Keeping Your Reusable Shopping Bags Clean

cleaning reusable bags

I have been trying REALLY HARD to remember to take and use my reusable bags when I go grocery shopping. Emphasis being on the TAKING! I have such a hard time remembering to bring them with me to the store. (See Tips For Remembering Your Reusable Bags at the end of this post.)

But when I DO remember I feel good about the fact that I’m helping reduce waste and pollution and saving resources. Did you know that a single set of reusable shopping bags could eliminate  as many as 20,000 disposable plastic bags? (Again, that’s assuming you remember to USE them each time!)

Reusable bags are a good thing! But did you ever stop to think about whether your reusable bags were clean? I know I didn’t! And apparently I’m not alone!

cleaning reusable bags

Researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University asked shoppers headed into grocery stores in California and Arizona, if they wash their reusable bags. Most shoppers — 97%, in fact — reported that they do not regularly, if ever, wash their bags.

The researchers tested 84 of the bags for bacteria. They found whopping amounts in all but one bag, and coliform bacteria (suggesting raw-meat or uncooked-food contamination) in half. And yes, the much-feared E. coli was among them — in 12% of the bags.

But the GOOD NEWS is that they also tested the effectiveness of washing the bags which they found reduced bacteria levels to almost nothing.

So, I think you know where I’m going with this….we all need to get in the habit of cleaning our reusable bags to make sure they’re both eco-friendly AND safe.

Here are some tips from the Food Safety and Inspection Service ( 

cleaning reusable bags

Wash reusable grocery bags often.

  • Cloth reusable bags should be washed in a washing machine using laundry detergent and dried in the dryer or air-dried.
  • Plastic-lined reusable bags should be scrubbed using hot water and soap and air-dried.
  • Check that both cloth and plastic-lined reusable bags are completely dry before storing them.

Always put raw meats into a disposable plastic bag before putting them in a reusable bag.

  • A disposable plastic bag helps contain any juices that drip off of raw meat packages, which can touch other foods and contaminate them. Disposable plastic bags are usually available in the raw meat or produce areas of your store.
  • Throw away disposable plastic bags used for raw meat immediately after use. Never reuse bags that contained raw meat or poultry.

Keep meats, fresh produce, and ready-to-eat foods separated.

  • Use separate bags dedicated for meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and ready-to-eat foods. It’s also a good idea to keep these foods separated in your shopping cart, at the checkout line on the conveyor belt, and at home. This will help reduce cross-contamination.
  • Remember that cold food needs to be refrigerated within two hours of leaving the store or market. Cold food should be refrigerated within one hour when temperatures outside are above 90 degrees.

Store reusable bags at home in a cool, dry place, not in the car.

  • Store reusable bags in a cool, dry place, such as in your home or in the garage. Higher temperatures, like those inside of a car or a car’s trunk, can cause germs like Salmonella bacteria to grow faster.

Do not use reusable grocery bags for other purposes.

  • Bags used for groceries should be used only for food. Don’t carry items such as baby bottles, toys, gym clothes, and other items in the same reusable bags that you take to the grocery store.

 cleaning reusable bags

As I was researching this topic, I came across another great tip from Lea at A Drop Of This for keeping reusable bags safe and clean between washings.  She came up with her own Reusable Grocery Bag Disinfectant Spray.  Simply add equal parts of water or vinegar (or a combo of both) to a spray bottle and 1 drop of your favorite essential oil per 1 oz of water (or vinegar) and shake well. Each time you unload your groceries give the inside of the bags a generous spritzing. This doesn’t REPLACE washing…but can help keep the nasties at bay. 

Here’s a list of a few antibacterial essential oils: Bergamot, Cinnamon, Clove, Cypress, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Lemon, Oregano, Peppermint, Rosemary, Sage, Tea Tree, Thyme


These simple steps will help you to reduce cross-contamination, and help keep you and your family safe from harmful bacteria.

cleaning reusable bags
Photos by Anna Gleave

Now…if I could just remember to take my CLEAN bags with me to the store!

Here are a few MORE tips!

  • Store your bags in the place you associate with shopping, like right next to where you hang your purse!
  • It actually pays to BYOB. Lots of stores now offer CASH incentives for using your own bags.  Maybe the thought of cold, hard cash will jog your memory! :-)
  • If that freebie bag you got at the auto show doesn’t get you excited about taking it shopping…invest in a cute fabric tote! Now you can be environmentally-friendly AND fashionable at the same time.
  • Make sure that “TOTE BAG” tops your weekly shopping list. Take advantage of reminders on your phone as well.

It takes a little effort, but eventually BYOB will become second nature.


Are you in the habit of washing your reusable bags?



Print Friendly
Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter11Pin on Pinterest1.9kGoogle+0

Enjoy This Post? Never Miss Another!

