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How to Clean a Plastic Doll

Any mom of little girls knows that once plastic dolls come out of the box, it's only a matter of time before they're decorated with dirt, grime and all sorts of mysterious marks. Even dolls that remain on a display shelf can quickly get dusty and dirty. Many careless parents mistakenly use harsh cleaning products to give that favorite doll a thorough cleaning, only to find later that it looks worse than before. Keeping plastic dolls clean and pristine takes some special knowledge and care.

Cautions for Plastic Dolls

Plastic dolls come in various forms of plastic and vinyl. These plastics should be durable enough to withstand normal play, but you should take more caution with them than you would with the plastic cups you can toss in the dishwasher. In particular, many dolls' faces and nails are delicately painted and can be easily damaged with cleaning chemicals. This is especially true for vintage dolls. "People often make the mistake of using regular household spray cleaners or degreasers that they find under their kitchen sink," says Krista Candler, owner of Krista's Doll Restoration in California. "A quick look on the back of the bottle will let you know if the product is safe for vinyl or plastic."

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Routine Cleaning

Everyday cleaning of plastic dolls only requires mild soap and water – with caution. Candler recommends first making a solution out of clear dish soap and water for the unpainted parts of the body. "Soak a cotton ball in the soapy water and use this to clean the doll's body. Repeat as necessary, rinse the doll with another cotton ball soaked in clean water, and dry the doll with the soft cloth." Then move on to any areas with painted-on features, like the face and nails. To clean dust and grime in these areas, Candler recommends using a cotton swab soaked in clean water. "Go over the face and nails very gently, without putting pressure on the doll's paint. Dry the face, hands and feet with the dry, clean side of the cotton swab."

Tough Cleaning Jobs

When mild soap and water won't get the job done, Candler recommends using orange-based natural cleaning products, which are usually safe for vinyl and plastic. "Spray the cleaner on a cotton ball and test an inconspicuous area first, before cleaning the rest of the body," she says. Continue to proceed with caution over any painted areas; otherwise, the paint may rub off. Candler advises to "stick with clean water and a light touch" in these areas.

Preserving Dolls on Display

Once a doll is clean, you'll probably want to keep it that way. How well you want to preserve a plastic doll may depend on how old it is and how much everyday play it sees. Many older dolls are best kept in a display case. Some mothers like to save their old dolls for their daughters, but if they're sticky or greasy, they should be out of reach. "These dolls may contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that is deteriorating and oozing a chemical that could interfere with a child's reproductive system," says Candler. "Just to be safe, it's probably best to admire Mom's childhood treasures through a display case." Dolls on display should be away from direct sunlight. "I recommend either tinting the windows in the display room, or tinting the display case glass itself," says Candler. "It's also important to shield the dolls from dust by using an enclosed display case, if possible."

Preserving Dolls in Storage

If you want to put any dolls in storage, Candler has several important tips for keeping them clean. "I recommend gently wrapping them in (acid-free) white tissue paper." She stacks her own wrapped dolls inside a sealed plastic container. She also adds, "It's best to store your special dolls inside a climate-controlled home rather than in a garage or attic where temperatures can be extreme," to avoid warping or breaking the plastic from deteriorating. Finally, she advises removing all shoes, accessories and clothing from the doll before storing. "Often, the dyes are not colorfast, and they can stain the doll. If the doll is wearing any metal jewelry, especially earrings, be sure to remove these right away." She notes that many highly collectible vintage dolls have been ruined by oxidized metal's green stains.

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