How To Clean Washing Machines

Clean

Your washing machine develops buildup and bacteria that cause mold and odors. Time to clean it.

Why You Should Clean Your Washing Machine

Doesn’t it seem like a machine that’s regularly filled with hot, soapy water ought to clean itself in the process? Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s Full of Bacteria and Mold

Many people only use cold water to do laundry. Using cold water to wash clothes is an excellent way to keep them from shrinking and help them last longer. Plus, it helps keep your energy bill under control.

But not all laundry detergents do well in cold water. Some need heat to activate their ingredients. If you use that kind of detergent in cold water, it leaves behind a residue in your washing machine and its hoses. That residue traps bacteria which leads to odors.

Some manufacturers make detergents specifically designed to work in temperatures as low as 60°F (16°C). These coldwater detergents don’t leave behind a residue, but they also don’t kill mold or mildew spores in your machine. And, of course, that mold and mildew can cause odors, too.

Doesn’t Washing a Load of Towels Clean It?

People sometimes believe that washing a final load of towels in hot water or with bleach is enough to clean their washing machine. This method doesn’t really work, because it overlooks the difference between cleaning and disinfection. Clean surfaces are not necessarily disinfected, and disinfected surfaces are not necessarily clean.

Cleaning involves physical scrubbing or wiping, usually with soap and water. Cleaning reduces the number of germs by decreasing the amount of grime, dust, and dirt on a surface. Running a load of towels in your washing machine will clean it due to the detergent and the towel’s scrubbing action. But, even if you add bleach, that load won’t necessarily disinfect your machine.

Disinfecting kills lingering germs on a surface. Disinfection reduces the risk of transmitting infections or illnesses but does not necessarily leave the surface free of dirt and grime. Too much dirt on a surface overwhelms disinfectants and keeps them from killing germs. So, adding bleach to that final load of towels doesn’t necessarily disinfect your machine — or your towels.

How Often to Clean Your Washing Machine

Deep-cleaning your washing machine, whether it’s top-loading or front-loading, is a fairly easy task that keeps it working like new and smelling fresh. In most households, you only need to do it once a month. Some situations require more frequent deep-cleaning, though:

  • If you live in a humid area, your washer will more easily develop mildew, especially if you don’t leave it open.
  • If you wash many oil-stained or greasy clothes, like coveralls worn by someone who works on cars or with machines, since the oily residue can trap bacteria.
  • If someone in your family has skin infections, a compromised immune system, or other health issues which make them vulnerable to bacteria.

And, of course, any time you see a grimy ring developing at the top of the drum in top-loaders or around the door gasket in front-loading washers, you should deep clean it right away.

Deep Cleaning Top-Loading Washing Machines

Cleaning your top-loader washing machine will keep it from smelling bad, kill mold and mildew, and remove grimy buildup.

Photo of female hand pouring powdered laundry detergent into top-loading machine

Time Required: 20 minutes plus 2 wash cycles.

Equipment You Need:

  • Lint-free cleaning cloths
  • Old toothbrush or soft-bristled brush
  • Bucket
  • Towels

Materials You Need:

Instructions:

1. Clean the lid: Open the top, spray it with an all-purpose cleaner, and then use a soft brush to remove any caked-on detergent or grime. Be sure to get the hinges, too. Wipe the lid with a clean, damp cloth.

2. Clean the gasket: Combine 1 cup of hot water and 1 cup of white vinegar in the bucket. Dip a fresh cloth into this mixture and scrub the hard rubber gasket at the top of the tub barrel. Once you’ve removed all the buildup, wipe it with a clean, wet cloth. Don’t use straight vinegar to clean the gasket, or you may damage it.

3. Scrub the dispensers: If your bleach and fabric softener dispensers are removable, take them out and wash them in a sink of hot, soapy water. Use an old toothbrush to clean any grime in the corners. Rinse and then let them air dry. Repeat this process with the agitator if it’s removable (as in the Fisher-Paykel top loaders).