Subscribe to Jillee's FREE email newsletter and receive more great tips and ideas!



  1. says

    i’ve had trouble washing canvas reusable bags, they completely lost their shape and just looked horrible! but, i will have to try washing the less expensive bags i’ve collected. thanks for sharing!

  2. Elizabeth says

    I always have my reusable bags. I kind of get snippy when the cashiers bypass my bags and start bagging in plastic. i just grab them off the hook by the door on the way out. J have a few “just in case” bags under the seat of the van in the event I do unplanned shopping. I have different totes I use when I go to the mall and for non food shopping. I made produce bags out of lightweight material so I can keep track of produce without using the plastic bags in the store. That last one drives cashiers crazy-they often just don’t understand the concept.

    • Catherine's not naturally crafty says

      Me too! tulle and cotton cord, why don’t the cashiers understand this? They keep produce so much better and I even made one that fits the celery prefectly, one that holds just the right amount of potatoes, etc. I’m not sure why this is such a hard concept to wrap their brains around. Now if I could just get them to let me bring my own containers for bulk items and not make me use those plastic bags it would be perfect.

  3. Jennifer says

    I suggest air drying your bags. I made the mistake of putting all of my canvas bags in the dryer at one time, and now my bags have shrunk to half their size :-(
    Great reminder to keep them clean, thanks Jillee!!!

  4. Jessica K says

    Wow I didn’t realize the amount of people who don’t wash their totes.

    Make sure to remove the bottom insert if your bag has one, they either crumble or get all bent out of shape. Found this out the hard way once.

  5. Sara says

    I keep my reusable bags folded up in the “cracks” of my car between the seat and the center console. Helps keep miscellaneous stuff from dropping down into those cracks, too!!

  6. says

    Petroleum is used in the making of plastic bags. I’ve read you could drive a car 1 mile on the amount of petroleum it takes to make 14 plastic grocery bags so I take a sticky note and put the number ’14’ on it and post it to the dash of my car so I can see it when I get in. When I see that number I always know what it stands for and remember the bags.

    I was going to post the number ‘1,000,000’ because that’s how many birds die every year from the ingestion of plastic but the number 14 seemed an easier cue and more appropriate for use in a vehicle.

  7. Barbara Tyler says

    You’ve touched a vein. Maybe if I had the “Jeep” bags my husband might use them since we drive a Jeep.

    I truly hate store bags, the way the store checkers fill them, and the quantity they use. I always compliment the better baggers. To avoid slowing the checkers, I place their bags inside my bags; usually at least two of theirs to one of mine. Keeps groceries from escaping when I make a sudden stop; lost a head of cauliflower once under the driver’s seat and found the smell about a week later. Have been thinking about using a plastic tote system since I already sort my groceries in the cart.

    • Nadine says

      If you put your bags down before you put you food down then the first thing the cashier will pick up is your bags and that will be he first thing the bagger will pick up then there is no need to use their bags and you won’t feel like you are slowing the down. just a suggestion.

    • Ana says

      I read your comment and wish I had your baggers in my area. If I let them use disposable plastic bagsI can fit 4 or 5 bags in my reusable one. The thing is I believe it is the store policy to only put a couple of items per bag.

      I don’t know what happens to the bags in the inland states, I live close to the ocean and my work takes me all over the coastline, it is heartbreaking to see the little islands of garbage even in the middle of nowhere many miles offshore. The glue of those islands is the stupid supermarket bag, they get caugh with floating floating seaweeds (sargassum and such) and then start collecting other floating waste, agrrrr such a shame.

      Please everyone do remember your reusable bags, but not only to the supermarket. If you go to the hobby store, or hardware store or any store, take your own bag.

      • Ashley says

        Your comment about store policy to only put a few things in the bag reminded me of when I worked at a store. There was no store policy about that, but whenever I put more than a few items in the bag, people would whine and complain. (You sure put a lot of stuff in there, or, That needs to be double bagged, or other ridiculous comments.) I really didn’t fill the bags that full, so I started only putting a few things in the bags so I wouldn’t get grouched at anymore. (Needless to say, I do not work retail anymore. Hallelujah!)

  8. Jill L says

    I got the kind of bags that roll up and fit into my little purse. They are also very washable. I wash them and put them back in my purse most shopping trips. It is very rarely under 90 in Bahrain.

  9. Brenda says

    Jillee, I keep my bags on the backseat of my car and still sometimes can’t remember to take them in the store! I like the idea of the disinfectant spray, thanks for sharing it.

  10. Steph says

    Thanks for the article! I’ve been thinking about this lately and I shudder to think how awful my bags are! I’ve been using, but not washing them for…gulp…years! Thanks Jillee!