Why Does My Handbag Smell of Fish? Banish Odors with These Tips

Ever opened your handbag and been hit with a whiff that’s more seaside than chic? You’re not alone. That mysterious fishy smell can sneak up on you and leave you wondering what’s gone awry inside your favorite accessory.

Let’s face it, your handbag goes everywhere with you and picks up a variety of scents along the way. But when it starts smelling like the fish market, it’s time to take a closer look. We’ll dive into the common culprits and how to get your bag smelling fresh again.

Common Causes of a Fishy Smell in Your Handbag

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your handbag begins to emit an off-putting fishy odor. You’re not alone if you’ve been perplexed by this mysterious scent. Here are the usual culprits:

Spilled Liquids: Your daily essentials can betray you. Coffee, juice, or any liquid that contains proteins can spill and seep into the fabric. Over time, bacteria break down these proteins, releasing an ammonia-like smell reminiscent of fish.

Food Residues: That granola bar wrapper or sandwich bag you forgot to throw out can leave behind crumbs or residue. Bacteria thrive on these tiny morsels, leading to stench.

Cosmetic Spills: Lotions, creams, and other beauty products often contain fish oil or other organic materials. A cap left loose or a broken seal can mean these substances seep into your handbag lining, causing a rancid fishy odor as they decompose.

High Humidity or Moisture: Does your handbag often get caught in the rain or live in a high humidity area? Moisture can encourage the growth of mold and mildew, which can carry a fish-like smell.

Use of Second-hand Bags: Pre-owned handbags might have a history you’re not aware of. Past spills and residues can linger, waiting to assault your nostrils.

Here’s how to tackle these issues:

  • Wipe up spills immediately and air out the bag.
  • Avoid storing food directly in your handbag.
  • Keep beauty products in a separate pouch.
  • Let your handbag dry out completely if it gets wet.
  • For pre-owned bags, clean thoroughly before use.

Remember, your handbag is an investment piece that requires attention to maintain its pristine condition and fresh smell. Regular maintenance and quick action against spills can prevent many of these issues from ever arising. By keeping an eye on these common causes, your favorite accessory will stay as fresh as the day you bought it.

1. Leftover Food or Snacks

Ever wondered why your handbag smells like it’s harboring a fish market? You might want to look at what’s left after your snack time. Leftover bits of food or forgotten snacks tucked away in the pockets of your handbag are often the primary suspects for that uninviting fishy stench.

When food decomposes, it can give off an odor that’s surprisingly similar to fish, and at times, it’s because certain foods themselves contain fish oils or ingredients that have a naturally fishy scent. If you’ve carried snacks like sushi or a tuna sandwich, you’ve found your likely culprit. But even seemingly innocent snacks like crackers or nuts can turn rogue when left ignored.

Here’s the thing: Your handbag is not a fridge. Food residue, even small crumbs, can go unnoticed and begin to spoil, causing bacteria to grow and odors to develop. Tightly sealed areas like zippered compartments trap these odors, and they become concentrated over time.

To prevent this:

  • Always empty your bag after a day out.
  • Check for spills or crumbs, and clean them immediately.
  • Use a mini vacuum or a sticky lint roller if you can’t shake all the crumbs free.
  • Consider packing food in airtight containers.

And remember, regular cleaning doesn’t just help your handbag smell fresh; it extends its lifespan and keeps it looking fabulous. After all, your handbag carries your essentials — don’t let it carry a fishy odor too.

2. Perishable Items

Perishable items are often the culprits behind those unexpected fishy smells emanating from your handbag. It’s not just foods with a fishy aroma; any perishable can decompose and mimic that distinct fish smell.

Meats and dairy are particularly prone to producing foul odors. Think about that day you rushed home with some groceries and used your handbag as a makeshift tote. That packet of chicken or a small tub of yogurt might have leaked without you noticing.

Even fruits and vegetables can leave a scent trail. A squashed berry or an aging banana in the depths of your handbag creates a breeding ground for bacteria. This isn’t just about the smell—these bacteria can transfer onto your hands or anything you put inside your bag.

Here are some steps to prevent perishable items from turning your handbag into a fish market:

  • Double-check your bag after grocery runs or dining out.
  • Store food in airtight containers if they must go in your handbag.
  • Keep perishables and personal items separate; consider a dedicated grocery tote.

Cleaning up after a perishable spill is equally important. Prompt action is crucial.

  • Remove all contents from your handbag immediately.
  • Use mildly soapy water for a thorough wipe-down.
  • For tougher residues, a mixture of baking soda and water can be a gentle abrasive.
  • Air dry your handbag thoroughly; moisture breeds bad smells.

