Care and Cleaning of Neoprene Lunch Bags


The care of Neoprene lunch bags is not that different from other lunch bags. This article covers common questions regarding Neoprene, such as using a washing machine to clean the fabric, and how to remove odors and mold spots. A few special techniques will keep your Neoprene lunch bag looking as good as new.

If you're in the market for a new lunch bag, check out "Buying the Perfect Lunch Bag" and "Advice for Buying a Neoprene Lunch Bag."

How to wash Neoprene lunch bags

The process for handwashing Neoprene products is the same whether it be your lunch bag, a wet suit, or your car's seat covers:

  1. Fill tub with warm water and add a mild soap, vinegar, or specially-formulated Neoprene shampoo (do not use bleach).
  2. Swish the Neoprene product in the water, making sure all of the fabric is wet.
  3. If there are stains, now is a good time to pre-treat with an enzyme stain remover, such as Spray 'n Wash®. Instructions indicate not to leave on for more than 5 minutes. Side note: do not rub on chocolate stains. It's best to use a stain remover when stains are fresh.
  4. After pre-treating, soak the Neoprene for 20 minutes.
  5. If there are any sticky spots, spilled or dried on food, gently remove with a soft scrub brush.
  6. Soak the Neoprene for additional time if needed.
  7. After soaking, rinse thoroughly with water (not salt water), turning Neoprene  fabric inside out allows the rinse water to reach all cracks and crevices. Make sure any residue from the cleaner is removed so as not to damage the Neoprene.
  8. Allow the Neoprene to drip dry, this could take 1-2 days.

Neoprene lunch bags compared to Neoprene wetsuits

Neoprene wetsuits have different challenges than lunch bags: chlorine and other deposits can damage a wetsuit if in contact for too long. Rinsing a wetsuit with non-saltwater immediately after use is recommended. Wetsuit shampoos on the market can help with wetsuit cleaning; they can be used for lunch bags, too. Wetsuit shampoos are especially helpful on tough stains.

When searching for information on how to care for your Neoprene lunch bag, you will inevitably come across care advice for Neoprene wetsuits. Since it is the same products, care advice can be applied to both end Neoprene products.

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Questions about washing Neoprene

Can you machine wash a Neoprene lunch bag? Manufacturer's of Neoprene lunch bags approve machine washing the bags with regular laundry detergent on cold water setting, delicate rinse, and no spin cycle.

Fabric instructions for the Built® brand lunch bag stamped inside.

Fabric instructions for the Built® brand lunch bag stamped inside.

Ironically, manufacturer's of Neoprene wetsuits do not recommend using regular laundry detergent, but special Neoprene cleaners, instead. This might be because of the need to wash out saltwater and other organic materials from sea water. Washing machines are also not encouraged for wetsuits, but some wetsuit owners have used them on a delicate, no spin cycle with cold water.

The care instructions on the left are the only one of my Neoprene lunch bags that featured care instructions inside (Built® brand).

Many users of Neoprene wetsuits caution against washing in a washing machine. There have been reports of the agitation causing friction and tearing holes in the wetsuit. Due to the monetary investment of a wetsuit, users opt to wash wetsuits by hand to avoid any washing machine damage. The same goes for Neoprene seat covers, they are best hand washed.

Can you wash Neoprene in the dishwasher? Washing Neoprene in a dishwasher is not recommended because the inside of the fabric would not be properly cleaned.

There is no doubt that you could wash Neoprene in a dishwasher on a cold setting. However, there would be no good way to make sure all surfaces (especially the inside) were fully washed and debris removed. When Neoprene is submerged in a tub of water, or sloshed around in a washing machine, the reach of the water is more effective.

Drying Neoprene lunch bags

Drying Neoprene completely is important for avoiding mold. Careful drying techniques will also assure less creases in the Neoprene fabric.

How do I dry my Neoprene lunch bag? Best practice is to allow the Neoprene lunch bag to drip dry. Position the lunch bag upside down so water can run out of the bag. Spread apart the opening to allow air to circulate freely inside the bag. Do not dry Neoprene in the sun as prolonged exposure to UV rays can damage Neoprene.

Can Neoprene go in the dryer? Neoprene cannot go in the dryer. The heat and the friction of the fabric against the walls of the dryer will damage the Neoprene.

