While our homes often get treated to a glistening makeover this time of year, one aspect of spring cleaning we tend to overlook is our home away from home—that is, our suitcases. After having been stuffed and dragged with us on our travels, luggage deserves the greatest amount of TLC, not just once annually, but all year-round.
I, for one, am an avid luggage cleaner. Whenever I return from a trip, all I can imagine is all the icky dirt and germs clinging to me from my plane ride, so the minute I open my front door, I start an intricate routine to decontaminate myself. First, I stop in the entryway, dump everything washable into the laundry, and wipe down everything else. Then comes the most essential step: cleaning the suitcase itself.
I developed my routine instinctively over the greater part of the last two decades, so I thought it was time to talk to the experts to see how legit my concerns were—and how to clean luggage properly.
“Cleaning luggage is more than just looks—it’s about health as well,” says Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of The Germ Code and The Germ Files. “It may seem odd to think that a piece of luggage could lead to an infection, but remember that it’s merely a vehicle for spread.” Tetro recommends cleaning luggage between trips, as well as during travels with antimicrobial treatment, to help to “reduce the risk of infection and ruining a wonderful trip.”
After all, there are points during travel when our luggage naturally gets put in others’ care, whether it’s the airline crew, hotel bellhop, tour operator, or cruise concierge—and we don’t exactly know where it’s been. “It is conceivable that several people have handled a traveler’s suitcase several times during its journey from one location to the next,” says Dr. Jan Jones of the University of New Haven’s hospitality and tourism departments. And more hands means more potential for germs to spread.
She suggests rubbing your suitcase down with disinfecting wipes and then immediately washing your hands. (One easy option while on the road is to hang a Purell Advance Refreshing Gel On the Go with a built-in loop onto your bag, so you don’t further containment other surfaces while digging for your sanitizer.) Not only does this help keep “your suitcase from getting moldy or from transporting any bugs back to your home,” but also “helps it last longer and deteriorate slower.”
Time is of the essence with the process. “If the luggage items are going to sit for a day or two, that should be fine,” Tetro says. “However, I would suggest cleaning them sooner than later because there is potential for growth if the environment is warm and humid.”
But with so many different parts of luggage, effectively cleaning each one can prove to be quite complicated. While the first step should be to look at the luggage manufacturer’s instructions (here are the ones for American Tourister, Away, Beis, Briggs and Riley, Calpak, Delsey, Monos, NinetyGo, Rimowa, Roam, Samsonite, Travelpro, Tumi, and Victorinox), we turned to the experts to find the best ways to ensure every surface on your suitcase is as clean as possible before it goes back in its dust bag.
“Travel literally means you are going to encounter surfaces you don’t know are safe regardless of whether it’s a motel room, cruise ship cabin, or five-star hotel,” Tetro says. “In this case, the best thing to do is clean everything the same way after each trip.”
Handles and grips are the guiltiest when it comes to potential germs. “Whatever parts you touch with your hands are by far most important to clean and disinfect,” says Dr. Jim Arbogast, hygiene sciences and public health advancements vice president of GOJO Industries (which owns Purell). He explains that hands are the most “critical part” of the chain of transmission of pathogenic germs that can affect people from a public health perspective.
Tetro advises to start the cleaning process by extending the handle fully on your rolling suitcase, and wiping it down with gentle soap and water. After that pre-clean, you'll want to disinfect any grips on the side of the suitcase or the top of the handle with a stronger product that kills bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Letting the surface stay wet for the amount of time the instructions specify is crucial; most should require about 30 to 60 seconds. Arbrogast suggests avoiding those that require more than two minutes, since that often means those require multiple applications to get the right results. Tetro says to look for active ingredients such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide, quaternary ammonium chloride, and phenolics.
Products on the EPA’s approved list of disinfectants include Purell Professional Surface Disinfectant Wipes with ethanol or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Lysol Disinfecting Wipes, both with quaternary ammonium.
While the instinct is that the bottom of the bag may be dirtiest thanks to its close contact with the floor, Tetro says that isn’t the case since it’s not a touch point. “The risk from wheels is lower than from handles, so you don’t need to worry too much about the microbial load,” he advises. Arbogast concurs, adding “I would only clean the wheels when they’re visibility dirty or I know they rolled through something of high risk.”
For most cases, Tetro says using a soapy rag will do the trick here. A liquid hand soap like Softsoap Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap or Dial Gold Antibacterial Hand Soap provides easy application onto a rag. Another option to use is dishwashing liquid, like Method Dish Soap or Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lemon Verbena Dish Soap.
Experts agree that the inside of the suitcase is the most challenging to keep germ-free since it’s a porous surface. Start by using a dust buster or vacuum to remove any crumbs and physical dust, especially in the corners and in tight areas. For purely cosmetic stains, spot cleaning with soap and water should work—if a deeper dose is needed, try a stain remover like Spray ‘n Wash or Shout. Cover the entire area and then rub it in. Let it sit for up to five minutes and then use warm water to clean out. If smell is an issue, try putting some activated charcoal, like Mainstays Closet Odor Remover, inside for a few days to let it absorb the odors.
Some say that a disinfecting wipe can do the trick, too. Arbogast notes that Purell Surface Spray is approved for soft surfaces. For a quick-on-go solution, Lysol Disinfectant Spray To Go also works on fabric.
Tetro recommends purchasing items that have already have an antimicrobial treatment—like Ricardo Beverly Hills’ Essentials 5.0 line of accessories that includes shoe bags, packing cubes, and organizers—which uses an invisible silver-based formula that constantly works to “keep microbial levels low and reduce the need for cleaning.”
The exterior of hard luggage can be washed like a pet. “You can treat it like a dog by giving it a good spray with a hose or in the tub,” Tetro says of non-porous luggage, recommending regular soap.
If the shell is made of plastic and synthetic materials such as nylon or vinyl, scientist Mary Gagliardi, Clorox’s stain expert who is known as Dr. Laundry, says to use a wipe or a bleach-and-water solution by combining half a cup of bleach (like Clorox regular bleach) per gallon of water. Then use a sponge or spray to put the solution on the surface, ensuring it stays wet for five minutes (if it dries, keep reapplying). Then rinse the surface with clean water.
For specific scuffs or marks, try taking a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to them with a little elbow grease.
For fabric exteriors, Tetro says it’s okay to hose them down, too, but to use less water so it doesn’t soak into the fabric. “A disinfectant wipe might be the best option, as you won’t have to worry about suds happening the next time you’re in security,” he adds. He recommends disinfecting wipes by Clorox and Lysol as the most effective, noting that to kill viruses on hands and hard surfaces products, they should have an alcohol content of 60 or 70 percent.
For added protection, keep these kinds of bags inside a dust bag (and be sure to throw that in the wash when not in use) or garbage bag when you're not traveling.
After your luggage is fresh and clean, Arbogast reminds travelers not to forget one of the most crucial steps. “Don’t forget to clean your hands before and after cleaning your luggage to prevent cross-contamination,” he says, noting to use a quality soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
This story has been updated with new information since its original publish date.