Remember that luxury handbags may require specialized cleaning products. Check with the manufacturer for the best treatment options to avoid damage.

Regular maintenance is key. Even if you don’t think you’ve carried perishables, a quick weekly check won’t hurt. It’ll help you spot potential problems before they start to smell fishy.

3. Wet or Damp Items

Ever found a forgotten water bottle or an umbrella tucked away in your handbag? Wet or damp items are a breeding ground for mold and bacteria, both of which can contribute to that unwanted fishy smell. When items in your handbag don’t get the chance to dry out completely, you’re practically inviting odors to settle in.

Be vigilant with items that could introduce moisture into your bag. Gym clothes, swimsuits, and towels are common culprits. If they must travel with you, place them in a separate waterproof bag. Here’s what else you can do:

  • Always air out any item that may be damp before storing it in your handbag.
  • if you’ve been caught in the rain, ensure everything is dry before zipping up for the day.
  • Consider pouches or compartments within your bag specifically for items that could get wet.

Leather handbags, in particular, are sensitive to moisture. Water stains or dampness can permanently damage the material. For these types of handbags, the risk of a lingering smell heightens when moisture is not immediately removed. Act fast and blot out water spots with a dry cloth.

Lastly, if you carry liquid items like lotions or hand sanitizers, ensure their caps are secured firmly. Spillage can not only cause a mess but also create the perfect environment for odor-causing microbes to flourish. Regular checks of bottle caps and bag contents can save you from a headache down the line.

4. Cleaning Products or Chemicals

Sometimes the culprit behind that fishy smell isn’t what you’ve put inside your handbag; it’s what you’ve used on it. Cleaning products or chemicals can have a surprising effect. Your bag may look immaculate, but the residue from aggressive cleaning agents can leave an unexpected odor that’s hard to shake.

Here’s what could be happening:

  • Harsh Chemicals: Vigorous cleaning agents can react with the materials of your handbag, especially if it’s leather, resulting in a chemical odor resembling fish.
  • Residue: Incomplete rinsing of cleaning agents allows the residue to attract and harbor odor-causing bacteria.

To tackle this without aggravating the problem:

  • Opt for gentle cleansers specifically designed for handbag materials.
  • Always test any cleaning product on a small, inconspicuous area.
  • After using a wet product, wipe the bag down with a clean, damp cloth to remove any soap residue.
  • Let your handbag dry completely in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight to avoid residual dampness.

Remember, less is often more. Frequency and harshness of cleaning can do more harm than good. A well-maintained handbag requires minimal intervention. Simple wipes with a dry cloth and occasional treatment with an appropriate leather conditioner can prevent the need for heavy cleaning.

If you’re storing cleaning products or other chemicals inside your handbag, even briefly, ensure they are sealed tightly. Leaks from containers can go unnoticed but leave a lasting impact on the internal fabric of your handbag. Regularly inspect items like hand sanitizers, lotions, or perfumes for potential leaks. Store such items in a separate pouch to fence off any accidental spills from the rest of your handbag’s interior.

By being mindful of the types of cleaning products and methods you use, you’re one step closer to preserving the fresh scent and pristine condition of your favorite accessory.

5. Material or Fabric Issues

Sometimes the very fabric of your handbag could be the culprit. Synthetic materials, like certain plastics or faux leathers, can emit fishy odors over time. This is due to the breakdown of chemicals within the material itself, a process that can be accelerated by heat or constant exposure to sunlight.

If your handbag is made of genuine leather, the tanning process might be to blame. Some tanning methods use fish oils, which could leave a lingering scent. Over time as the leather ages or if it becomes damp, that smell can resurface.

But it’s not just the exterior you need to worry about. The lining of your handbag can harbor smells too. Fabrics like polyester or nylon are less breathable and might not allow moisture to evaporate properly. If your bag’s interior gets wet from a spill or humidity, a musty, fish-like odor can develop.

Here’s what you can do to mitigate these issues:

  • Air out your handbag regularly to prevent moisture build-up.
  • Keep your handbag out of direct sunlight for prolonged periods.
  • Consider a dehumidifier packet for storage in humid climates.

For leather handbags, it’s best to seek professional cleaning advice to avoid damaging the material. However, you can try using a leather conditioner to keep the material supple and less likely to produce unwanted smells. Always test leather care products on an inconspicuous area first.

In the case of the lining, it may help to turn it inside out and gently clean it using a mild detergent. Ensure you air dry the lining thoroughly before using your handbag again. If the smell persists, sometimes professional cleaning is the only option to remove the odor without risking damage to the bag’s material.

