How To Deep Clean A Dishwasher

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Deep cleaning your dishwasher removes mineral buildup, grease, mold, bacteria, and odors that can keep it from getting your dishes clean.

Woman kneeling next to open dishwasher and removing the filter to clean it

You may have read that you can clean your dishwasher by putting a cup of vinegar on the top rack and running it. The idea is that the rinse cycle will splash the vinegar around and clean your dishwasher, but in reality, your dishwasher requires deeper cleaning.

Places like your filters, gasket and spinning arms need additional care. So, don’t cut corners if you want to do the job right. Fortunately, deep cleaning your dishwasher inside and out only takes a few minutes of active effort.

How To Deep Clean Your Dishwasher

Time required: 15 minutes of active effort, plus a complete dishwashing cycle.

Even though they’re regularly filled with hot, soapy water, dishwashers collect all sorts of buildup. In fact, that warm, damp environment is ideal for mold and various dangerous fungi to grow. Taking the time to deep clean your dishwasher the right way helps it work better and eliminates things that could make your family sick.

Equipment and Materials You’ll Need

  • Old toothbrush
  • Tweezers
  • Toothpick or pipe cleaner
  • Flashlight
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Measuring cup
  • 3% hydrogen peroxide
  • Liquid dish soap
  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Pliers (in some cases)

Step 1. Clean the Removable Parts

Remove the racks and utensil holders from your dishwasher and wash them in a sink of warm, soapy water. Dip the toothbrush in white vinegar and scrub any hard mineral buildup you discover on the racks or utensil holder. Pay special attention to the tracks and wheels, which collect a lot of grime in their nooks and crannies.

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Step 2. Check the Spray Arms

Depending on your dishwasher model, you may be able to unscrew the spinner arms. If so, remove them and inspect the holes on the spinner arms for debris or bits of food. Otherwise, use the flashlight and examine them in place. Use the tweezers or pliers to pull out anything lodged in the holes, and insert the toothpick or pipe cleaner to break through mineral buildup and clogs.

Step 3. Scrub the Upper Filter

The upper filter is round and sticks up from the floor of your dishwasher. Turn it gently to the left to remove it. Be advised that if you’ve never cleaned yours before, it will be coated with a thick layer of soap scum and greasy residue. To clean the upper dishwasher filter, soak it for several minutes in warm, soapy water, sprinkle it with baking soda, and gently use an old toothbrush to remove the grime. Rinse it under a running faucet or your sink’s sprayer hose.

Step 4. Scrub the Lower Filter

It’s not uncommon to find silvers of glass or dishware in the bottom of your dishwasher. Use the flashlight to check. Safely remove these shards with a wet/dry shop vac, a lint roller, or by pressing a piece of bread onto them to lift away the pieces.

The lower filter is the screen on the bottom of the dishwasher. This may not be removable in your model, so check your manufacturer’s website. If it’s not removable, use the tweezers to pull out anything lodged in the screen’s mesh, then wipe the screen with a warm, soapy rag. If it is removable, there will be two or more knobs fastening it in place. Turn these carefully to the left without forcing them, then lift the screen past the heating element and wash it in a sink of warm, soapy water.

Step 5. Clean the Gasket and Door

Clean the interior of your dishwasher door with warm, soapy water. While it’s fully open, clean the inside bottom edge — you’ll find a lot of residue growing there, so switch to a clean cloth as needed. Remove stains and stubborn grime by dipping the clean cloth into baking soda and scrubbing, or try my homemade soft scrub. Next, use your fingertips to pry open the folds of the rubber seal gently. Clean between these folds with hot, soapy water and rinse with a damp cloth.

Do not use vinegar on the rubber gasket — it can damage the rubber and ruin the seal that keeps your dishwasher door water-tight. If you find mold or mildew, spray it with 3% hydrogen peroxide. Let the hydrogen peroxide air dry, then wipe the area with a clean, damp cloth to remove any residue.

6. Run a Hot Water Cycle

Put the screen, filter, racks, and utensil holder back into your dishwasher. Select your machine’s longest, hottest cycle using the sanitizing setting or temperature boost and heat drying. Do not add detergent or dishes. After it’s run for 10 minutes, open the door to pause the cycle and pour 1 cup of white vinegar into the bottom of the machine. Resume the cycle and let your dishwasher finish cleaning itself.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some of the most often-asked questions about cleaning dishwashers and related problems. If you have a question not answered here, please leave it in the comment section.

How Often Do You Deep Clean a Dishwasher?

Doing a complete deep cleaning of your dishwasher once or twice a year will keep it working well. The rest of the time, wipe the gasket and wash the round filter weekly, and check the bottom screen for food residue any time you’ve got the bottom rack pulled out.

Can I Use Something Besides Vinegar to Clean My Dishwasher?

If you’d rather not use vinegar, there are dishwasher cleaning tablets that you just drop into the bottom of the machine when you’re doing the dishes. These are mostly just citric acid, so you could get similar results by sprinkling a packet of unsweetened Lemon Kool-Aid or powdered Tang in there.

Why Does My Dishwasher Leave Rust Spots on My Plates?

Rust on plates and silverware is often the result of damaged, rusting dishwasher racks. Inspect the coating on the tines of your racks for nicks or peeling. To fix them yourself, use a rubberized sealant that can handle the extreme heat in dishwashers, or visit your manufacturer’s website to order replacement racks.

Is It Safe to Pour Bleach in My Dishwasher?

Do not use bleach in a dishwasher with a stainless steel interior since it will cause pitting and discoloration. To clean your plastic dishwasher with bleach, pour 1 cup of liquid chlorine bleach into a dishwasher-safe bowl. Place this on the top rack of your empty dishwasher. Run a complete wash cycle but do not use the heated drying. You do not need to rinse the machine again before use. You will still need to clean the gasket, spray arms, and filter as described.

Why Does My Garbage Disposal or Drain Back up When My Dishwasher Runs?

The disposal uses the same drain, so keeping it free of grime and flowing well helps your dishwasher stay odor-free and clean. It’s not a bad idea to clean your garbage disposal when you’re done deep cleaning your dishwasher.


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2 Comments

  1. jeanbean14 says:

    If your dishwasher gives off a bad odor after running it, or the dishes have a yucky film on them, it could be that the drain hose from your dishwasher is lacking a high loop. The drain hose needs to go up high, then down again, to prevent the dirty water from going back into the dishwasher. If the drain hose is long enough, you can easily fix it yourself with a nail and a zip tie. It’s a little more complicated if your drain hose is too short, as you’ll have to attach more hose or replace the hose with a longer one. Instructions are available on the web.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      That’s an excellent point. I just disconnected and removed my dishwasher as part of a DIY kitchen remodel. There’s a bracket on the side of my dishwasher to hold the drain hose high, so it loops up from the bottom of the dishwasher to the bracket and back down again to where it connects to the sink drain. I suspect a large 3M hook and ziptie would be better than using a nail for those whose dishwashers don’t have such a bracket.