Open dishwasher with white clean dishes after washing in modern scandinavian kitchen. Clean kitchenware in open dishwashing machine.

7 Things You Need to Know About How to Clean a Dishwasher

Iwould like to thank Josephine Cochrane of Illinois. I’d like to, but I can’t. She’s been dead for more than a century. But if I could I’d thank her for inventing the dishwasher. Personally, I’d give up just about anything but my dishwasher.

Open dishwasher with white clean dishes after washing in modern scandinavian kitchen. Clean kitchenware in open dishwashing machine.

I’ll admit to being a stickler when it comes to properly washed dishes, glassware, and utensils. If they come out spotted, gritty, or cloudy I’m not happy. And is that happens, I know how to clean a dishwasher to get it back up to its tip-top operation.

If your dishwasher is not turning out beautifully clean, cloudless, spot-free, sparkling dishes, pots, glassware, and flatware—without handwashing them first—don’t assume the dishwasher is broken. If it runs, you can make sure it runs well by knowing how to clean a dishwasher. And you can stop that pre-washing.

Years ago before we remodeled and sold our home in California, I’d lived with a low-end, plain wrap, well-used, 18-year old dishwasher. All was well until I began noticing that dishes came out feeling gritty, glasses were streaked and cloudy, food remained stuck to flatware. Ugh. It was really bad. I assumed my Tappan had lived out its useful life and deserved to be put down.

Not feeling up to a kitchen remodel right then (you know how that goes … new dishwasher cries for new cabinets and that means new countertops which leads to new flooring … ), I set out to find a solution. I learned the problem wasn’t the dishwasher so much as it was the owner-operator.

At a total cost of about nine bucks and a crash course in how to clean a dishwasher and keep it clean, I had good ol’ Tappan working like new in no time. And I didn’t resort to pre-rinsing. I still refuse to pre-rinse.


Just like a car, a dishwasher needs routine maintenance. From time to time you need to get rid of limescale, soap scum, iron, and grease that builds up in your dishwasher. You may be able to see stains and another crud, but much of this is hidden in the hoses and other out-of-sight places.

One of the best ways to clean a dishwasher is with a monthly “acid bath.” You can do this with unsweetened lemonade Kool-Aid, Tang powdered drink mix or a product called Dishwasher Magic or Affresh. All of these products contain citric acid.


Dishwasher Magic and Affresh safely and effectively remove limescale, iron, soap scum, great,e and food stains that build up inside the dishwasher. Unlike the drink powders, Dishwasher Magic also kills 99.9% of germs and extends the life of your dishwasher while improving its cleaning performance.

If you use the drink powders, fill both detergent cups with Tang or pour one package of the lemonade powder into each of the cups. Run the empty dishwasher through a complete cycle. If you opt for Dishwasher Magic follow the package directions.

I credit Dishwasher Magic with getting another six years of service out of that venerable Tappan dishwasher.

Water temperature

To effectively clean dirty dishes, a dishwasher needs 140 F. water. And it must enter the dishwasher that hot. If you raise your water heater temperature, beware of the hotter water’s potential for scalding at sinks, showers, bathtubs and in your washing machine. (You can get scald protection devices for sinks and tubs that children use.) The single most important factor in getting good results is hot water. Water should enter the dishwasher at 140 F*. If your dishwasher is newer, it may have its own in-line water heater. Check your manual.




It’s difficult to beat the Cascade lineup of powdered products, but Costco and Walmart store brands come pretty darn close. Gel detergents of any brand, however, are troublesome. They create more problems than they resolve.

Gel contains chlorine bleach, never fully rinses off the interior tub, clogs the detergent dispenser, doesn’t work well in hard water, and leaves spots—in my opinion.

I recommend that you stick with fresh powdered automatic dishwasher detergent, like Cascade Complete. Just keep in mind that it loses its ability to clean properly when exposed to humidity and air. Unless you are a heavy user, don’t opt for the largest box of detergent and never store it under the sink, which is likely the most humid spot in the house.

Do not rinse

Scrape food to remove all the chunks, but don’t pre-rinse items for the dishwasher. Automatic dishwasher detergent is highly alkaline and needs the acidity of the food to reach optimum cleaning action. Besides, rinsing wastes time, energy and water.

Detergent alternatives

I’ve done a lot of experimenting but have not found a reasonable substitute for commercial dishwasher detergent. In a pinch, I’ve used a 50/50 mix of borax and baking soda with acceptable results. But on a regular basis, it does not produce good results.

Rinse agent

A rinse additive like Jet-Dry improves the sheeting action of water and leaves dishes sparkling clean, but it can be pricey. Hint: White vinegar is a reasonable substitute. Fill your rinse additive dispenser with straight white vinegar. Occasionally toss in a cup of white vinegar to the last rinse.

Save water

It takes between 6-10 gallons of water to run your dishwasher compared to 9-24 gallons you would consume doing them by hand. So give yourself a break and let your dishwasher do the job Josephine intended for it to do.


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10 replies
  1. ALISSA says:

    Can I use powdered citric acid that I use in canning? If so, would a tablespoon be sufficient?
    Thank you so much for helping us to save money, resources, and the environment!

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Yes … citric acid has many uses, and preserving food is one of them. Two tablespoons of citric acid in the detergent cup will do a great job of cleaning your dishwasher.

  2. Jayne says:

    Any suggestions for dealing with VERY hard water? We have a sand well and learning to use this nice dishwasher is a challenge. Things are often coming out covered in a thin white coating, especially dark items or rubber items like my blender edges.

  3. Robyn says:

    You also need to clean the filters under the main bottom blade. Go to YouTube to find a video on how to do this for your particular model. The main trap was filled with gunk, so when I tried the steps above, my dishes still were not getting clean. I also was surprised to see most of the little holes in the spinning arms were also blocked, and I used a turkey skewer to pull out the blockages.

  4. Barbara Fiaschetti says:

    Two more suggestions. If buying a new dishwasher, choose one with a filter that’s easy to remove and rinse. Rinse filter once a month or so. Also, on my dishwasher I discovered there is a strip of the bottom of the dishwasher, where the door folds up into the machine, which becomes soiled and isn’t cleaned during the dishwashing process. At least once a month I take a damp paper towel and wipe the bottom front inner edge of the dishwasher (just inside the door.) I discovered this when the dishwasher had a bad odor that didn’t go away after using Afresh.

  5. Diane says:

    Mary, thanks for the great info on how to better use and maintain household appliances! I meant to wish you a birthday greeting yesterday and forgot to follow through- sometimes multi tasking is overrated! 🙂 I appreciate all of the work, research, and effort you put into EC!

  6. Cally Ross says:

    How timely! I just purchased a dishwasher from a friend who is remodeling her kitchen, it works fine but not “like new”. I’m going to get lemonade on my way home! I suspect it will smell wonderful in addition to cleaning.
    thank you!


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