How to Get Rid of the Fishy Smell

Dealing with a fishy smell in your handbag can be a nuisance, but there are practical ways to eliminate it. To start, empty your handbag completely and vacuum the interior to remove any debris that could be contributing to the odor. Focus particularly on seams and pockets where crumbs and other residues are likely lurking.

After you’ve addressed the loose particles, wipe down the interior with a mixture of warm water and baking soda. Use a cloth that’s damp, not dripping, to avoid adding excess moisture. Baking soda acts as a natural odor absorbent, making it ideal for this purpose.

Direct sunlight can work wonders for eliminating bad smells. If your handbag is made of a material that won’t be damaged by UV rays, leaving it outside on a sunny day could help neutralize the odor. Just be mindful of the time it spends in the sun to prevent any material damage.

For those with leather handbags, specific leather cleaners that also deodorize without damaging the material are your best bet. Test any cleaning product on a small, inconspicuous area first to ensure it doesn’t alter the color or texture of your bag.

Sometimes, the best solution is to absorb the odor over a period of time. Stuffing your handbag with newspaper can help, as the paper will absorb some of the smell. Similarly, placing a sachet of activated charcoal or a cup of coffee beans inside the bag when not in use can be effective for more persistent smells.

Finally, consider placing a scented dryer sheet in the bag for a day or two to leave behind a fresh scent. Be cautious with any artificial fragrances though, as these can sometimes combine with the original odor in unpredictable ways.

Remember, patience is essential. Some methods take time before you’ll notice a significant improvement. Regular maintenance and immediate attention to spills and odors can prevent the fishy smell from returning once you’ve dealt with it.

1. Empty and Clean Your Bag

First things first, empty your handbag. Remove everything, even the small pockets where receipts and coins might hide. Turn it inside out if possible. You’re likely to find crumbs or bits of old snacks contributing to the smell.

Once emptied, tackle the cleaning. If your bag is washable, opt for a gentle detergent and avoid harsh chemicals that could ruin the fabric or dye. Hand wash it with care, focusing on corners and seams where odors linger.

For non-washable bags, a vacuum comes in handy. Use the upholstery attachment for gentle suction and run it across every inch of the interior. It’ll pull out particles lodged deep in the lining.

Next, spot treat areas. Mix warm water and baking soda to create a cleaning solution. Apply it with a cloth; rub it onto the lining and pockets. Baking soda is brilliant for absorbing odors without leaving a residue.

  • Don’t soak the material.
  • Be swift but thorough.
  • Avoid getting metal parts wet to prevent rust.

After cleaning, air dry the bag completely before using it again. Dampness can lead to mildew, which means more odors. Place it in a well-ventilated area or under a fan for quick drying. Remember the sunlight trick mentioned earlier? It’s perfect for this step. Sunlight not only helps dry the bag but also works as a natural odor neutralizer. Keep the bag open and flipped inside out if possible while it sits in the sun.

When it’s completely dry, assess whether there’s still a lingering scent. If there is, it’s time to consider additional deodorizing methods highlighted in the following sections. Regular cleaning is essential; don’t wait for a fishy smell to prompt action.

2. Use Odor Eliminators

After you’ve thoroughly cleaned your handbag, it’s time to tackle any remaining odors head-on. Odor eliminators are key in neutralizing that persistent fishy smell.

Start with store-bought odor absorbers. These usually come in various forms, including sachets, beads, and gels, designed to tackle tough scents. Place one inside your handbag, and within a few hours, you should notice a significant reduction in odor.

For a natural approach, consider using activated charcoal. This powerhouse material is known for its ability to trap and remove odors. You can buy activated charcoal bags or create your own by placing loose charcoal in a breathable fabric pouch. Remember to replace these every few months for the best results.

Don’t overlook the power of sunlight. Direct sunlight is a natural disinfectant and can help to fade odors. Place your handbag outside on a sunny day for a few hours, making sure to rotate it for even exposure. However, be mindful of materials that might fade or get damaged by prolonged sun exposure.

Here’s a quick rundown of some items you can use:

  • Odor absorber sachets
  • Activated charcoal bags
  • Sunlight

Lastly, some people swear by coffee grounds for their odor-neutralizing properties. Fill a couple of breathable bags with fresh grounds and leave them in your handbag overnight. Coffee’s strong, pleasant aroma will overshadow any residual fishy smell and can absorb it effectively. Just make sure the grounds are used sparingly and contained, to avoid further mess in your bag.

Remember, keeping an odor eliminator inside your handbag regularly can prevent the smells from finding their way back. Look for products designed for use in small spaces and be proactive about replacing or refreshing them as necessary.

