How to Clean Reusable Tote Bags—Because You Put Your Groceries in There

Photo: Getty Images/Amax Photo
I've been using the same canvas grocery bag for years. And after unloading a recent grocery haul, I peered into the bottom of the bag to find—you guessed it—filth! To make sure that my freshly produce isn't arriving home grimy, I consulted two experts about just how to clean canvas tote bags (and how often you really need to).

Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of The Germ Files says that there's one condition in which you should wash your reusable grocery tote ASAP: if it gets wet. "Unless your bags have a wax coating, they will be able to absorb water and usually that also includes microbes," he says. "Most water sources are not worrisome, but if you happen to be packing raw meats or produce, then you need to be aware of the potential for bacterial growth and also virus spread." If chicken juice or beef blood seeps into your tote, don't let it sit and fester too long.

"Keeping your bags clean is as important as your clothing," says Katie Brown, owner of Rytina Fine Cleaners in Sacramento. "If you are toting home your meat, fish, and dairy products and you find a leak and a spill wash immediately."

As for how often? "It really depends on how badly the bags are soiled. If they are always dry and clean, it’s probably not all that necessary. But as soon as they get wet, you want to be sure you are giving them a wash so that you are not dealing with growth," says Tetro.

Luckily, cleaning your tote bag isn't all the different than cleaning a stained shirt. Tetro says that, for all bags that have a wax coating, a simple disinfectant spray will rid the fabric of its microbes. If your bag doesn't have a coating, you can still clean it so that uninvited microbes don't come along on your next trip to Trader Joe's.

Once you've loaded up the washing machine, Brown and Tetro both say that you need to use hot, hot water to rinse out the germs. "If you are using cloth bags, you'll want to wash them in hot water above 150 degrees Fahrenheit, as that will be sufficient to kill the majority of human pathogens," says Tetro. "Adding in detergents will help to remove any of the trapped microbes." Then, Brown says to toss them in the dryer for a few minutes, shake, them out, and hang dry.

If you don't want to waste a load's worth of water on the bags, you can also soak your totes in the sink with detergent. "Just be sure to soak and leave them for a minimum of 3 minutes," says Tetro. Hang them up to dry, go about your business, and remember—all the cleaning fuss is #worthit to avoid the use of plastic.

"Reusable grocery bags are wonderful and environmentally friendly," says Brown. Agreed.

While you're grocery shopping, make sure to always buy this produce in the organic aisle. And welcome to prep school! Here's how to make a week's worth of delicious, gluten-free dinners

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