Back-to-School Cleaning Hacks

If I had it my way, the summer would never end, but it’s that time of year when school is back in session. So, to help you on your journey through a hectic season, here are some of my favorite back-to-school cleaning hacks every parent should know.

How to Clean a Backpack

All schoolbags are not created equal. Usually, they’re made with similar materials but you still need to check the fabric care label to determine the proper way to clean the bag. The first thing you’ll do is pretreat stains. Make sure you’re not using any bleach because you don’t want to ruin your beautiful backpack.  Most bookbags are machine washable in cold water on a gentle cycle. 

If there are any jewels, decals, or other funky things on the bag they may actually come off in the wash. In that case, consider hand-washing.  If there are a lot of straps, you can either remove them and wash those by hand, or you can put the whole bag inside a laundry bag or pillowcase. 

If you can’t machine-wash your schoolbag, use warm water and dish liquid or a gentle laundry detergent, along with a good heavy-duty scrub brush. That will help get this very tough material clean. It can also help get stains out. I’d suggest hand-washing in a basin sink or a bathtub because the kitchen sink probably won’t be big enough for the schoolbag.

For stains, and other goopy globs that develop on school bags over time, you can soak the bag in OxiClean for 1-2 hours prior to washing.  

Once you’ve washed the bag you can hang it to dry. I wouldn’t recommend putting a schoolbag in the dryer. If you hang it in the sun, bonus deodorizing points for you!

Melissa holding lunch bags

How to Clean a Lunch Bag & Lunch Box

Most lunch bags can be washed the same way you clean the schoolbag. First, check the care label for washing instructions.  Then, if you need to hand-wash it, you can use that same mixture we were talking about earlier: dish liquid and a little bit of warm water. This time, we’re going to use a soft sponge to wipe it clean rather than a heavy-duty scrub brush.

If you have a stain in the plastic lining, say you spilled tomato sauce, for example, what you can do is create a paste using simple baking soda and water. Use your handy cleaning toothbrush and just scrub away the stain.  Wash it out with soapy water, rinse, and hang to dry.

If you have one of those hard-shell lunchboxes, you can wash it and deodorize it the same way as with the soft lunch bag.  Use some warm soapy water to scrub it clean, rinse it well, and leave it to dry.

If you’re looking for the best lunch containers, check out this article.

Lunch Deodorizing Tips

For deodorizing any lunch box or bag, sprinkle it with baking soda and leave it overnight. Dump it out in the morning, and voila! It will smell fresh again.  

Another great deodorizing tip is to flip the lunch bag inside out and set it in the sun for a few days –maybe do this over the weekend. The Sun has amazing deodorizing properties. 

Another trick is to place a fabric softener sheet in the bottom of the lunch bag. It won’t deodorize it, but it will mask any unsavory odors.  I personally find this to be too strong of a scent but a lot of people like it.  If you want a more natural method, try this: Fill a bowl about halfway with water, then add 10 drops of your favorite essential oil, take a plain cotton cloth and soak it in the bowl for about 10 minutes, and hang it to dry. Once it is dry, it will smell like the essential oils and you can place that at the bottom of the lunch bag. This also works for bookbags. 

Let me know in the comments section below, what is the grossest thing you have ever found in your or your child’s lunch bag or backpack?

School locker

Locker Deodorizer

This is a pretty cool trick, and to be honest, I wish I had thought of it back in my locker days.  Making your own locker deodorizer is really easy. Take a small container. fill it halfway with baking soda, add ten drops of essential oil, place cheesecloth on top, and secure it with a rubber band. You can even get fancy and decorate it if you want to. Place it on the top shelf of the locker and forget about it.  The baking soda will do all the heavy lifting. Remind your kids to throw out old lunches, and switch out the deodorizer with a new one every 3 months or so, and their locker will smell great.

Washing Face Masks

These past couple of years have been all about hand-washing and disinfecting high-touch areas. It’s essential to step up the sanitizing ritual with the new school year, particularly if your children are back in the classroom. That includes washing face masks. 

First off, make sure your child has a clean one every day. I think most of us have enough face masks, by now, to match our outfits. If you don’t already, I recommend having at least five face masks for your child so that you can throw them in the wash at the end of the school week. Even better, have two face masks per day so they can swap to a clean mask after lunch. Include a “clean” bag and a “dirty” bag for the masks to be stored in, while inside the backpack. A simple plastic bag that’s labeled clean or dirty will work, but so will reusable bags. It’s also not a bad idea to have a couple of extra clean masks to toss in their bookbag. It’s inevitable that one or two are going to get lost.

