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You Spilled Coffee in Your Handbag — Now What?

Leather and cotton bag + piping hot latte = not a great mix

Watch that cup, girl!
Watch that cup, girl!

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!


The compromised tote is my very beloved waxed cotton gym bag. It's a deep sort of ashy navy and looks better and better the more I use it, so it's not like it was some pristine specimen. Still, leather jackets look better the more you wear them and you don't want to spill coffee all over those either.

The lining is cotton, too, but it has some leather trim that really held on to that coffee stench. And let me just say: The only thing worse than used gym clothes is putting used gym clothes into a bag that smells like a latte. I do not recommend. Mattie Kahn

I've contemplated my fair share of disgusting smells in the course of doing my job, but I must say that gym gear stench + old latte is not a combination I've ever considered and woof, it certainly ranks up there among the worst of the worst.

The good news here is that I've also spent a lot of time considering what there is to be done about smells in handbags, specifically. I mean, I literally wrote the book on it!

First, You Must Sop

So you've dumped a cup of coffee, or a green juice, or a Diet Coke into your purse. Let's first acknowledge that you will take at least a minute to come to grips with what happened and let out a string of creative curses. That's fine and natural, but try to recover yourself as quickly as possible so you can spring into action.

The first thing you need to do when any sort of liquid spills into a bag is to sop it up before it becomes completely absorbed. This is a lo-fi operation — basically, just grab whatever paper product is close by, whether it be a stack of paper napkins, or paper towels, or even toilet paper, and sop up as much liquid as you can. If you only have rags or dish towels on hand, use those.

Once the bag is as dry as you can get it, it's time to deal with residual stains and smells. In a perfect world, you'd get to this straightaway, but in the real world if this has to wait until you get home, or to a store for supplies, that's okay.

Then, You Must Suds

Regardless of whether the bag is leather or cloth, the next step is to give the interior of the bag a light scrubbing to remove sticky residue and eliminate smells. The best way to do this is to turn the bag inside out, if its design allows for that, but if you can't, that's okay too.

Fresh air would be ideal, because it will have an additional odor-neutralizing effect.

Working with a sponge or small rag and dish soap, you're going to gently scrub the interior of the bag. The key here is in the technique: Get the sponge wet, apply a drop or two of dish soap and then wring the sponge by pumping it your hands several times until it's quite sudsy but only just damp. That way, you can let the suds do the work of removing the stains and the smells, without soaking the bag, which makes this technique safe to use on leather, as well as cottons, wools, and synthetic fibers.

After you've scrubbed and are satisfied you've gotten all the coffee (or whatever) residue out, leave the bag, still turned inside out, to dry near a window, fan, or AC unit. Fresh air would be ideal, because it will have an additional odor-neutralizing effect.

If the bag is machine washable, however, you can skip this step and chuck the thing right in the machine. I've written before about the dos and don'ts of machine washing your tote-, overnight- and handbags, so you may want to refer to those instructions for guidance.

And Finally, You May Need to Deodorize

If the spill was odoriferous in nature, like the coffee that Mattie spilled or, um, barf, there will likely be a lingering odor. There's a super easy treatment for it, though, so don't fret that you'll be stuck toting around a coffee-smelling tote for eternity.

The trick is to use a deodorizing spray designed for shoes — those products will be safe to use on leather as well as fabrics, since they're developed for use on sneakers, boots and dress shoes, which are often made of leather. There are loads of choices out there, but when considering your options, steer away from powder sprays, like Dr. Scholl's Odor-X, to avoid leaving a powdering coating on the interior of your bag. Instead, opt for a product like Sof Sole Deodorizing Fresh Frogger, which won't leave behind residue. And then you'll be in possession of a product that you can use on your stinkiest pair of shoes, so basically everything in your life can smell so, so, so good, and won't that be grand!