I have put together some guides on how I clean up different common vintage items that I collect. These methods have worked for me and accomplish my goals- namely, to have the cleanest item possible without great risk of damage.
A word of warning– it is entirely possible (and sometimes lamentably easy) to ruin vintage items by ‘cleaning’ them. Even gentle soap and plain water can have surprising effects on materials that have checkered histories. Since we can’t know what our toys and things have been exposed to, i.e. heat, bathtimes, pools, attics, basements, Grandma’s goodhearted attempt to clean it with bleach…you can’t always predict how even a known material will react. Proceed with caution! Especially if it is a beloved childhood toy or family heirloom, decide how important it is that it be cleaned and ‘restored’.
I have also included some links on the sides to very knowledgeable collector’s sites that I still visit to learn new things.
Cleaning American Girl Dolls (and other dolls)
First, again let me say that my methods might not work for you, and you must proceed at your own risk! This is especially true on higher cost items like American Girl dolls. However, part of their beauty (to me) is their high quality, including the ability to be cleaned and repaired. So many toys are just throw-aways now..
- Here we have a lovely but untidy Samantha doll. She’s far from the dirtiest doll I have ever cleaned, but she has visible tangles and stiff hair (dust and dirt, probably), as well as dust in and around her nose, mouth, ears, and fingers and toes. My first step is always to assess the doll- am I just surface cleaning, or does the cloth body need attention? Are there any stains or smells? Samantha here just needs a good basic cleaning.
- Next up is protecting her eyes. AG doll eyes are sensitive to water and can easily rust (part of the eye that you can’t see is a metal ring). Water in the eyes is also hard to get out and can cause mold or sticking, or for the iris of the eye to become detached. So, how do we make sure we don’t get them wet?Tape and cotton balls! Place a cotton ball over each eye, then cover the eyes all around with tape. I actually prefer masking tape but used Scotch tape here for a visual. Seal all around the eyes; being careful not to catch the hair.
- Wash that hair! American Girl dolls have high-quality wigs made of a special Kanekelon nylon fiber which is also used to make human wigs. I like to use wig shampoo to clean them, following the instructions of placing some shampoo in the sink followed by cool water. Put in enough to cover the head but not the face. Let the hair soak, moving the doll’s head around to ensure you wash all the hair. Tip- if the hair is super dirty, gently scrub with your fingers through the hair or even apply the shampoo directly and wash twice. Rinse thoroughly with cold water after you finish.4. Next, it’s time to condition and detangle. Apply a small amount of conditioner to the wet doll hair and brush or comb out all the tangles. Only use combs and brushes with metal tines. Plastic ones can rough up the Kanekelon, causing frizz. If you don’t want to pay AG prices, pick up a wig brush at a beauty supply store for $3-4 dollars.
5. Once the tangles are out, thoroughly rinse away the conditioner. Next up is cleaning the dolls body. AG recommends using baking soda and a wash cloth, creating a paste. I personally prefer to use a Magic Eraser, slightly damp, over the vinyl body parts. These are made from puffed up melamine and essentially act as a super-fine sandpaper, removing surface dirt and even some stains. Use a toothbrush and q-tips to clean the ears, mouth, etc. I just use water in these areas unless they are sticky-dirty. If I have to use soap on a doll I prefer to use baby body wash for mildness.
6. Now that her hair and body are clean, it’s time to let her dry thoroughly. If she had other issues I would tackle them now (more on that in the future) but with this Samantha I don’t intend to restring her, and don’t need to do anything like removing shine spots or stains. Might as well let Samantha get some beauty rest…
And now for the reveal! Here she is, dry and clean. Her curls stayed and I believe they are original to the doll. She’s quite lovely and in amazing condition- I don’t see any shine spots at all. Check out the classic profile seen on so many boxes and books.
So, there she is. This is a gently way to clean just about any vinyl and cloth doll you own. Later guides will cover some troubleshooting for things like frizzy hair and stains, or loose limbs. Other toys, especially vintage My Little Pony, will also be featured. I am far from an expert, so I will also post links to other amazing websites that helped to teach me what I know! The first one-Just Magic, an incredible guide for collecting and caring for 18inch dolls!