How to Clean a Reusable Grocery Bag

published May 25, 2021
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Groceries on the kitchen table
Credit: Joe Lingeman

If you’re anything like me, you have about half a million reusable tote bags hanging out in your kitchen pantry. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. The point is, they’re so easy to use — I use mine to haul groceries, farmer’s market spoils, and kid gear — all without wasting paper or adding more plastic to the environment. 

One problem with my tote bags’ indefinite shelf life? I honestly have no idea how to effectively wash them, other than pulling out a baby wipe. Turns out, I’m not alone! A recent study from the University of Arizona found only 3 percent of reusable bag users washed theirs on a regular basis. While it’s certainly annoying when your groceries stink up a bag, there are actual risks to poor bag hygiene — for example, you can spread bacteria, mold, and other types of germs that could make you sick.

Knowing my family’s health is at risk when I neglect to clean our bags, I had to do my due diligence to find out how to keep these grocery vessels safe and functional, longer — and the American Cleaning Institute, one of my go-to sources for home hygiene, had all the answers I was looking for. 

How to Clean a Reusable Bag, Step by Step

That you clean your reusable bags is a no-brainer; the ACI recommends you wash yours after each use. How you clean your bags, though, ultimately depends on what they’re made of. Before grabbing your supplies, identify the bag’s fabric, then follow the steps below. It’s a lot easier than you think!

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Woven or nonwoven polypropylene bags:

  1. Machine wash on a gentle cycle with soap (not detergent!) and cold water. Or, you can hand wash in your kitchen or bathroom sink with soap and water. 
  2. Skip the dryer — instead, hang or line dry.
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Nylon or polyester:

  1. Hand wash in warm water with soap (not detergent!).
  2. Turn the bag inside out and line dry.

Bamboo or hemp bags:

  1. Launder on a gentle cycle with mild detergent or soap. (Or hand wash.)
  2. Machine or hang dry. 
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Cotton bags:

  1. Launder with hot water and your normal, go-to detergent. (Or hand wash.)
  2. Machine or hang dry. 
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Insulated bags:

  1. Hand wash with soap and warm water (don’t forget the inner and outer seams). 
  2. Wipe with disinfecting wipes.
  3. Hang dry.

Now that you’ve thoroughly de-germed your bag, pat yourself on the back! Here’s one pointer to follow going forward: To avoid cross-contamination and foodborne illness, always use separate bags for raw meat, seafood, produce, and non-food items — and wash those bags as soon as possible after using them.