3. Air Out Your Handbag

Airflow is your handbag’s best friend when you’re battling a fishy smell. Let’s get right to it.

Fresh air works wonders. Take your bag outside on a dry, breezy day. Hang it in a shaded spot; direct sunlight can fade colors and damage materials over time. Ensure it’s open wide so the air can circulate throughout the interior. If leaving it outside isn’t an option, find a well-ventilated room and consider using a fan to keep the air moving.

  • Place your bag in an open area
  • Avoid direct sunlight to prevent damage
  • Use a fan if indoors

Sometimes, just leaving your bag to air out for a few hours isn’t enough. Speed up the process by turning the bag inside out if the design allows. This exposes the lining to the air, targeting those hard-to-reach places where odors may linger.

  • Turn the bag inside out if possible
  • Air out interior surfaces

While you’re aiming for freshness, consider placing odor-absorbing materials inside your bag as it airs out. Uncooked rice or crumpled newspaper are great at soaking up moisture which could be contributing to the smell.

  • Use uncooked rice or newspaper inside the bag

Remember, patience is key. Rushing to use your bag again before it’s fully aired out can trap odors. Give it time, and you’ll be rewarded with a clean-smelling handbag. Keep airing out your bag regularly as a preventative measure, especially after cleaning, or if it’s been stored away for a while. This simple habit can make a huge difference.

  • Allow ample airing time
  • Make it a regular practice

Keep the airflow consistent and your bag will thank you by staying fresh and odor-free. Next, let’s explore some additional tips to ensure those fishy smells are gone for good.

4. Avoid Contaminating Your Bag

Preventing your handbag from developing a fishy smell is key to ensuring its longevity and freshness. Understanding how to avoid contamination can save you loads of time and money in the long run. Here are several tips to help you keep your bag in tip-top condition.

Mind What Goes Inside: Firstly, be cautious of what items you’re putting into your handbag. Foods, lotions, and perfumes are common culprits in creating unwanted scents. Store any potential offenders in airtight containers or bags to keep the smell contained.

Use Pouches and Separators:

  • Invest in small pouches for makeup or pens, which can leak or break.
  • Utilize bag separators to keep items organized and prevent commingling of odors.

Daily Content Check: At the end of each day, take a moment to empty your bag and get rid of any trash or leftovers. It’s easy to overlook a piece of fruit or a forgotten sandwich, but these can start to smell quickly.

Regular Liner Change: If your handbag has a removable liner, make it a practice to wash or replace it periodically. Fabrics can absorb and trap scents, and a clean liner can make a world of difference.

Immediate Action on Spills: Accidents happen, but it’s crucial to address spills immediately. Blot any liquid and clean the area as soon as possible to prevent the smell from setting in.

The little things you do to care for your handbag can go a long way. It’s about creating good habits and understanding how to protect your investment from smelly mishaps. Always stay vigilant about the contents and condition of your handbag, and you’ll likely never have to wonder about fishy odors again. Remember, a clean bag is a happy bag, and with these strategies, you’re on the right path.


You’ve got the know-how to tackle that pesky fishy smell in your handbag. Remember, keeping your bag clean and being mindful of what goes in it are your best bets for avoiding any future odors. Stay vigilant with your cleaning routines and don’t let a spill linger longer than it should. With these tips tucked into your back pocket, you’re well on your way to ensuring your handbag stays fresh and pleasant. Now go enjoy a scent-free life with your favorite accessory by your side!

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I remove a fishy smell from my handbag?

To remove a fishy smell, first empty and thoroughly clean the handbag. For washable bags, hand wash or use a vacuum. For non-washable bags, treat with a mixture of warm water and baking soda, and then air dry completely.

Is it possible to clean a non-washable handbag that smells?

Yes, use a spot treatment of warm water mixed with baking soda to clean non-washable bags. Apply it to the affected areas, then fully air dry the handbag.

What should I do if my handbag still smells after cleaning?

If the fishy smell persists after cleaning, use additional deodorizing methods such as placing an open container of baking soda or activated charcoal inside the bag for several hours.

How can I prevent my handbag from developing a fishy smell?

Prevent fishy smells by being cautious about what you put in your bag, using pouches for potentially leaky items, regularly emptying your bag of trash, washing or replacing liners, and cleaning spills immediately.

What is the best way to address spills in my handbag to avoid odors?

Clean spills immediately to avoid odors. If your handbag has a removable liner, wash or replace it. For non-removable liners, spot clean the area with a damp cloth and mild detergent then fully air dry the bag.

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