How to Clean a Purse

A hand pulls out melted lipstick and a messy comb and mirror from a purse.

For women, purses are a lifeline. They contain everything we need on a day-to-day basis and are probably an atavistic holdover from the days when we foraged from morning to night for edible roots, leaves, and berries while simultaneously fending off cave bears and lustful Neanderthals.

Most men are afraid of women’s purses based on what might lurk inside. The fear is legitimate. I have cleaned my purse during a blue moon and come upon items that are not recognizable as having originated on this planet. I know an older woman, a shut-in, whose purse got opened so infrequently it harbored a spider, complete with web. But more typical ingredients are three-year-old waterproof mascara the consistency of phenolic resin, contact lenses from 2007, a half tube of antacid tablets—the topmost layer suspiciously dark from kicking around inside my one-gallon, black velvet lifeline—and a collection of change that has migrated down through the lining into the bottom through a hole I have never been able to find. This last suggests evil alien activity.

Steps to Cleaning a Purse

  1. purse on a tableCleaning a purse requires tact, patience, and care (some of the objects are both pointed and lethal from years of absorbing bacteria-laden debris). Instead of flipping the purse upside down over a table and dumping it out haphazardly, which could cause some items to end up hidden in the carpeting beneath the table, consider gentling tipping it on its nose over a flat, smooth surface and patting the bottom until all the oddments come tumbling out. This also ensures that any living thing will have a chance to creep away to safety.
  2. purse emptied outThe next step in cleaning a purse is to sort objects. Sort health and beauty items into one pile and mechanical/electronic items into another. This, of course, is where the sort function gets interesting because you will have to decide if a quarter (which can be used to screw down a loose battery terminal) is mechanical or (because the vending machine at work only takes quarters) a health item.
  3. garbage from the purseOnce the sort-function portion of purse cleaning is complete, you can proceed with eliminating items that have passed their sell-by date. A plastic-wrapped chocolate bar whose label suggests it expired a year ago really doesn’t qualify because candy bars last forever, and we might someday be trapped in a blizzard with no other form of nourishment. However, the antibiotics you took in March of 2009 (it’s now September of 2010) do, but please don’t dump them down the drain. Take them to your nearest pharmacy, where they can be recycled. Also, please remember that this secondary sorting function is as much intuitive as logical (i.e., just like a woman).
  4. various miscellany from the purseNow that you have purse stuff sorted, take a minute to go over each item you plan to keep and wash, dust, or otherwise clean it. Yes, you can keep your old but much-loved shade of sherry lipstick, but wash the plastic cover with soap and water to remove chocolate fingerprints. Do the same with other items of makeup, electronics, plastic-wrapped containers, your artificial leather wallet, and even coins. Then sort everything one more time, into very specific categories. For my purse, this is: makeup; bobby pins and hair clasps; contact lenses, sunglasses and a spare pair of prescription glasses; medicine; pocket notebooks and pens; and electronics (like a cell phone and a tape recorder for interviews on the fly).
  5. Washing each pocketIf your newly-empty purse has hundreds of zippered compartments, wash each compartment, and then wash out the bottom of the purse itself with soap and water. You may find the secret hole down which change runs to hide. You may not. Either way, the inside of your purse is now clean enough to accept your newly cleaned assemblage of items that represent your personal lifeline. These are possessions with which you could bravely face Armageddon, the apocalypse, or an angry mob of starving teenagers with equal aplomb.
  6. Washing outside of the purseThe last stage in purse-cleaning involves the outside. If your purse is faux leather, mild dish soap and water will do. If it’s suede, buy a specially formulated suede cleaner, or rely on your Magic Eraser for the worst spots and stains. A pencil eraser also works well but takes forever. Then brush with a suede brush or any fine, metal-toothed brush (though a stiff-bristle toothbrush works well in a pinch, provided you rinse out the toothpaste residue). For real leather, try using a bar of Dove facial soap, water, and a soft cloth, then rinsing lightly and dry with a terry towel. Cleaning leather is always the most difficult, so proceed with caution, by baby steps, testing each area before proceeding.

Keeping Your Purse Clean

This is an impossible task, but you can help by:

  • Refusing to carry other people’s snacks and beverages to games, concerts, and picnics simply because your purse is the biggest container among your group.
  • Rejecting your best friend’s plea to smuggle food and drink into the theater in your purse, especially since she’s offering you a foil-wrapped package of M&Ms (the messiest food on the planet) and a plastic water bottle that is likely to meet its match in your very long and sharp car key.
  • Declining to smuggle someone’s hamster (pet rat, pet mouse, or gerbil) into and out of every department store, coffee shop, and restaurant the two of you visit on Saturday. This request comes largely from people who think their small pets will die if left alone for an hour and isn’t that uncommon (I have actually been asked to do this).

Purse-Cleaning Supplies

purse-7Magic EraserMagic Eraser, by Mr. Clean, is a unique but funny-feeling square of melamine foam (and ?) that removes scuffs and stains from all manner of surfaces, including hard- and soft-tile floors, painted walls, switch plates, Venetian blinds, and leather shoes, purses, and handbags. The newest model has a blue surface for added cleaning, and Mr. Clean also makes a Magic Eraser rust remover in black. You can find the original magic eraser on Amazon.

Bars of Dove SoapDove Face and Body Bar Soap, advertised not to dry facial skin like other harsh soaps, comes in a plain white, curved bar with no added fragrance and works well for cleaning delicate items like real leather, silk, and wool, where spot cleaning with other cleaners might be too harsh. Think in terms of designer handbags, and consider carrying a bar of Dove in your purse, if you can find room.

Spray bottle of KiwiKiwi, one of the oldest and best-known names in specialty cleaning products for leather, suede, and nubuck, offers a spray cleaner that helps keep your leather purse smooth, soft, and supple for years, even if you are occasionally using said purse as a doorstop, paperweight, sample basketball, pillow, or a kettlebell for weight training.