How to Clean A Backpack & Lunchbag!


Back in my school days, the end of August brought me bittersweet feelings.

You see, summer has always been my absolute favorite time of year and I never wanted it to end, but I did anticipate my return to school to catch up with friends, obviously go back to school shopping to get new school supplies and clothing, and of course, see what the coming school year had in store for me.

About a week ago we asked you guys on Facebook what your biggest back to school cleaning challenges were, and you told us. We’ve got so many ideas to help you, that we have created 3 videos and posts chock full of back to school cleaning tips. We’ve also taken some of our other videos and posts that we think would be helpful at this time of year and created a back to school cleaning playlist, so check it out!

Alright, whether you want to or not – it’s time to go back to school, so let’s get to these tips!

1. How to Clean a Backpack

The number one question we were asked is of course, how to clean a backpack. I get this, I used to cram everything into my school bag, with little regard for its clean and orderly carriage. Needless to say, there were always interesting things lurking in and on my school bag, which is why cleaning it would have been a great idea.  So for all of you, years after school has ended for me, I’ll explain the right way to do it.
Firstly, all bags are not created equal. Usually, they are made with similar materials, but you still need to check the fabric care label to determine the proper way to clean the bag.  Materials have different care requirements, so be sure to pay attention to the label to avoid damaging the bag.

Pre-treat any stains ahead of time with your stain remover of choice, just don’t use anything that can bleach.  I used my homemade version found here, but you can use any one that you like. For stains and goopy globs, soak the bag for an hour or two in OxiClean before washing.

Most care tags should say machine washable, in which case you machine wash in cold water on a gentle cycle, using gentle detergent. If there are jewels or decals on the bag, they may come out in the wash, so you might want to consider hand washing if that is the case.  Further, if there are a bunch of straps dangling off the bag, you can either remove them and wash by hand, or place the backpack in a laundry bag or pillow case to keep the straps at bay.

If you can’t machine wash the schoolbag, you can hand wash it by using warm water and dish liquid or laundry detergent and clean gently with a scrub brush, which will help clean the tough material and get stains out. This can be done in a basin sink or bathtub.  If the material is delicate, consider using a sponge instead.

Once washed, hang the backpack to dry.  Avoid placing in the dryer, only because dryer heat can ruin certain fabrics.  On that note, if you can hang the bag to dry in the sun, bonus points for extra deodorizing!

2.  How to Clean a Lunch Bag or Lunch Box

We also get asked quite often how to clean lunch bags and lunch boxes.  With the advent of ‘litterless lunches’, a lot more goes into and gets stored (read: garbage) in lunch bags and lunch boxes.  This means additional cleaning and diligence is required in maintaining said lunch carrying mechanism.

Usually, lunch bags have foamy inserts between the exterior and interior, and a gentle plastic lining. The exterior is a similar material to that of a backpack, so fairly durable and easy to clean.

We’ll apply the same cleaning method here as we did for the backpack; we’ll check the care tag and see if it can be machine washed.  Most good quality bags can.  Use cold water and gentle detergent, and wash on a gentle cycle.   To hand wash the bag, use the same mixture of dish liquid and warm water, and a soft sponge or cloth to wipe clean.  Set your lunch bag to hang dry, again we’re going to avoid the dryer here.

If you’ve got a stain in the plastic lining, you can create a paste of baking soda and water to remove it, simply apply with the sponge and wipe off, then rinse well.

To clean a lunch box, simply wash using a sponge and warm, soapy water. Leave upside down to air dry.

To deodorize a smelly lunch bag or box, simply leaving baking soda in it overnight, then dump out and wipe clean in the morning.

If you have crusty containers, here’s a great video we recently did on how to clean and deodorize them!

3. DIY Backpack Deodorizer

It is no secret, given how inattentive kids and adults alike can be to backpacks and sports bags, that these carryalls begin to stink to high heaven.  Fear not, because there are a few simple ways to deodorize bags which are cheap and cheerful.

For starters, flip the bag inside out and leave it to hang out in the sun for a few days.  The sun has a way with smells and can magically deodorize all kinds of items, including school bags.

Another idea is to place a fabric softener sheet in the bottom of the bag, which will not deodorize but will cover any unsavoury odours. I find this to be too strong, but if you like it you can try it.

For a more natural method of the fabric softener sheet idea, you can try this instead.  Fill a bowl half way with water, add 10 drops of your favourite essential oil (or a mix of 2 or 3), and then soak the cloth in the bowl for about 10 minutes. Wring out gently and hang to dry. The cloth will smell nice and you can place that at the bottom of the bag.

Finally, you can use newspaper to deodorize. It’s hard to believe, but newspaper can absorb odours. Start by removing all bag contents and crumple up several pieces of newspaper.  Then, gently spritz the newspaper with water and vanilla extract (don’t soak the stuff, just a light mist will do) and stuff the backpack with newspaper. Let the bag sit for the weekend. When the newspaper is removed, you’ll have no smells in the bag, save for vanilla! I guess this is dependent on the success of the newspaper industry though…

Alright my friends, that wraps up our first of three posts and videos on back to school cleaning tips. We’ve got way more tips coming up where we’re going to share a brilliant way to clean and organize your desk as well as how to handle pen and marker stains and an amazing locker tip that you won’t want to be without.

Do you have any back to school cleaning questions?  Let us know!


Melissa Maker is an entrepreneur, cleaning expert, founder of Toronto’s most popular boutique cleaning service, and star of the Clean My Space channel on YouTube (but she still hates to clean!). Every week, Melissa delivers new videos dishing expert advice on cleaning products, tools, DIY substitutes, and practical, timesaving solutions to everyday problems. Melissa has appeared on the Today Show, and has been featured in InStyle, Real Simple, and Better Homes and Gardens.


  1. I really enjoyed this post Melissa! I can’t believe that all the times I’ve cleaned backpacks and lunch boxes, I totally didn’t think about using baking soda to clean OR deodorize. I also didn’t think about using fabric softener sheets, although I’m with you, I think that would be a little too strong. And I did not know that newspapers absorbed odors!! How cool. That definitely will be something I test out in the near future.

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