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How to Clean Cotton Tote Bags: Tips & Tricks

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Cotton tote bags are practical and fashionable everyday items. These reliable accessories are fit for basically any occasion, from going to school or work to shopping from a neighborhood shop. The market generously offers a rainbow of products to choose from. What is more, you can further customize these through printing, embroidery, or other techniques.

Since cotton totes have become a must-have eco-friendly accessory used by more and more people for daily chores and special occasions, it is essential to learn how to clean them properly. This will not only help extend the longevity of the product but also protect your health. Enjoy the fresh smell of clean cotton tote bags all year round.

Cotton is a generally friendly fabric both with the wearer and the environment; however, you should be mindful of a few restrictions. There are several ways to wash a cotton tote bag, including spot cleaning, hand or machine washing. The crucial detail is to be careful with the temperature of the water and to use soft cleaning products. 

Spot Clean Cotton Tote Bags

spot clean cotton tote bags


If you are dealing with a stain on your tote, always try spot cleaning before washing the cotton tote bag. This action is targeting only the dirty area, so the fabric overall will not be exposed to the cleaning action.

Start by taking a soft cloth and dampen it with cold or lukewarm water. Make sure that you do not use a harsh rag, as this can damage the fabric. You could also separately dampen the dirty area on the tote bag. 

Place some detergent directly on the spot and rub gently. Use as much cleaning solution as you need, depending on how big the stain is. Start by using only a small amount and try insisting with the damp cloth on the stain. Add more cleaning solution if the stain persists. 

Stay on the area until the stain disappears, and then rinse with clean water until all the detergent is washed away. If the stain stretches across a large surface, or if it persists, consider washing the cotton tote bag.

Hand Wash Cotton Tote Bags

setup for hand washing


No matter how careful you are with your fabric tote bags, there comes a time when they need a good wash. Beyond the visible stains that ruin the clean esthetics of the bag, there is also the issue of bacteria. Over time, bacteria gathers and can pose a danger to your health. 

It is essential to give your tote bags a regular bath. There are plenty of spaces that you can set up for this scope. The majority of people use their bathtub or sink to wash clothes by hand, but a washing basin is ideal as well. 

Fill the basin with lukewarm water and add detergent. While using cold water is also recommended, this can be quite unpleasant on your skin. However, be careful not to use water that is too hot as this might damage cotton.

Make sure to use soft detergent to avoid irritating your skin and damaging the fabric. You can let the tote soak in soapy water for a few minutes before actually washing it. Gently scrub the bag, insisting on the dirtier areas (like the bottom and handles). 

Machine Wash Cotton Tote Bags

woman getting ready to use the washing machine


Many people wonder if it is safe to machine wash cotton tote bags. The answer is yes. If you have more cotton tote bags of similar colors, you can save them up until you have enough to fill a load. You can also throw in a tote when washing clothes of similar fabric and color. 

When machine washing cotton tote bags, the most important aspect is the water temperature. Use the lower temperature setting even if you are washing white textiles. Also, use a mild cleaning solution to lower the risk of damaging the fabric. If you are dealing with a different textile, like canvas, you can read more about how to machine wash canvas tote bags here.

Steam Cotton Totes

iron and laundry basket


Another common question is whether or not cotton tote bags are safe to steam. The answer is yes; if you do it carefully. Exposing cotton to high temperatures can be dangerous. Make sure to look for a tag inside the bag; this should contain valuable details about handling the fabric.

Some people use steaming as an alternative to washing. However, it is essential to have a well-performing steamer with different heat settings. Make sure to steam cotton gently so as not to risk any damage to the bag. Also, if you are dealing with a decorated tote, turn it inside out to shield the design from direct exposure to heat. 

Steam can help remove stubborn stains and is also very efficient against bacteria. Furthermore, if you add scented antibacterial liquid, it can help cover any unpleasant smells from the fabric, leaving it fresh and perfumed. 

If you have a plain cotton tote bag, this can get crinkled during repeated wears. The same can happen if you store away your totes for a longer period. Gently steaming these will help deal with any creases, leaving the fabric smooth to the touch and clean.  

Air-Dry Cotton Bags

air drying clothes


It is not recommended to place cotton tote bags in dryers. Instead, hang these out to air-dry. If you have a backyard, you can hang out your freshly washed clothes over there during the warm seasons. 

The warm summer breeze will gently dry your clothes and leave them feeling extra fresh and soft. However, consider a shady place to hang up your clean garments. Direct sunlight can damage the textile and drain the colors, especially over time.

Protect the Print on Tote Bags

printed cotton tote bag and clothes


If the tote bag has a print, there are a few extra steps to take that will help protect the design. Many people save these customized totes only for special occasions (like going out for cocktails or on a day trip) to preserve the print. 

The less an item is worn, the longer it should last. However, printed totes are meant to be worn proudly and not live out their life stored away in closets. Not to mention that there is also a high risk to be forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.

Wear decorated totes as frequently as needed and clean them whenever needed. Take into account all the previously mentioned tips on cleaning cotton and a few extra ones to protect the print. If you are only dealing with a stain, consider spot cleaning before washing the bag. This way, you will avoid exposing the printed area to an additional risk of damage (that can be caused by harsh detergents, hot water, or rubbing against other fabrics).

One of the most important things to keep in mind is to turn the tote inside out for the duration of the cleaning process. This will keep the print area sheltered from direct exposure to heat, cleaning chemicals, and other fabrics. 

The biggest danger for a print during a wash is to rub against other fabrics, which will slowly deteriorate the design. For more tips and tricks on making a print last, take a look at our previous article Tote Bag Printing: 15 Ways to Make It Last.

Safely Storing Clean Cotton Tote Bags

woman lying in the closet


Finally, let's discuss how to safely store clean cotton tote bags and keep them clean. If you are not currently using a set of reusable shopping bags, place these safely aside. How you store them will determine whether or not they will stay clean. 

You can put them away in any closet as long as there is a dry environment with good air circulation. A damp dark environment will offer a thriving environment for bacteria. Try to prevent exposure to direct sunlight as this might drain the color from the fabric and print. 

Also, stay away from plastic bags. While it might be tempting to place a set of totes in a plastic bag to keep them all together, this will create a moist and overly heated environment. The plastic prevents air circulation, so  if you leave your clothes sealed for long enough, it is very likely that they will get moldy. Instead, use a canvas laundry bag.

If you have printed cotton tote bags, consider the design. Carefully fold the fabric around the print. If you fail to do so, the creases might lead to cracks in the design over time. For additional protection, turn the bag inside out; just make sure that you can still tell where the print lies.

Final Thoughts

Cotton tote bags are meant to be worn. These are reliable accessories that help you complete daily chores; and a great fashion addition that can spice up an outfit. This ecological fabric is easy to work with and easy to clean, as long as you respect its characteristics. One of the most important things to remember is to stay away from hot water, and harsh cleaning solutions as these can damage the textile. 

There are many versions of cotton (like pure organic or recycled) including cotton blend materials on the market. Each of these has its unique characteristics and should be treated with consideration. Whenever you purchase a new tote bag (or any clothing item) make sure to check for the informative tag hidden inside. This mentions valuable information about how to safely wash the item.