Bean bag toys can be difficult to know how to clean because they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials. If you’re lucky, you’re just trying to remove some surface dirt. In other cases, the filling can start to smell bad, and you might have some serious stains. Proper cleaning and care requires some thoughtful attention. Also note: Usually a washing machine will do more harm than good.
Where to Start
Before you start cleaning, consider what materials you’re working with. A newer, manufactured bean bag toy with synthetic stuffing is completely different from a homemade toy stuffed with organic materials like real beans. “My cleaning methods are customized for each particular item, depending upon condition, age, and what material the toy is made of,” says Stephanie Spika, a restoration artist and conservator who owns Tender Mercies Doll & Toy Repair. “One method will not work for all types of bean bags. In general, my default is to start with a simple cleaning method, observe the changes, and then ‘up the ante’ as the cleaning methods continue.” One good place to start is to check the tag on a manufactured toy, if there is one, which should provide cleaning instructions. If the tag is unreadable or lost, you might find instructions on the manufacturer’s website.
Spika has seen every type of bean bag toy, manufactured and homemade. External materials can be everything from simple cotton fabric to velvet or even leather. “A handmade, old or vintage bean bag must be treated even more gently than a commercially made bean bag,” she says. “Fabrics vary widely, and the older they are, the more likely they will tear or fall apart during cleaning. Old fabrics are subject to dry rot, mold, mildew, and odors, and are often are not colorfast.” Filler for bean bag toys also varies widely, from inorganic materials to real dried beans and peas. Some old synthetic materials like foam don’t stand the test of time well. Food can also cause problems. “Just like food in your cupboard or fridge, when food gets old, bacteria may grow, and then the food goes bad,” says Spika. “This may happen inside your bean bag. If your bean bag stinks and has dried doggie slobber on the outside, then it has bacteria growing on the organic material trapped inside the bag.”
You can start cleaning most bean bag toys with some basic surface cleaning. If you have a newer, manufactured toy that you won’t risk ripping, Spika recommends brushing the surface with a clean, dry brush — outdoors if you don’t want to make a mess. Then, vacuuming the surface and running over it with a sticky lint roller treatment should remove most surface dirt, lint and hair. If you have an older bean bag toy that might tear, try these methods very carefully and gently.
If dry surface cleaning doesn’t get the job done, determine what the toy is stuffed with. Older and homemade toys are more likely to have filling that can rot or start to smell than newer, manufactured toys. If the contents are organic or otherwise unstable or smelly, “gently pick open a seam and dump out all of the filling into a bowl or jar,” advises Spika. “Keep the contents dry.” If the filling is dusty (like old foam), wear a mask and gloves and discard it. Once the toy is empty, dilute a capful of a gentle cleaner like Woolite in a bowl of water. “Use a clean sponge to gently smooth over the surface of the toy,” says Spika. “Try not to get it soggy, and do not place it in the bowl of solution.” Be sure you test your cleaning solution on a small, inconspicuous area of the toy before using it on the rest of the surface.
Aside from Woolite, a number of products, like all-purpose solutions and upholstery cleaners, may clean effectively. “You can use spray cleaners, but you must remove the spray attachment and dilute the cleaner in a solution of water placed in a bowl or bucket,” says Spika. Never use any products that contain bleach. After surface cleaning with the solution, repeat with a clean sponge and water. Wrap the toy in a towel and blot to remove excess water. If the product you use doesn’t work, let the toy dry and then repeat cleaning with a stronger solution. Again, take special care if cleaning an old or homemade toy — some materials might not be capable of wet washing.
Drying and Re-Stuffing
Set the toy on a flat surface, like a cookie sheet covered with a towel, to dry. Spika then recommends placing in a warm place like on top of a dryer or on top of a bookshelf, away from direct sunlight. Check the toy every eight to 12 hours until it's completely dry. If it’s satisfactorily clean and you poured out the contents, you can re-stuff it now. Use the original contents if they’re still stable, or use fresh filling. Spika recommends a synthetic bean bag filler available at many craft and fabric stores.
Care and Preservation
“Sounds like a lot of work for one little bean bag, right?” notes Spika. In many cases, replacing an old toy is the most logical solution. However, if you have a toy that is irreplaceable, you need to take extra special care. Spika has several tips. First, “keep bean bags stored away from pets in a clean, dry box or container.” Second, “vintage or antique toys should be stored in specialized archival containers, which can be purchased online from preservation supply sites.” Third, “vintage or antique bean bags should also be kept out of direct sunlight, and away from extremes of heat and cold.” Finally, “basements, attics, garages, and storage units are not recommended storage locations, because they often undergo cyclical extremes of heat, cold and humidity.”