It’s back to school time, which means that sooner than should be allowed, all those brand new lunch boxes, soft lunch bags and backpacks will begin to show signs of being put to good use. Fortunately, cleaning these items is a simple process.

Here’s what you need to know about keeping lunch and book bags clean throughout the school year. (Bonus: The products and techniques used are safe and simple enough that this is a chore you might consider outsourcing to your child…)

Plastic Lunchboxes

Cleaning a plastic lunchbox is a breeze, so if you’re feeling irritated that some stranger on the internet is adding a chore to your already huge list of responsibilities, take comfort in the fact that this really will take you less than a minute.

You can wash a plastic lunchbox just like you would a cereal bowl: With dish soap and water. Easy! Pay particular attention to the handle, where tiny hands leave behind lots and lots of germs.

If a plastic lunch box has taken on a smell that persists even after washing, combine two tablespoons of baking soda with just enough water to make a thick paste and give the lunchbox a second scrubbing with the paste before rinsing clean and letting air dry.

In the event that something has spilled and gotten sticky or hardened inside the lunchbox, use a Dobie Pad for extra scrubbing power. The Dobie Pad is safe to use on plastic—it won’t cause scratching in the same way that other scrubber sponges may.

Soft Fabric Lunch Bags

Many fabric lunch bags, including the cooler-type bags, are machine washable—check the care instructions to see if that’s an option. That may also be a quality you want to look for when making a choice to purchase one brand over another!

If the soft lunch bag is machine washable, use a small amount of detergent, cold water and, if it’s an option on your machine, the delicate cycle. If you have a top-loading machine with a center agitator, wash the bag alongside towels or sweatshirts, which will protect the bag from becoming shredded by the agitator’s fins.

If the lunch sack isn’t machine washable, you can hand wash it in exactly the same way you’d wash a plastic lunchbox, using dish soap and hot water. After washing, dry the exterior of the bag with a dish towel and then allow it to air dry for about an hour to ensure that the interior doesn’t retain moisture.

For every day or spot cleaning, anti-bacterial wipes are a great way to clean both the interior and exterior of lunch bags. Another option is to combine equal parts white vinegar and water or hydrogen peroxide and water in a small spray bottle to use as a disinfectant with paper towels.


Nylon or canvas backpacks or book bags can be cleaned just like fabric lunch bags. Check the care tags to see if they’re machine washable and, if the answer is yes, follow the same instructions for washing lunch bags. In the case of canvas, especially, be sure to use cold water only as hot water can cause canvas to shrink. Canvas will be very stiff when it comes out of the machine but will loosen up as it air dries.

In the case of leather backpacks, saddle soap is a great way to clean leather of all kinds. You can find that wherever you buy shoe polish. To use it, apply a pea-sized amount to a soft, dry cloth and work it into the leather in circular motion. Then buff it away using another soft, dry cloth.

Nylon backpacks that have some leather trim are fine to wash by hand or in the machine, just dry the leather bits well with a soft cloth after washing. The color may darken slightly; if that bothers you, go ahead and use a very small amount of neutral shoe polish or leather conditioner to brighten it back up.