When laundering, they should be washed separately from other clothing, in hot water with regular laundry detergent. Throw them in the dryer or hang them to dry. You can also hand-wash face masks by soaking for about 10 minutes in a bowl or basin of water and a teaspoon of laundry detergent, before lightly scrubbing, and hanging to dry.

coloring with marker

How to Clean Ink and Crayon Stains

First of all, it’s important that we set proper expectations when it comes to ink stains. Not all stains are going to come out. Period. 

Hope for the best, but expect the worst. Ink is probably one of the most challenging cleaning stains out there.  Remember, treat the stain as soon as possible because the sooner you tackle it the more likely you are to get rid of it.

Pen Stains

Let’s start with pen stains.  Place a cloth under the stained area to avoid spreading the stain any further. Spray rubbing alcohol on the pen stain and leave it for a moment. This will loosen the stain and you’ll see the ink start to bleed.  Next, take a towel or a clean cloth and blot the stain by pressing it into the material and lifting away.  No rubbing. When you rub the stain, you’re effectively setting it into the fabric. The pen ink will transfer off as you press and lift.

Once most of it is removed, pre-treat with dish soap, or a stain remover, and then throw it in the washing machine (if the fabric care label allows). Your garment will be, fingers crossed, stain-free after that.

Marker Stains

I’ll start by reminding you to try and get washable markers whenever possible. That way we don’t need to have this conversation again.  If you’re dealing with a permanent marker stain, then there are a few things you can try. Yes, try. Permanent markers are made that way for a reason, they’re not supposed to wash out. They’re Permanent.

I found that hairspray works best and, of course, the stain is more likely to come off when fresh.  Place a clean cloth underneath the garment, spray with hairspray, leave on for a moment to let the hairspray loosen the stain, and then add some water.  Begin to blot it up by pressing with a clean cloth.

Pre-treat it with some dish soap or stain remover, throw it in the wash, and hope for the best!

child coloring the wall with crayons

Crayon Stains

When I was just a young whippersnapper I created a stunning crayon mural of “puppets”, as I called them, on our kitchen wall. My parents were not so impressed with my artistic display. If crayon, for whatever reason, ends up on your walls or surfaces, you can do two things to get rid of the stains.

First, parents please get washable crayons. They are almost the same price as regular crayons. They’re readily available. You’re crazy if you don’t. Okay, so let’s say you didn’t, here’s how you clean it up. Use some baking soda on a wet sponge and remove the crayon from walls or surfaces by simply dabbing your sponge in the baking soda and gently buffing it onto the surface.  Then rinse that surface clean and wipe it dry. This works for painted walls, wallpaper, and most furniture.

If you want to be a little bit more careful, find non-gel toothpaste and use a lightly dampened toothbrush to remove crayons from walls or other surfaces. 

When crayons go into backpacks, be sure to place them in a plastic pencil case to avoid the possibility of them being crushed or overheated. 

Child sitting at a desk
Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Organize Your Child’s Desk or Study Area

Have you ever heard of the saying, “a cluttered space is the sign of a cluttered mind”?  If that’s the case, clear your mind by having a clean desk. One of my best friends is a teacher, and she told me a great tip not too long ago about keeping students’ desks organized.  Basically, you create a desk map with a place for every item.  That way, you always know where to place something when you’re done with it.  I recommend drawing one out and then pinning it up on the wall so you can refer to it throughout the school year. 

If your, or your child’s, desk is cluttered, you need to remove everything, yes everything, off the desk. If you need to, you can do it one half at a time starting at the left side and working your way to the right side. This makes it a little bit more manageable.  It may feel overwhelming, but if you take your time you’ll be able to clear the clutter.  Once your desktop is empty, simply clean it off using an all-purpose cleaner and microfiber cloth.

Now it’s time to get organized.  It really is the best way to start the school year. For basic desk organization, have three containers beside you.  One for tossing, one for keeping, and one for donating.  Don’t move from your place until you’ve sorted everything into the bins. You’ll put the desktop items away after, but for now, don’t stop sorting until it’s complete.  Don’t go to the bathroom. Don’t get the phone. Stay focused. 

Now that the clutter is gone, you can map out where everything is going to go. Remember to keep the desk itself very simple. Secret tip: don’t use your desktop for storage, only use it as a work surface.  You should be able to see at least 80% of your desk. I bet that looks and feel much better!

Cleaning the Coffee Thermos

This cleaning tip goes out to all my teacher friends and those in higher education. It’s about cleaning your stainless steel coffee mug. All you need to do is make a paste using cream of tartar and water (for plastic thermoses you can use baking soda and water). Scrub the inside of your stainless steel mug with a cleaning toothbrush or bottle brush, and rinse it clean.  Do the same for the lids. Leave it to dry. It’s so simple guys and it works like a charm!

I hope you’re going to use some of these tips to make your school year a little bit cleaner and a little bit more productive.

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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.


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