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The Quick and Effective Way to Clean Your Dishwasher, So Your Dishes Stay Sparkling

Gunk builds up, harming your dishwasher and making things stink.

It’s a funny thing having to wash your dishwasher. It’s designed to clean things, after all. Shouldn’t it be able to clean itself? Actually — and unfortunately — no. Dishwashers need the same TLC we give to our other kitchen appliances. The microwave, the oven, the slow cooker… They all get a regular scrub. Your dishwasher, in order to rid it of grime, gunk, and bits of food left behind after numerous wash cycles, needs the same.

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As the mom of four (rambunctious) kids, I’m constantly cooking. This means, of course, that I’m constantly running the dishwasher, too. Though I’ve never had any operational issues with my dishwasher, it recently started to emit a pretty gross smell each time I opened it. Thus began my journey to better understand my dishwasher, how to properly care for it, and most importantly, how to get rid of that horrifying stench. Here’s what I’ve learned. 

Why is it necessary to clean your dishwasher?

It may not make much sense to clean the inside of your dishwasher, seeing as it gets hot, soapy, and disinfected during a wash cycle. However, soap scum, grease, dirt, and food debris build up over time, and this can cause a slew of problems, many of which can cost quite a bit to repair. 

Cleaning your dishwasher prevents the drain from clogging.

If you don’t regularly deep clean your dishwasher, the dishwasher filter, pump, or drain hose will eventually become clogged. A blockage can make your dishwasher less effective, so you may find leftover food particles on your dishware and the bottom of the dishwasher after they’ve gone through the wash cycle.   

A clean dishwasher isn’t a smelly dishwasher

Food debris that doesn’t drain because of a blockage can also cause mildew, mold, and bacteria to form on the inside of the dishwasher, which smells pretty foul when mixed with the dishwasher’s damp environment. Keeping your dishwasher clean eliminates this problem (as I recently discovered). 

Deep cleaning your dishwasher keeps bugs at bay. 

A bug infestation is like a plague in the kitchen — especially when the intruders are gnats in your washer. These pests are addicted to the sugary taste of countertop fruit and decomposing matter in the waste bin. Deep cleaning your empty dishwasher removes the itty-bitty bugs that sneak into the dishwasher through the drain and nest in the filter. 

Cleaning your dishwasher combats bad germs.

According to experts, 100 percent of dishwashers have bacteria in them, with a recent study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology finding pathogens like pseudomonas, escherichia, and acinetobacter in most of their samples. The researchers also frequently encountered fungi, such as candida, cryptococcus, and rhodotorula. Most of these microbes are opportunistic pathogens, so while there’s almost no chance that an individual with a healthy immune system would catch an ailment from their dishwasher, someone who is immunocompromised may want to pay special attention to what’s growing in there. 

How often should you clean your dishwasher?

If you run a load daily, it’s a good idea to deep clean your dishwasher once a month. This helps to keep it running smoothly and efficiently. Don’t use it that much? You might be able to get away with going a bit longer between cleanings. Each week, wipe down the panel and controls — and any time you notice that it’s starting to get smelly or it’s not giving you clean dishes like it normally does, grab your cleaning products and get in there!  

What are the steps to cleaning your dishwasher?

Now that you’re up to speed on the importance of cleaning your dishwasher, you’re likely wondering what’s the best way to handle the task. While there’s no shortage of advice when it comes to cleaning, here’s what I’ve found to be the best way to clean a dishwasher.

Clear the drain. 

Open the dishwasher door, and remove the bottom dish rack (the top rack of the dishwasher usually isn’t removable). Locate the dishwasher drain and debris filter on the bottom of the basin, just below the spray arm. Remove any food residue with a paper towel and toss it in the trash. If this is your first rodeo, you might be surprised how much gunk is in there. 

Note: If there’s a removable screen around the drain in your dishwasher, take that out, too, and give it a good rinse.   

Clean the dishwasher spray arms

The dishwasher spray arm shoots streams of hot water directly onto your dishes to wash away food particles and bacteria. If not cleaned regularly, it can become clogged and dirty — and as a result, you’ll be stuck with an underperforming dishwasher and dirty dishes. To clean the dishwasher spray arms, simply wipe them down with a soft cloth dipped in soapy water.

Rinse with hot water and vinegar. 

Distilled white vinegar is a fantastic cleaner, deodorizer, and sanitizer — hence the reason it’s often used as a natural cleaning solution. To clean your favorite kitchen appliance, fill a dishwasher-safe cup with white vinegar, place it on the top rack, and run a full cycle on the hottest setting

Pro Tip: Dealing with some funky smells? Sprinkle a little baking soda and dishwasher detergent on the bottom of your dishwasher around the drain prior to starting the wash cycle. You’ll thank me later.   

Wipe the rubber seal.

The seal is what keeps the water inside your dishwasher and not on your kitchen floor during each dishwashing cycle. To prevent deterioration and keep it working properly, scrub it with warm water to eliminate trapped gunk before wiping it down with a clean, dry cloth. 

Clean the exterior. 

Once the inside of your dishwasher is squeaky clean, it’s time to shift your attention to its exterior. With a soft, damp cloth, an old toothbrush, or microfiber cloth and mild detergent, wipe down the front of the machine to really make it shine. 

Any DIY maintenance and care hacks?

Cleaning your dishwasher regularly can do wonders to keep it in tip-top shape. Here are some other tips to help you care for your dishwasher and achieve the best dishwashing results.

Don’t overfill your dishwasher. 

It might be tempting to cram all of your dirty dishes in a single load, but overstuffing your dishwasher is a one-way ticket to half-cleaned tableware. The water from the spray arms needs to be able to reach the surfaces of your dishes and inside glasses to clean them effectively. If the streams of water are blocked due to the dishwasher being overstuffed, it’s highly unlikely that any of your dishes will be thoroughly cleaned following a wash cycle.  

Pro Tip: To ensure your dishware comes out clean every time, read your dishwasher owner’s manual for guidance on the proper placement of dishes, bowls, silverware, and cups. This will ensure you avoid blocking the spray arm and soap dispenser. 

Remove food debris after every wash. 

The root of most odor complaints is usually leftover food that likes to hang out in the dishwasher following a wash cycle. To combat these funky smells, make it a habit to inspect the drain and filter after emptying each load. Simply pull out the bottom rack, scoop out any stragglers with a paper towel, and discard. Removing food debris after every wash will help to prevent future buildup, too.  

Scrape dishes before placing them in the dishwasher. 

Another great tip to prevent food buildup is to scrape any solid food from your dishes into the bin before placing them in the dishwasher. There’s no need to pre-rinse, but removing larger pieces of food will help you avoid a clogged drain and unnecessary dishwasher repair.  

The Final Word

And there you have it — the quick and effective way to clean your dishwasher. While it’s recommended to clean your machine monthly, be on the lookout for signs that your dishwasher could use a cleaning sooner rather than later. You may notice a foul odor coming from the dishwasher or dirty dishes following a hot-water cycle, both of which indicate that your beloved kitchen appliance is in need of some TLC.

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