4. Clean the dispenser area: The spot where the dispensers usually go can get pretty grimy. While they dry, clean this area with a damp microfiber cloth. Use the scrub brush as needed to remove any residue. Once the dispensers are dry, reinstall them in the machine.

5. Clean the washing machine tub with vinegar: Run the wash cycle on the hottest water setting using the highest water level. Add 2 cups of white vinegar as the tub fills but do not add detergent or any other laundry product. Allow the full cycle to run, then open the lid to let your washing machine air dry.

6. Clean the Exterior: While the machine runs, wipe the exterior with a clean cloth and an all-purpose spray.

7. And repeat: As soon as the vinegar cleaning cycle ends, pour 1 cup of baking soda into the drum of your washing machine. Add the towel but no detergent, fabric softener, or other product. Now, rerun the machine on the highest water level using a cold setting. The baking soda and towel will finish scrubbing and deodorizing your machine. Once that cycle ends, pop the lid open and remove the towel to let your machine completely dry.

Tip: After cleaning your washing machine, inspect your washing machine’s hoses. Replace them every three years or immediately if you see signs of wear.

Deep Cleaning Front-Loading Washing Machines

Follow the steps below to deep clean your front-loading washing machine naturally, get rid of odors and grime, and leave it smelling fresh.

Closeup of hand prying rubber gasket back to reveal mold growing in front-load washer that needs to be deep-cleaned

Time required: 20 minutes plus a full wash cycle

Equipment You Need:

  • Lint-free cleaning cloths
  • Old toothbrush or soft-bristled brush
  • Bucket
  • Several towels

Materials You Need:

Instructions

1. Protect your floor: Place a towel or two on the floor in front of your machine to protect it from moisture. Add another for your knees if you like.

2. Fill your bucket. Add 2 quarts of hot water and 1 cup of white vinegar to the bucket. Place it on the towel in front of your machine.

3. Clean the gasket and grooves. Spray the rubber gasket inside the door with an all-purpose cleaner and wipe it with a fresh cloth. Then, using your fingers, gently expand the gasket and repeat inside the ridges. Don’t be surprised if you find mold growing there — it happens.

4. Disinfect the gasket and grooves: Use a fresh cloth dipped into the vinegar-water mixture to wipe the gasket and grooves, prying them open as needed. Be sure you fully saturate the area, then let it remain wet, so the vinegar continues killing mold and mildew while you continue with the next steps.

5. Clean the dispensers: Remove the soap and fabric softener dispensers and wash them in a sink with hot water. Use the scrub brush to loosen any grime. Rinse the dispensers well and let them air dry.

6. Clean the dispenser area: Dip a clean cloth into the vinegar-water and wipe the area where the soap and fabric softener dispensers usually go. Put them back if they’re dry.

7. Sanitize: Fill the detergent dispenser with straight white vinegar. Do not add additional detergent, bleach, or fabric softener at this time. Run the machine using the hottest setting (usually “sanitize”) or the self-cleaning cycle if it has one.

8. Clean the exterior: While the machine runs, clean the outside with all-purpose cleaner and fresh, clean cloths.

9. Dry: As soon as the wash cycle ends, open the machine and wipe it dry with several clean, dry cloths. Use fresh cloths to dry the gasket. Pry open the gasket’s folds and dry them, too. Then leave the machine’s door open so the tub can completely air dry.

Tips to Keep Your Washing Machine Clean

The tips below will help keep your washing machine clean and smelling fresh between deep cleanings.

Closeup of hand in rubber glove using a cloth to wipe the rubber gasket of a washing machine

Use the Correct Detergent

You don’t need to give up that money-saving cold water wash. But, if that’s the temperature you prefer, be sure to choose a detergent designed to perform in cold water. That way, it won’t leave an odor-causing residue in your machine. High-efficiency (HE) washing machines also need special detergents that are designed for use with less water. Using a standard detergent in an HE machine leads to residue and buildup in your machine and also on your clothes.

