What can we say? Kids are dirty as hell. For one thing, they love adventure. Plus, they’re closer to the ground — and thus closer to dirt. And, you know, they still like to stick their fingers up their nose periodically (and seem to derive glee from grinding Cheerios into all surfaces). Basically, most kids are walking, talking germ and grime factories. And they tend to leave a wake of that grime wherever they go, kind of like IRL versions of Pigpen from Charlie Brown. Keeping them clean is practically a part-time job unto itself (and any parent who has to deal with the screams associated with toddler bath time should be eligible for worker’s comp).
But what about their things?
It can be easy to turn a blind eye to all the dirty things in your kid’s life because, unlike your actual kids, a grimy stuffed animal or training potty doesn’t have hands they want to put on your face. But, of course, they are still things that come in contact with your kids — and, eventually you — far more than you’d like to think.
Here are a few of the dirtiest places in your kid’s life that you might be ignoring currently — and how to clean them. The good news? Most of the time, it’s a lot easier than you might think, and well worth the peace of mind.
Ah, the car seat: part transportation device, part movable playroom. But it’s not as daunting as you might imagine to get it clean. Becky Rapinchuk, the woman behind the Clean Mama blog and cleaning routine, tells SheKnows car seats can be cleaned on an “as needed” basis, like when it gets especially dirty or a child gets sick in it. Otherwise, it’s fine to just clean it 2-4 times a year. Rapinchuk also recommends making it a part of any existing routine you have with cleaning your car. This obviously will vary from person to person, but it can mean occasionally taking out the car seat if you’re washing the car in your driveway, or cleaning the car seat and letting it air dry while you take your car to your regular full-service car wash. The idea is to integrate it into any existing car maintenance routine so you don’t forget about it.
The actual washing is simple, if perhaps a bit time-consuming because you may have to allow time for air drying. Rapinchuk says parents should fully remove the car seat from the car and disassemble any pieces that can be removed. Machine wash and line dry what you can, and wipe down the rest with baby wipes or warm water with just a bit of dish soap. Once everything is dry, carefully reassemble the seat and put it back in the car. For crumbs, simply shaking out the car seat occasionally or vacuuming with a crevice attachment on your vacuum is fine.
Melissa Maker, whose popular YouTube channel Clean My Space has over 1.3 million followers, has a pretty firm opinion about bath toys: Just don’t get the squeezy ones. Yes, it’s fun for kids to fill them up with water and squirt, but they’re nearly impossible to fully empty, making them a great place for mold to grow. Instead, Maker tells SheKnows parents should stick to hard plastic that can be easily cleaned and dried. While bathrooms can be pretty germy places, bath toys can actually stay pretty clean as long as they dry sufficiently between baths to reduce the risk of mold or mildew growing in damp spots. Maker recommends using a laundry bag to store toys after bath time. After getting all the toys in the laundry bag, you can even give them one good rinse before hanging it up to dry on a suction cup hook. It’s also possible to purchase generously sized bath toy organizers that are the same exact idea: a mesh organizer with hooks.
Once toys are rinsed and allowed to dry, there really isn’t any need to do additional cleaning, says Maker. If soap scum does build, rubbing it off with a little bit of vinegar and a rag can get it looking as good as new. If there are bigger messes, like a potty training accident in the tub, you can treat the toys with a mild disinfectant. If you want to create an easy DIY one, she says parents can mix equal parts rubbing alcohol and water and let everything soak for about 10 minutes. Because rubbing alcohol will quickly evaporate, you don’t even need to rise — just let it dry before using it again. This is a great trick for soaking any hard plastic kid’s toys that may need a quick deep clean, too.
Getting to kiss diaper changes behind comes with one trade-off: For a while, your kid may be using a non-flushing training potty, which means you get to learn what life was like for a Victorian chambermaid. While this plastic receptacle seems like a place crawling with germs, you don’t need to break out the Hazmat suit for every potty visit. But you shouldn’t completely ignore it, either. Rapinchuk recommends simply giving it a rinse with warm, soapy water and letting it dry. (If you need to get any lingering poop out, just wipe it down with a baby wipe first). For deeper cleans, Rapinchuk says you can simply spray down with hydrogen peroxide to kill germs, but this doesn’t need to happen every time. Because hydrogen peroxide is also excellent for disinfecting regular toilet bowls, you can do this weekly when you clean your own toilet, or just spray it down a few times a week if you want it cleaned more often.
Stuffies and lovies tend to go everywhere your kids go, which means they can be covered with everything your kid gets covered in. Again, Maker offers advice on prevention being half the battle: avoid toys that aren’t machine-washable. Then, clean on an “as needed” basis — no need to have a quarterly stuffie wash day. But if a favorite stuffed animal gets taken on a play date with a cousin who, it turns out, was actually sick, or is the victim of a sticky spill, Maker says it can simply be put in the washing machine on a gentle setting on cold. Maker says she uses cold for all her washing needs (and Consumer Reports agrees with her), but if you want to feel extra clean you can set it on hot. Then she recommends drying it to make sure any fluffy stuffing gets fully dried and doesn’t inadvertenly become a place for mold. For spot-cleaning or toys that can’t be machine-washed, you can clean with a little bit of dish soap on a microfiber cloth. You don’t need a lot of soap: just a dab is fine. Then, using another corner of the cloth, you can wipe off the soap.
For toys that need more disinfecting, Maker says check your dryer to see if it has a steam setting. If not, a good-quality steamer that gets steam up to at least 212 degrees can be used to disinfect the surface of plush toys. She likes Reliable’s garment steamers for this. Once it’s been steamed, wipe down the stuffed animal while it’s still a bit damp to refresh the nap of the toy and you’re good to go.
Stains and kids go hand-in-hand. But Maker offers a stress-free way to dealing with them. She says she assesses her own daughter’s stains when she comes home from preschool but doesn’t immediately treat them since dinner time will bring more stains. After dinner, however, she just uses a stain remover and puts the pretreated in the clothes hamper with everything else. Two of her current favorites are Oxiclean and The Laundress’s stain remover, and both are fine to sit on pretreated clothes for days. Letting pre-treater sit for extended periods of time can even help remove stubborn stains. And if at first, you don’t succeed, try try again. Maker says sometimes it will take two or more pretreatments to get out some stains.
While older kids will (hopefully) leave behind training potties and bath toys, they may continue to bring home sweaty, dirty sports equipment until they graduate high school. While uniforms usually wind up in the wash on a regular basis, equipment can get forgotten. Rapinchuk recommends making sure these things get cleaned on an as-needed basis, then once thoroughly at the end of the season. For spot-cleaning things like cleats or shoulder pads, Rapinchuk finds scrub brush, castile soap, and warm water work great. Larger items can be hosed down or cleaned in the garage, with smaller items cleaned in a sink inside. For things that can’t be washed, Rapinchuk puts them in a larger freezer bag and freezes them overnight; this helps tackle both germs and smell. For cleaning uniforms and other machine-washable items, she uses a good detergent and an oxygen booster, like the ones she sells on her site.
A version of this story was originally published in January 2020.
Now get to cleaning your kids (and yourself), too — with these best baby wipes, ranked.