Tips for Cleaning That Stinky Leather Bag from Overseas

Posted in Africa, Morocco, On the Ground

Last November, I visited Morocco for the first time. I found myself up to my ears in olives and tagines and enthralled with the chaos of the local souks (markets/bazaars) I visited. To check out my Morocco coverage from the trip, head over here. Now that the trip has been over for months, all I have left are my memories… and a bag that smells like pigeon shit.

I’m somewhat wary of buying things in countries where I don’t speak the language. In fact, haggling in the souks was both thrilling and completely discomforting as I had a traveling companion (and native Moroccan) do my translating for me. What exactly she was saying is a mystery to me. All I know is that I wound up buying a beautiful leather bag for $.10 on the dollar in terms of what it would cost in the US. Unfortunately, once I got it home, I realized there was a catch. There’s always a catch with bargains, isn’t there?

In this case, the catch was that the leather had been tanned in the budget Moroccan way, which is to say that it sat in a vat of pigeon poop for quite some time to soften it. Great for the texture, terrible for the smell. For months, I said I would take it in to a dry cleaner or leather expert to get the smell out. Once I started calling around for prices, though, it all fell apart. The lowest price I heard was $60 to clean my bag which had only cost $80. I was left with the best option out there for pretty much any job: do it myself.

After scouting around the internet, I found that I wasn’t alone in this conundrum. The problem seems to be quite widespread. I tried various home remedies, but nothing seemed to work. Washing the bag with olive oil and mild soap didn’t do much. Letting the bag sit in the sun for hours and hours only made it hot. Each time I would try something, it would fail and I’d put the darned bag back in my closet for another few weeks.

I decided to give the de-odoring process another shot, though, and I’m glad I did. Finally, after months of feeling bad about my purchase, I finally got the smell to (mostly) go away. How did I do it? Read on…


1. Put the stinky subject in a giant plastic bag.

You’re going to need a leak-proof workshop of sorts for this project and the best/cheapest option around is a giant plastic bag. A plain garbage bag with work, but a thicker more industrial bag works better. I got mine from a local laundromat that uses them to pack up comforters.

2. Find an odor-absorbing powder.

My first thought was to buy some kitty litter. After all, that stuff is made to trap the poopy odors of your feline, so clearly it could pick up the pigeony scent, right? I was feeling rather lazy and didn’t want to run to the store, so I started looking around my house and found a bottle of Dr. Scholl’s Odor Destroyers Shoe Shot on a shelf. It’s the stuff I use to make my shoes smell less funky, so I thought it was worth a (shoe) shot.

3. Use an irrational amount of the stuff.

For my shoes, I give it one good spray and leave the powder to do its magic. For a giant leather bag like this, I decided to up the ante. I shot about half of the bottle into the large plastic bag. It was more than enough to cover the leather offender, but in this situation it’s better to use too much than too little.

5. Shake it like you’re clearing an Etch-a-Sketch.

The goal is to coat the bag with the absorbing powder. You want to shake the outer bag as hard as you can to completely cover every inch of that foul-smelling thing. When you’re done shaking, shake some more. More shake = less smell.

5. Be patient.

This one’s hard. You want to see if the powder is working, but every time you open the bag, you let the powder out and air in. You want to keep it as a closed eco-system where the bad smells are leeched off by the odor-absorbing powder. Let it sit for at least 24 hours to get the maximum effect — longer if you can stand it. You can also make it a multi-step process by repeating steps 1-5 every couple of days until the smell totally disappears.

For me, a full day in the bag was all it took to get rid of that disgusting smell. After wiping off the white powder the best I can — and watch out, because I’m pretty sure the TSA is going to have some problems with me the first time I bring it through security — you’ll be ready to rock. I can’t wait to use mine on my next big journey.


  1. Rather than thinking that I would be spending $60 to fix an $80 bag I would have though of it as spending $60 to fix an $800 bag (since you said you paid 10 cents on the dollar). Then it would have seemed like a bargain and life would have been so much simpler.

    • I got rid of the smell with about twenty cents worth of a product I already had at home. Now THAT’s a bargain.

      • I’m not disagreeing with the bargain from the final twenty cents POV. I’m just going by you saying you spent months going to leather and dry cleaner stores, searching the internet, trying different solutions, etc.

        The person truly getting the ultimate bargain is the person reading this and benefitting form your trials and tribulations WITHOUT having to have spent all the time on it.


  2. tq kessler for your tips. Wow .. we just came back from Morocco last nite. 26/12..We bought few leather bags from the market.. Initially we did not realised the smell that horrible until we open up our bag at home. Now our whole hse smell like shit… !!
    I need to find what ever stuff I need now to do this magic. Tq Kessler.

  3. Hi there, great article and I’m in the same situation… so thank you! Quick question though, did you zip the leather bag shut or allow the powder to run inside the leather bag?

    • I left the bag open for the powder to get everywhere but YMMV. I believe the stain only gets applied to the outside but I wanted to do whatever I could to change the smell, so the more surface area, the better. Hope that helps!

  4. Thanks for the great solution, will be trying this on my bag from Cuba. Just wondering if the exterior of the bag turned out ok after all the white powder was used? I wouldn’t mind if the interior had residue but would hate to mess up the exterior with this remedy. Thx.

  5. I can’t wait to try this. I bought 2 white leather ottomans on Etsy that came from Turkey and they smell like wet goats. I tried everything – a commercial ozonator, baking soda in a closed plastic container, leaving them in the sun. I was about to throw them away. Fingers crossed.

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