Although the cleaning instructions for a tote bag are typically found on the inside of the bag labeled on a tag, it is better to be cautious with bags that feature prints, embroidery, paint or other sewn on or glued decorations. Whether the bag can be machine washable or must be hand-washed, it is better to err on the side of caution and wash the bag with cool water.
Prior to washing, empty the bag of all possessions. If there are any large stains on the exterior of the bag, treat them with a spot stain remover. Then, turn the bag inside out. Locate and follow any care instructions labeled by the manufacturer. If the bag is plain, it may be suitable for machine-washing with cold water. Certain printing techniques are also safe for washers. However, this does not include many fabric paints and other fragile trimmings. If you're ever in doubt, opt for manually washing the bag with your hands.
Start off by dipping the entire bag in clean, lukewarm water. Then, wring out the excess water and use a soft-bristled brush or your fingers in a light, circular motion to remove any dirt or debris. Focus on problem areas with a light detergent. Follow up with a final rinse to remove all remnants of detergent. As for drying, simply hanging the bag up on a clothesline to air dry will work well. The risk of throwing a tote bag into the dryer is the issue of shrinkage. Allowing the bag to instead air dry will help the bag retain its original size and shape.