How do you dry Neoprene quickly? Neoprene can be dried more quickly by placing air from a fan on the fabric and propping the lunch bag or article open to make sure air reaches the interiors. Periodically reposition the lunch bag or Neoprene product to make sure all the surfaces get equal time exposed to air flow.

Speeding up drying of Neoprene lunch bag by blowing air from electric fan on it.

Speeding up drying of Neoprene lunch bag by blowing air from electric fan on it.

Special care instructions for Neoprene fabric

How to remove stains from Neoprene. Stains on your lunch bag should be laundered as soon as possible. If the stain is food-based, pretreat with a laundry stain remover with enzymes. Rubbing alcohol is good for removing ink stains and will not harm the Neoprene, unlike some nylons and rubber. If you have an ink stain, dab as much as you can with a paper towel before soaking with rubbing alcohol.

To remove oil stains from Neoprene, dab as much of the oil with a paper towel first to absorb it away from the fabric. After that use a mild Neoprene specially-formulated cleaner, or even a gentle cleanser like baby shampoo.

The Neoprene article can be soaked for several hours or overnight, and retreated if needed. Again, a Neoprene specially-formulated shampoo is recommended but a dishwashing detergent such as Dawn®, can be effective on oily stains. Use a soft brush to gently scrub the stain and remove any remaining debris. If all else fails, take the Neoprene product to a professional dry cleaning service.

Removing stain from Neoprene lunch bag.

Removing stain from Neoprene lunch bag.

Does Neoprene shrink? Neoprene does shrink overtime, but it takes many years. Factors that contribute to shrinking are the beginning quality of the Neoprene, exposure to UV rays, improper care and the normal stretching of regular use. Overtime, the cells of the Neoprene collapse. However, Neoprene lunch bags can be covered with polyester or a polyester blend material. Polyester shrinks.

Years ago, I tossed my first Neoprene lunch bag into the dryer (accidentally) and it was never the same after that. I would describe it as severe "puckering" of the fabric. The Neoprene was sandwiched in between the outside polyester layers. Even though Neoprene can withstand heat, always air dry your Neoprene lunch bag.

How do I prevent wrinkles in Neoprene? Prevent wrinkles in Neoprene by gently washing and rinsing by hand. Air dry Neoprene in a manner that doesn't constrict or fold the fabric; hang the fabric where it can freely hang unobstructed. Do not store Neoprene tightly folded or packed with other items that would crush the material creating wrinkles. Neoprene wetsuits can be hung on special non-metal plastic hangers for optimal drying and non-wrinkling conditions.

Can I get creases out of Neoprene?  To remove creases from Neoprene, lay the Neoprene out on a flat surface and gently stretch and smooth out the crease with your hand. Leave the Neoprene for 24 hours, the crease should naturally reduce. Neoprene doesn't wrinkle or crease easily and creases are not permanent. Inherently, wrinkles are a part of owning a Neoprene product.

Can you iron Neoprene? It is possible to iron Neoprene, but do so with great care. Iron on a low setting and place a barrier between the iron and Neoprene, such as a cotton sheet or linen towel. If the iron is too hot or you linger too long in one spot, an iron mark can be left (a melted imprint will be left from the electric iron's metal surface).

Can Neoprene be patched? Holes in Neoprene can be fixed with special iron on patches. One brand is Tenacious Tape™ Iron-On Neoprene Patch from Gear Aid.

Dealing with moldy Neoprene

At some point, you may have spilled or left food in your lunch bag, which manifested into mold spots. So what does this mean to your safety and how to clean the damage? First of all, let's understand the difference between mold and mildew. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mildew is a form of mold, thriving where moisture levels are high. Mold can cause serious health problems and is definitely worse than mildew.

Mildew tends to develop in very high moisture environments like bathrooms. Mildew also is a surface spreader, where mold "burrows in." For more information to tell the two apart, visit the Bob Villa site.

Mold can develop very quickly. The best defense is to never let it happen. If there is prolonged exposure to the mold, you have no idea how long the lunch bag has been moldy, or the lunch bag was in a flood situation, such as a flooded building or car, then you will have to throw away the lunch bag. A lunch bag is worth more than your health.

