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How To Clean a Washing Machine in 3 Easy Steps

It's easier than you think.


You may think your handy-dandy washing machine is self-cleaning, but the truth is that it needs a regular deep clean. But I use hot water, scented laundry detergent, and fabric softener, you might be thinking. No matter. Even the best washing machines need a little TLC once in a while; otherwise, all kinds of smelly debris (like soap scum, lint, and other gunk) can build up in the washer drum and transfer onto your clothes. 

Fortunately, cleaning a smelly washing machine and leaving it spotless is pretty simple. Read on for everything you need to know about washing machine maintenance, from how to clean one and when it’s time to do it.

Why should you clean your washing machine?

The dirt your machine removes from clothes, linens, and towels has to go somewhere, which means grime and bacteria can build up inside your washing machine over time. Without regular cleaning, both top-loading washing machines and front-load washers will harbor soap residue, hard-water deposits, and mold or mildew. You might not notice this when you walk into your laundry room, but your clothes will emerge from their wash cycle with a sticky film and an unpleasant stench.  

What are the signs that your washing machine needs cleaning?

Your washing machine takes care of your clothes, so it’s only fair that you take care of it in turn. With this in mind, here are some of the telltale signs that your washer could benefit from a cleaning cycle.

The washing machine has a foul odor.

If you notice a foul odor emanating from your washing machine, consider it a sign that cleaning is needed. Washing machines are in constant contact with germs and bacteria from dirty laundry, so it’s not surprising that less-than-favorable smells build up over time.

Your clothes emerge unclean. 

In addition to funky smells, stains that remain on clothes after a wash cycle are a clue that your washing machine needs a good scrub. Unless you’re dealing with especially stubborn stains like red wine or tomato sauce, your clothes should be spot-free after washing. 

The rubber seal has black stains.  

Does the rubber gasket around the lid of your top load washer have black stains? This is a clear sign that your top loader needs cleaning. In a damp environment, bacteria and mold build up and get stuck on the rubber seal. Not only do these offenders ruin your clothes, but they’re extremely unhygienic. Clean your washing machine the moment you notice these black stains.

What’s the best way to clean a washing machine?

If your appliance has a self-clean function, choose this cycle and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to properly clean the inside of the machine. If not, follow this simple, three-step DIY process for removing buildup and ensuring your laundry stays fresh and clean.

Step 1: Run a hot cycle with white vinegar.

Vinegar is an awesome eco-friendly alternative to harsh cleaning chemicals like chlorine bleach. To effectively clean your washing machine, run an empty, regular cycle on its hottest water setting and longest cycle using two cups of white vinegar in lieu of detergent. This hot water-vinegar cleaning solution removes bacteria from the wash tub and prevents the growth of new bacteria. It’s also a powerful deodorizer that cuts through strong mildew odors. 

Step 2: Scrub the washing machine.

Mix some vinegar with warm water in a bucket. Use this mixture — plus a sponge or old toothbrush — to clean the inside of the washing machine. Pay close attention to the inside of the lid and the opening. If your detergent dispenser and fabric softener dispenser are removable, soak them in your vinegar solution before scrubbing. And don’t forget to give the appliance’s exterior a good wipe-down, too!  

Step 3: Run a final rinse cycle.

Once you’ve scrubbed the washing machine and cleaned the filter, run one more empty, regular cycle on hot, but this time, without any added vinegar. If you’d like, add ½ cup baking soda for additional freshness. After the wash cycle is complete, wipe the inside of the basin with a clean cloth to eliminate any remaining residue.     

Any maintenance hacks? 

Now that you have some helpful cleaning tips, let’s review maintenance and care tips to keep your washer and clothes clean and fresh.

Clean it regularly.

If you live in an area that has hard water, a general rule of thumb is that you clean and sanitize your top-loading or front-loading washing machine every two to three months to prevent mineral deposits. That said, if you have heavily-soiled clothes or live in a hot, humid area where mold is an issue, consider cleaning your washer on a monthly basis. This will help you maintain a high-efficiency top or front loader.

Leave the lip open.

After running a load, leave the lip of your washer open. This allows the basin, hoses, drum, agitator, and seals to dry and reduces the risk of growing bacteria, mold, and mildew anew.

Don’t let your clothes sit.

We’ve all done it: We forgot that we put a load of laundry in the wash and let it sit for hours before moving it to the dryer. Unfortunately, leaving damp clothes in a warm, humid environment can breed smelly bacteria.

Never store laundry products on top of the washer. 

Whatever you do, don’t store or place laundry products like detergent or washing machine cleaner on top of your washer. Why? Because accidents happen, and if anything spills on the finish or electronic controls, damage is sure to follow. 

Measure your detergent.

Use the right amount of detergent based on how soiled your clothes are and how hard your water is. Using too much soapy water can actually make things worse as the water can’t effectively rinse it away. This results in residual soap on clothes and in the machine.

Check for rust.

Finding little brown spots on your recently washed laundry? Rust could be to blame. Use a flashlight to check your washer basket for chips in the finish. You can either replace the washer basket or opt for a kit to repair and repaint the porcelain coating. Follow the directions carefully, and you just may be able to get in a few more years from your washing machine. 

Don’t overfill your machine.

The last tip on the list, but certainly not the least, is don’t overfill your washing machine with extra-large loads of laundry. While it might be a tempting way to cut down on time, this can cause your washer to overwork, ultimately trapping and clogging your pipes and drains. 

The Bottom Line

Cleaning your washing machine may sound silly, but it’s important. Bacteria, mold, and mildew can quickly build up over time, resulting in funky odors that can transfer onto clothes, towels, and linens. Plus, the appliance might also harbor leftover detergent and hard-water deposits, which can leave an icky residue on laundry. 

To ensure your freshly washed items are as clean as possible, follow the above simple steps for cleaning your washing machine every three months. If you live in an especially humid area, you may want to consider cleaning your machine monthly because bacteria thrive and grow rapidly in warm, moist environments — regular cleanings can combat this. 

And if you just can’t seem to make your washing machine smell good despite your best efforts, contact a technician who can get to the bottom of your troubles.  

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