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Why and How Should You Clean Reusable Grocery Bags?

Priscilla Greene |


How often do you clean reusable grocery bags? And are you washing them properly? Such questions should concern us more, especially in light of new scientific data. Not so long ago, the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California joined forces and researched reusable grocery bags. This food-safety report says that our eco-friendly bags can also harbor a handful of harmful bacteria that can further endanger our health. Why should we and how should we clean reusable grocery bags to prevent any harm? Let’s find out today!

Food Cross-Contamination

The researchers learned during their survey that 97% of the respondents never washed their reusable grocery shopping bags. What was worse was that upon testing these bags, experts found E.coli contamination (in over 50% of the total tested bags).

When we pile foods upon foods in our reusable grocery bags, we entertain cross-contamination of foods. Moreover, we also entertain bacteria entering our food chain. If you use a canvas shopping tote bag for groceries, but you also take it to the gym, you risk even more health hazards to affect your family.

It is your answer in a nutshell: clean, reusable grocery bags as often and as carefully as you can. Some specialists say you should use more than one bag for food shopping and wash your bags at the end of the week. Yes, you should also wash poly shopping bags, not only cotton or canvas ones.

How Do You Clean Reusable Grocery Bags to be Safe?

The most evident answer is to look at the manufacturer’s labels and wash accordingly. However, if you do not have tags to rely on, here are some general tips:

  • Cotton and canvas shopping grocery bags: wash them as you would wash other cotton shopping totes or canvas items, but make sure you use hot water and detergent – heat is necessary for the elimination of E.coli risks. If you want to remove food stains from your canvas food shopping bags, dirt, grime, fruit/vegetable stains, soda, etc. use white wine vinegar for a pre-wash session. Moreover, use oxygen-based stain removers and cleaning agents containing enzymes to have crispy white, clean, and correctly disinfected grocery bags. Dry them in fresh air or dryer.
  • Nonwoven polypropylene and recycled PET: wash them by hand in hot water with enzyme cleaning agents and detergent. You can also give them a spin in a gentle cleaning cycle, but use warm water as well. Never dry them in the dryer, as the heat harms the bags.
  • Insulated shopping bags: if you carry meats in them, wipe them with disinfectant wipes after every use. As a general rule, if you want to disinfect your grocery shopping bags, use a pine oil, white wine vinegar, or phenolic disinfectant.
  • Polyester bags: use warm water and liquid detergent to wash them manually. Use the gentlest cycle you have on the machine for a thorough wash and air dry them.

If you feel your grocery bags have an unpleasant odor to them, use the containers only when they are totally dry from the wash. Never store reusable bags – the dirty ones in particular – in your trunk, in the back of your car, or in-house drawers or cabinets. Never deposit them while moist either. Heat and humidity are the perfect environments for bacteria to thrive. Store your bags at home in a cool, dry place where air circulates freely.

If you use grocery shopping bags with inserts, clean them with a disinfectant spray. Make sure you also pay attention to seams, nooks, and fabric creases, as you do not want spilled juices, meat blood, or vegetable dirt to turn into toxic waste for bacteria to become monsters.

Other Tips and Tricks on How to Clean Reusable Grocery Bags

  • One piece of advice coming from experts is to use as many natural fibers as you can: hemp bags and jute grocery shopping bags have inherent properties that make them resilient to mold, mildew, and bacteria.
  • Never use chlorine bleach when you wash cotton or canvas shopping bags – it ruins the fibers.
  • If you prefer mesh grocery shopping bags, make sure you hand wash them in hot water and liquid detergent. Allow them to air dry.
  • If you shop for groceries weekly, wash the bags on a weekly basis, as we mentioned above; if you use them daily, launder them at least after 2-3 uses, if not after each use.

How to Use Safely Grocery Shopping Bags?

Besides learning how to clean grocery shopping bags, another critical aspect related to their safety and your health is their everyday usage. Here are some ideas you can implement:

  • Use separately colored canvas bags for the major food groups and home items you buy frequently: meat, produce, dairy and milk, fruit and vegetables, cleaning products, etc. If you do not want separate colors, label the tote bags accordingly;
  • If you're going to be safe, use (and reuse) some plastic shopping bags as a double for canvas or cotton bags; meats, poultry, even eggs can leak. Even if the products inside the bag do not leak, you can still carry and transfer bacteria through the packaging and wraps;
  • Do not mix the bags; use the ones you labeled for the purposes you marked them for and use a proper duffel bag for sports or the gym, a backpack for work or school, and a polypropylene shopping bag for detergents, cleaning stuff, and other chemicals;
  • Never put the grocery shopping bags in the baby carrier area of the grocery cart, where the bacteria can multiply endlessly;
  • Do not use bags you cannot wash or disinfect; the best and easiest to use are canvas shopping bags;
  • As safety measures work, always add a cup or two of white vinegar to your washing machine load to make sure there are no bacteria, microbes, or stains to worry

Final Thoughts

Now that we learned why and how to clean reusable grocery bags, it is time for you to tell us what are your favorite types of shopping bags and which ones you use the most. Do you wash them in the machine or prefer hand washing? Are you using an extensive collection of bags – in different colors – for each type of groceries or do you only follow the “one bag to rule them all” principle?