If the mold has recently happened and is not extensive, you can remove the mold from the bag.

First, here are actions you can take do to prevent mold and mildew from growing in your lunch bag:

  • remove food products after using the bag - food contributes moisture which is a breeding environment for mold
  • if possible, avoid putting used containers and utensils back in a bag and wash them first
  • store the bag and compartments open with access to good air flow, ideally in a cool, dry place
  • clean your Neoprene lunch bag regularly
  • allow the bag to dry thoroughly after cleaning
  • if there is a spill, turn the bag inside-out so it can dry immediately

So what do you do if you forgot about your Neoprene lunch bag (or worse yet, left a wet wet suit in a duffel bag) and mold has taken hold?

Your first instinct is to wash with bleach - do NOT do that! Bleach will damage Neoprene, making it degrade more quickly. Bleach is one of the few products that cleans protein stains well but damages Neoprene fabric. If you feel that you would toss the lunch bag anyway and don't have anything to lose, it might we worth trying a WEAK color-safe bleach solution or stain remover for protein stains (don't let it sit too long, maybe 10 minutes or less). Ultimately, the mold must be properly pre-treated to remove the mold and the mold stain.

According to Aquatic Glee, "a moldy wetsuit should be cleaned with vinegar to kill and wash away the mold. This also works for a wetsuit infected with bacteria since vinegar kills and washes away both types of microorganisms." Note that the vinegar may improve the looks of where the mold was, but it will not remove the mold stain. The stain will not hurt you.

I would say the same cleaning advice applies to lunch bags, but I am hesitant because we are talking about putting food we eat back into a previously contaminated bag. I think this is acceptable if it was newly formed mold and not an "epic" mold case (as stated earlier, the bag may have to be destroyed).

How do you remove mildew from Neoprene? To remove mildew from a Neoprene lunch bag, soak in water with vinegar added for at least 20 minutes. After that, gently scrub the stain with a soft brush.

Other things that kill mold: alcohol, ammonia, and Lysol®. According to the Australian website, Biome, "If you only bleach the mould, all the health risks (including allergies and asthma problems) will still be there whether you can see the mould or not, and it is likely to grow back in a few days." Instead, Biome recommends using clove oil to kill mold. 

Biome conveniently offers a clove oil recipe from cleaning expert and co-author of Spotless, Shannon Lush. I've converted the recipe here for my US friends:

  • First clean surfaces with a mixture of 1 gallon hot water, 1 tablespoon of baking soda, and 1/2 cup vinegar.
  • Next, mix a solution of 1/4 teaspoon of clove oil per 4 cups of water (or one quart of water).
  • Put the clove oil solution in a spray bottle and lightly  mist moldy surface. Leave for 20 minutes and wipe off.  Spray again and leave.  It will take between 24-48 hours for the mold spores to dry and drop off.

Other "old wisdom" advice I found is to apply salt after applying the clove oil mixture. I am guessing that the salt "draws out" the mold, but  I don't know if there is truth to it. It might draw out the stain. According to the directions, "make a strong salt water mix using plain salt (ideally with no anti caking agents or iodine) and paint on the moldy areas. Leave at least overnight until the salt has crusted on the fabric. Brush off the salt and the mold will go with the salt. Repeat if necessary." Use at your own risk, as prolonged salt exposure can also damage Neoprene.

Other ways to kill mold naturally, according to the TreeHugger website, include tea tree oil (2 teaspoons of tea tree oil mixed with 2 cups of water). Tea tree oil is known for its antibacterial properties, but it is expensive and has a very strong smell (the smell will dissipate with time). Also worthy of a spray bottle is the more pleasant smelling citrus seed extract (diluted with about 20 drops to 2 cups of water) or spray the mold with straight 3% hydrogen peroxide.

I've heard of some people having to throw out their very expensive Neoprene wet suits because of a runaway mold problem. Luckily, lunch bags are not in the same monetary investment category. They also are not usually stored inside of another bag in a wet state (unless you consider a school backpack).

Dealing with smelly Neoprene

There are three reasons that your Neoprene smells:

  • manufacturing process
  • food left in a Neoprene container too long
  • a Neoprene product not allowed to fully dry (such as a forgotten wetsuit in a duffel bag)

Odor from manufacturing process

Do Neoprene bags smell? Neoprene bags smell initially due to the manufacturing process and being sealed in a bag for delivery to customers. The smell will go away over time.

