it:

First, put the food container in the freezer for 4-8 hours, which Ray says should decrease the stench. Then, empty out the container in the trash (it may be helpful to run warm water over the container to loosen the frozen food first). If you’re weirded out, put gloves and a mask on, and use a utensil to scrape the food out in your outside garbage. Then, give it a good rinse in the sink.

If your container has been closed with a lid but doesn’t appear to have mold growth, Varela suggests using half a teaspoon of bleach along with one teaspoon baking soda. With gloves on, apply the paste to the affected container and leave the mixture on overnight with the lid on. “You don’t normally mix anything with bleach, but baking soda is one of the few exceptions,” Vareals says. “This will work great for a low-to-mid degree of buildup.”

If your item has mold, you’ll need a different, more aggressive approach. Here’s Varela’s suggestion: Start by washing away as much content as possible using dish soap or detergent without ammonia. Next, create a solution using one cup bleach, one gallon water. Soak your item inside this mix for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, remove that using gloves and wash the item again using that same dish soap or detergent. Rinse with plenty of water and let dry. “If possible, set the piece close to sunlight so any trace of mold can disappear,” Varela says.

Condiments and Spices 

Shared kitchen condiments (or the personal stockpile you keep in your desk) probably have an expiration date, so make sure to check those before doing the extra work of cleaning them off. Packaged condiments from fast food meals tend to stay good for one to two years, according to Vera Peterson, president of Molly Maid, a Neighborly company.

Pay attention to your spices, too. “Even though they might still be good to go and won’t give you food poisoning, spices tend to lose their aroma with time,” says Irina Nikiforova, owner of the LA-based cleaning company RocketMaids. Same goes, she says, for spices left out in natural light. 

“If they’re still OK to use, just wipe down the bottle and packaging with a damp towel to remove dust and arrange them in the pantry,” she says. And don’t forget to thoroughly wash any utensils you may have left around!

Pantry Snacks

First things first: Check the expiration date on any pantry snacks. If they’re expired, Nikiforova says you should throw them away. The same is true for items left open or unsealed, as they may have accumulated unwanted odors. “If the packaging is still sealed but accumulated dust, simply just wipe it with a damp kitchen towel,” she says.

Clothes and Blankets

Clothes will probably be okay if left alone for long periods of time, unless there is significant moisture or contamination in the environment. “Significant moisture can cause mold, mildew, and bacteria to flock to the soft, porous surfaces of clothing,” says Ray. And moth- or rodent-eaten clothing with holes can be tossed out for sanitary reasons. 

If you want to get rid of any residual germs or musty smells on old clothes or blankets, you may need to wash them a few times. Rodriguez suggests washing them at the hottest level possible, and adding a cup of distilled white vinegar evenly across all the items in the washer. “If the clothing still has a strange scent, then you’re going to need to run a second cycle with only baking soda on the hottest setting,” she says. “Once done, just toss your items in the dryer with a dryer sheet or air dry outside during the day.”

Hand Sanitizer 

Theoretically, you could clean and disinfect the outside of your bottle of hand sanitizer, but chances are, it’s not as potent as it was when you left it. Hand sanitizers have alcohol in them, which tends to evaporate with time. “So unless it’s sealed, the expiration date should be checked,” says Nikiforova. “Even though it still might be effective, I would personally just throw it away after the expiration date.” Most disinfectants are good for about one year after opening, and sanitizers up to three — but they start to degrade right after opening, so better safe than sorry. 

Trash Cans

Even if your company emptied out your trash can while you were out, they probably didn’t actually clean it. Varela suggests rinsing your empty trash bin out with plenty of warm water, then scrubbing it out with a sturdy brush. “Then, I mix half a cup of vinegar, one cup of hydrogen peroxide, one teaspoon of soap detergent, two cups of water, and a few drops of essential oil,” he says. “I spray this mix on the trash can and let it sit for 10 minutes, then rinse again and dry in the sun.” 

Credit: Iuliia Pilipeichenko/Shutterstock


Kevin Gieck, manager of the biohazard-cleanup company BioRecovery, says many folks avoid cleaning electronics (like keyboards and mouses) because they think it’s a bad idea to use moisture on electronics. It may seem counterintuitive, but you do need to give those tech items a good clean to stave off bacteria, dust, and dead skin cells. 

After shaking out and dusting your keyboard, you’ll need to disinfect it. To effectively (and safely!) do that, try 70-percent isopropyl alcohol, which won’t just kill the germs but will also prevent damage because it evaporates so quickly. Dip a microfiber cloth in the alcohol so it’s damp but not dripping, then gently wipe the surface. Then, grab a clean lint-free cloth to polish and dry.

Fitness Gear 

If you had on-campus fitness opportunities pre-pandemic, it’s likely you might find an old yoga mat or an extra pair of tennis shoes under your desk. If that’s the case, they probably won’t need much cleaning, but may look and smell a little dingy. “These items are typically worth keeping and may just need to be wiped down with a damp paper towel,” says Peterson.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Stephanie De Luca

Makeup and Personal Grooming Items

These personal care items may need a wipe-down with disinfecting wipes, but keep an eye out for expired products, which can irritate your skin. If makeup is too old — typically, Peterson says items last about a year — it’s time to throw it away. Mascara typically expires faster than other makeup products. If a toothbrush is in your kit, it’s best to throw it out and start fresh with a new one.

If your brushes and makeup sponges need cleaning, Peterson says you can use baby shampoo and warm water. And if your makeup or lotions are still OK to use, grab a disinfecting wipe for the outside and give them a quick rinse under the faucet.


Much like food items and makeup products, over-the-counter pain relievers, cold and allergy medicines, and indigestion relief products have expiration dates. “Look for expiration dates on each bottle and package and throw them out accordingly,” suggests Peterson.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Stephanie De Luca

Dead Plants and Vases

There’s almost nothing sadder than a dead plant or bouquet of flowers. If you come across greenery that’s clearly past its prime — especially if it’s rotting — it’s definitely time to say goodbye. (And, obvi, replace them with new ones.) “There’s nothing really to do except discard the dead plants and clean the vase as you would wash dishes,” says Rodriguez. “A little bit of dish soap and water is all you need. 

One more rule of thumb: When you’re returning to the office, consider adding disinfectant to your desk supplies and consistently using it on high-touch areas. “Even though you may be vaccinated, the new variant is even more infectious than the original,” says Rodriguez. “Don’t let your guard down!”