steps to clean a dishwasher with vinegar

Get Your Dishwasher Sparkling Clean with These Steps

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Did you know your dishwasher may be full of hidden mold and bacteria? Sure, dishwashers swirl hot, soapy water around, so you’d think they’d be self-cleaning. But it turns out that soapy water doesn’t get rid of all the mold, mineral buildup, and bacteria hiding in there. When it’s time to clean my dishwasher, here are the steps I follow.

Step 1: Grab Your Cleaning Supplies.

Harsh or abrasive cleaners can damage the dishwasher’s plastic and rubber components. To clean mine, I mix equal parts water and white vinegar in a spray bottle and swirl in a few drops of dish soap. Then I grab a big stack of microfiber cloths and an old toothbrush before I get started.

Step 2: Remove the Racks.

I like to get the dishwasher racks out of the way so I can get in there to clean. So, first I pull out the utensil caddy and set it aside. Then, I lift the bottom rack’s front wheels while sliding the rack forward so I can pull it out and set it aside. My top rack doesn’t come out, though, so I work around it.

Did You Know?

You can watch me do all of these steps in the video on this page. Just press Play!

Step 3: Unclog the Bottle Washing Nozzles.

Some dishwashers have nozzles on the top rack that spray the interior of water bottles and baby bottles. Over time, these things get clogged by mineral buildup or food residue. I clear them using a toothpick or pin inserted carefully in the opening.

Step 4: Scrub the Racks.

If you were able to remove either or both racks, now’s the time to give them a good scrub. Heads up: the wheels and slides on the side are where you’ll find the most gunk, so get in there with an old toothbrush and your cleaning solution. Then wipe them down well with a damp cloth and let them air dry while you continue to work.

Pro Tip

With the racks out of the way, use a flashlight to check for glass shards on the bottom of your dishwasher before you continue. They’re pretty common. If you find any, pick them up with a lint roller or press a piece of bread onto the fragments to lift them out.

Step 5: Clean the Spray Arms.

Clogged outlets on your dishwasher’s spray arms means it’s not getting dishes wet or rinsing them well enough. To get your spray arms clean, remove them following your manual’s directions. For mine, you just turn the ring at the base of the spinner arm counterclockwise (left) and lift it out.

Soak the dishwasher spray arms in a sink of hot, soapy water, use a toothpick to clear the holes, and rinse by running water through the center of the spray arm. If you’ve dislodged all the buildup, you’ll see water come out of each hole. Repeat until all the holes flow freely, then reinstall the spinner arm.

Step 6: Clean the Filter and Screen.

All the water your dishwasher uses gets sucked through the filter at the bottom of the machine. That often leaves a layer of thick, congealed grease. To remove the filter for cleaning, turn it clockwise. If there’s a screen, unfasten it and lift it carefully. Soak both in hot, soapy water then rinse and reinstall them.

Illustration of the steps to clean a dishwasher filterPin

Step 7: Clean the Interior.

Spray the inside of your dishwasher with your cleaning solution and wipe it down. If you encounter any stubborn spots of food, use a damp microfiber cloth dipped in baking soda as a gentle abrasive, then rinse it away with a fresh, damp cloth. For signs of mold or mildew, spray on more cleaning solution and let it sit in place for 10 minutes, then scrub with a microfiber cloth and rinse.

Step 8: Clean the Door Gasket and Hinges.

I live in a hard water area, so there’s always a bit of a mineral buildup on the dishwasher door’s rubber gasket and grime on the hinges. But the real surprise is the gunk on the bottom edge of the dishwasher door—I always find mold and food residue there. Ick.

Spray all four edges of your dishwasher door and the hinges with the cleaning solution, scrub them with the toothbrush, and wipe with a damp cloth to rinse. Then, reapply the vinegar cleaner, let it sit in place for 10 minutes to eliminate mold spores, and rinse again.

Step 8: Clean the Steam Vent and Dispenser.

Unscrew or lift the cover for the steam vent and the detergent dispenser lid. Get in there with your spray cleaner and toothbrush, and clean both openings. Rinse the steam vent cover in the sink, scrubbing both sides, and reinstall it. Be sure the vent cover is fastened tightly—a loose one can block the vent.

Pro Tip

The steam vent is behind that around or square cover at the top on the inside of your dishwasher door. It allows steam to escape your hot dishwasher and channels it down the drain. If it’s clogged with food residue or mineral buildup, it will block the vent and you’ll wind up with water on the floor under your dishwasher, usually on just one side. I learned that the hard way!

Step 9: Deodorize and Disinfect Your Dishwasher.

Now that you’ve tackled all the hidden food residue and mold, you’re ready to deodorize and disinfect your dishwasher.

  1. Pour 2 cups of white vinegar directly into the bottom of your dishwasher and start a wash cycle. This puts your dishwasher through the beginning of the pre-rinse so it siphons vinegar through the filter and into the drain line.
  2. Wait 30 seconds and pop open the door to pause the machine. By pausing the cycle, you’re letting the vinegar sit in in the drain hose where it eliminates mold and bacteria.
  3. Resume the cycle after 10 minutes, to flush away the residue. When the cycle is done, you’re left with a clean and deodorized dishwasher.


Does adding a cup of vinegar on the top rack clean the dishwasher?

A popular “dishwasher cleaning hack” says you can add an upright cup full of vinegar to the dishwasher to clean it while you’re doing the dishes. This does not work for two reasons. First, the pre-rinse cycle washes away most of the vinegar. Second, the vinegar that’s left isn’t enough to clean.

To clean your dishwasher properly, you need to pull out the racks and scrub them, wipe all interior surfaces including the door, clean the dispensers and steam vent, dislodge buildup in the spray arms and clean the filters. A cup of vinegar splashed around inside isn’t nearly enough to do that.

How often should I clean my dishwasher?

The more you use your dishwasher, the more often you’ll need to clean it. In busy homes, every three months is a good goal. If you have a smaller household or don’t use your dishwasher daily, twice a year will do. Between deep-cleanings, wipe the seal with a warm, soapy rag and rinse the filter weekly.

Why does my dishwasher leave rust spots on my dishes?

Rust on silverware is usually a sign you’re washing stainless steel with regular utensils. Separate them and the rust spotting should end. But if you’re finding rust on your plates or dishes, it’s usually a sign of damaged dishwasher racks. Check the coating on the prongs for nicks or peeling. You can order rubber tips online or get entirely new racks from the manufacturer.

What should I do if my dishwasher still smells bad after cleaning?

If your dishwasher still has a bad odor post-cleaning, try cleaning the sink drain and see if that solves the problem. If not, it’s probably due to a faulty drain pump or the drain line is not forming the loop needed to prevent back-flow. First, check the loop: look where the drain line leaves your dishwasher and make sure it climbs up then slopes down into the sink drain. If needed, secure it with a nail or hook and zip tie. If that’s in place, it’s most likely a problem with the pump. Contact a repair technician if you’re not a fan of DIY repairs.

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