Use the Right Amount of Detergent

Laundry pods make measuring simple — just toss one into the machine. But pods are also pricey. If you’d rather use liquid or powdered detergent, be sure to adjust how much you use based on the type of load you’re washing. Clothes that aren’t too dirty don’t need a lot of detergent, so you can often reduce how much you use. Heavily soiled loads, like gardening clothes or stinky sports uniforms, need the full amount indicated on the detergent’s instructions.

Stop Using Liquid Fabric Softener

Liquid fabric softeners work by coating clothes with a petroleum-based surfactant. They’re designed to leave a light coating on fabrics even if you wash in hot water. If you use cold water, it’s like trying to wash a greasy dish in a sink of cold water — it’s just not going to get clean. If you’re concerned about static cling, replace the liquid fabric softener with 1 cup of distilled white vinegar — the smell will disappear when your clothes dry.

Dry After Use

On laundry day, leave your machine’s door open for at least an hour, so the inside has a chance to dry completely. If you can’t leave the door open because pets or kids might climb into the machine, at least wipe the inside dry with an absorbent cloth after use.

Or Try This

Rather not go through all these steps to deep-clean your washing machine every month? Many readers swear by these Affresh tablets that clean and deodorize washing machines.

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16 Comments

  1. Melissa@TheHappierHomemaker says:

    Thank you for this…I have been looking at my gunky top loader every day for a week knowing something must be done but not knowing where to start.  No excuse now!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome! I cleaned mine today, and now I don’t want to do laundry because I don’t want to mess it up again. 😉

  2. Thank you for this article, I have everything on hand so I don’t have to go to the store, my HE washing machine stinks and is grimy, now I can go in there and fix it…I wrote everything down step by step, now I’m ready…

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m glad you have everything on hand. Good luck, and let me know how it turns out!

  3. Hi Katie Berry Sorry I know this article hasn’t been commented on for a little while, but I just wanted to ask you mean distilled malt vinegar when you say white vinegar. I would like to wash my machine, but don’t want to use the wrong vinegar! Thanks

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Oh heavens, NO! Malt vinegar is best on fish and chips, Shabana! I suspect you’re probably more familiar with the phrase “purified vinegar”. Malt vinegar contains barley, and is a lovely source of flavour, but is not suitable for cleaning.

  4. How do I clean my dryer inside from pen or marker exploding?

  5. I was wondering if when you use vinegar instead of fabric softener, you’re clothes end up smelling like vinegar?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      No, the vinegar smell disappears in the rinse and definitely is gone by the time they’re dry.

  6. We’re renters, and our wash machine isn’t hooked up to hot water and I don’t think it’s ever been cleaned. You suggested running on the hottest setting, but that’s just not an option for us. Any alternatives? Thanks so much! I moved out of my mom’s last year and your blog has really helped me keep my place tidy.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Alicia,
      How frustrating not to have hot water to do your laundry! You can still clean the machine, though.

      Run a cycle using the highest water fill setting and cold water. Don’t add clothes, detergent, or fabric softener, but add either 1/2 cup chlorine bleach or 2 cups of distilled white vinegar once it’s filled. (Don’t add both — you’ll create chlorine gas!) Let the cycle finish running, and you’ll have disinfected the washer tub and hoses.

      Finish up by wiping the gasket, door, knobs, handles, and exterior with disinfecting cloths, and your machine will be fresh and ready for use.

  7. I have cleaning vinegar. Google says a top loader user about 40 gallons. The chart on the back of the vinegar says 1/2 cup per gallon that would mean 20 cups of vinegar to clean it. 2 qts is 64 oz which 8 full cups. So is a whole 2 qts bottle of cleaning vinegar going to damage my washer or can I dump it in?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      That much vinegar is excessive and can damage the hoses and mechanics in your washer. Just use the 2 cups in your top loader as discussed.

  8. Zein Jallad says:

    What else would you recommend as a fabric softener? I live in a country where we don’t have the fabric softener sheets!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I add distilled white vinegar to my rinse cycle, and it softens close while eliminating static cling. Or, you could follow my tips here for homemade dryer sheets.

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