A fun fact about Neoprene is that the original manufacturing process left the material "with a foul odor" that left it unacceptable for consumer use. A new and cheaper process was soon developed, which eliminated the odor-causing byproducts and halved production costs. Your brand new Neoprene product may have a slightly offensive odor when you first remove it from the package. Allowing it to air dry should dissipate the odor over time.

I just bought a Nordic food bag on the right. I can honestly say that it didn't strongly smell when I first opened the sealed plastic bag. 

New Neoprene lunch bag sealed in plastic bag.

New Neoprene lunch bag sealed in plastic bag.

*Manufacturers of Neoprene lunch bags recommend to wash the product before initial use.

Odor from food or wet Neoprene

Regardless if the odor in your lunch bag comes from food or wet Neoprene fabric closed up in a bag, the cleaning strategy will be the same.

If you have forgotten strong-smelling food in your lunch bag, the odors may permeate the fabric. Maybe you're a garlic or onion lover... in either case, it's best to take precautions and wrap those types of food up tighter in plastic or foil. ANY type of wet clothing left in a duffel bag is going have a stinky price to pay.

Take these steps to get smells out of a Neoprene lunch bag or Neoprene products:

  • Soak Neoprene in water for at least 20 minutes or overnight using a Neoprene-safe cleaner or a vinegar solution of one-part vinegar to four-parts water. Repeat if necessary.
  • Spray the Neoprene fabric with a citrus product prior to washing (such as Angry Orange Odor Eliminator). I have had amazing luck using similar orange sprays as a laundry pre-treatment for overpowering armpit smells in clothing.
  • Use a mild antimicrobial soap or product like Mirazyme "Sink the Stink" Wetsuit Cleaner that is specially manufactured for Neoprene care to kill microbes (the stuff that makes your Neoprene stink).

Other options for getting smells out of a Neoprene lunch bag 

A known hack for getting odors out of shoes is the crumpled newspaper trick. This works for Neoprene lunch bags, too. Simply place a crumpled newspaper in your lunch bag to absorb odors and moisture overnight. Another option is to place a paper towel dampened with white household vinegar inside the bag. Discard newspaper or paper towels the next morning.

Others have had success by placing the lunch bag in the freezer to kill micro-organisms responsible for odors. Washing your Neoprene lunch bag regularly will help stay ahead of developing smells.

Commercial cleaners for Neoprene

There are many commercial options that may do the trick to get odors out of your Neoprene lunch bag or other Neoprene product. Any of the cleaners will work for general cleaning of Neoprene.

Dunk your Neoprene fabric in a bucket of water with a cap-full of Dettol®, Febreze®, Woolite®, or any mild fabric cleaner or cleaner on this list:

  • JAWS® Slosh Wet/Dry Suit Shampoo, Cleaner, & Conditioner
  • Sink the Stink® 4 fl. oz. (118ml) Bottle
  • 500 PSI® Wetsuit & BCD Cleaner
  • Sink the Stink® Turtle Paks
  • Seasoft® Lemon GrenAIDE Enzymatic Wetsuit Cleanser

In addition, essential oils can be added to wash water to improve the smell of the Neoprene, but you need to be careful that the oil doesn't contain an ingredient that can ruin Neoprene.

Storing Neoprene products

Never store Neoprene folded unless it’s during transportation. Neoprene can easily develop permanent creases (for wet suits this translates to less effectiveness in keeping you warm). Store Neoprene articles in a cool and dry place with enough air circulation. In the case of Neoprene wet suits, they should be stored on the same plastic hangers you used to dry them.

Last word about caring for Neoprene lunch bags

Good luck in caring for your Neoprene lunch bags. Neoprene bags are sturdy and with proper care, you should have years of service from your lunch bag. If you have encountered a challenging cleaning situation, and triumphed, please leave a comment below.

If you're in the market for a new lunch bag, check out "Buying the Perfect Lunch Bag" and "Advice for Buying a Neoprene Lunch Bag." As long as we're talking lunch, be sure to visit "The Art of Packing Lunch."

 - Renee

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. Years of being a stay-at-home mom and supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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