pristine clean white washing machine

Stinky Laundry, Smelly Washer: How to Clean a Washing Machine

If you assume the inside of your washer is the cleanest place in your home because you put detergent through it with every load of laundry, join the club. Most people think that. And that’s a really bad assumption. It’s time for all of us to learn how to clean a washing machine. 

pristine clean white washing machine

Have you ever wondered why there’s dirty residue on the agitator? Why do washed clothes sometimes come out with stains they didn’t have before they went in? Why do towels get stinky?

The answer is germs. According to a study by Dr. Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, if you wash a load of just underwear, there will be 100 million E. coli in the wash water, which can be transmitted to the next load of laundry.

However, and this is good to know—of the more than 60,000 kinds of germs, only one to two percent of them are potentially pathogenic. But the other 98 percent, when allowed to accumulate, can produce a terrible odor in clothes, towels, and linens—and inside the washer, too.

If you rely on laundry detergent alone to get rid of all the dirt and germs but are not occasionally using bleach and very hot water, you’re not killing the bacteria. In fact, they’re getting on your hands when you remove the wet laundry and also staying behind in the washing machine.

How to Clean a Washing Machine

You’ll need:

✅ rubber or latex gloves

✅ cleaning cloths

✅ old towels

✅ bucket or container for mixing

✅ plain white vinegar

✅ liquid chlorine bleach*

✅ hot water

If at all possible, turn up your water heater to at least 140 F. several hours before you intend to clean your washer.

Read the manual

Washing machine manufacturers almost always include a cleaning directive in the owner manual. My 9-year old GE front loader has a setting on the dial for “Clean Basket,” as do many newer washers. Start following the directions in your owner manual if you have such a setting. Or these general instructions:

Front-Loading Washing Machine 

This is a multi-step process, which should be performed monthly.

  1. Make sure the drum of the machine is completely empty—never include any items of clothes, towels or other while cleaning the machine. Select “Basket Clean” or “Tub Clean” on the wash settings. If your front loader does not have such a setting, select the hottest, largest, and longest load settings. 
  2. Add 2 cups of white vinegar to the empty washer drum (or to the detergent reservoir if your machine does not have a “Basket Clean” or “Tub Clean” cycle). This is going to help get rid of the odors and any mildew that has accumulated inside the machine. Allow the machine to run through an entire wash and rinse cycle.
  3. Set the washer a second time on the same cycles as above—“Tub Clean,” or “Basket Clean,” or the hottest, largest and longest cycles. Pour 2 cups of liquid chlorine bleach into the empty washer drum. This is going to kill germs and bacteria that have accumulated inside the machine. Allow the machine to run through another entire wash and rinse cycle.
  4. Run a third cycle on the same cycle without adding anything to the empty washer drum. This will remove and rinse away any remaining residue.
  5. Fill a bucket with a solution of 1/4 cup liquid chlorine bleach and 1-quart water. Dip a clean rag into the solution, ring it out. Pull back the rubber seal around the washer door, looking for mildew and other deposits. Clean this area well with the rag or scrub brush, rinsing it as needed in the bucket. Follow with a clean, dry cloth to remove any remaining moisture from the seal area.

 

Top-Loading Washing Machine

This process is quite similar to cleaning a front-loading machine and should be repeated monthly.

  1. Making sure there are no clothes in the machine, set it to the hottest, largest, and longest cycle available. Add 4 cups (1 quart) of plain white vinegar to the tub (no detergent). Close the lid and allow the machine to agitate for one minute or so. Open the lid (or press “Pause”) so agitation stops and allow the machine to sit for one hour. After one hour, allow the machine to complete a full cycle including rinse and spin.
  2. Leaving the same settings, fill the machine with the hottest water available and add 4 cups (1 quart) liquid chlorine bleach. Close the lid and allow to agitate for one minute, then open the lid to stop the agitation for one hour.
  3. After one hour, allow the machine to complete a full cycle including rinse and spin, again.
  4. Run a third cycle on the same settings without adding anything to the detergent reservoir. This will rinse away any remaining residue.
  5. Finally, using a clean cloth dipped into a mixture of 1/4 cup liquid chlorine bleach to 1-quart water, clean the area under the rim of the washer—between the basket and machine’s housing. Wipe down the detergent reservoir and clean all of the nooks and crannies of the washer that you can reach easily, where bacteria and dirt may have accumulated.

*If you don’t want to use chlorine bleach, do not assume that oxygen-based bleaches or even hydrogen peroxide will give you adequate disinfectant qualities needed for the cleaning process. PineSol in place of liquid chlorine bleach is an acceptable and effective substitute to clean your washer. And it is septic system safe. Follow the same steps for cleaning with chlorine bleach as listed above.

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Published: 2-28-20; Updated & Republished 1-6-22


 

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Newer Comments »
  1. Patricia Lavenz says:

    I will never ever buy a front loader. We had them growing up in the 70s and the 80s and I hated them. My grandmother had them at her house too. I like the top loaders. They don’t leak, they don’t have to be cleaned as much, they take less time, and you can open them up if you forgot to put a sock in etc. My mothers used to take an hour to do a load and then the dryer wasn’t any better (and they were new) and it took an hour to dry clothes too and you had to empty the water out of it every few days.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Well, Patricia … this is rather irrelevant to knowing how to clean a washer, isn’t it? Modern front-loaders are a big change from the 70s and 80s.

      Reply
      • Patricia Goff says:

        I agree. My apologies. I still wouldn’t buy one. I used my mothers front loader in July and in October and November and I still wasn’t impressed with them. they are slow and take forever. They smell too where my front loaders never smell. LOL

    • Mary Hunt says:

      High Efficiency means it uses very little water. So not sure it’s supposed to “fill up completely!” Check your owner manual.

      Reply
  2. Laura Grover says:

    My 15 year old Maytag front loader was able to do this by setting it on hot, then adding the stain cycle, heavy wash, and extra rinse to add more minutes. Took all afternoon for all the steps, but WOW! This is so much cleaner than any “washing machine cleaner” I have tried running through it. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Affresh for front or top loading washing machines contains: Sodium Percarbonate, Sodium Carbonate, Glucono-Delta-Lactone, Polyethylene Glycol, Sodium Acetate, Fragrance. None of those ingredients are known to kill germs like E.coli.

      Reply
  3. Jean says:

    Like many others, I have hard water where I live. I have always used CLR (Zep works fine, too) once a month to clean the washer for many, many years. Don’t remember where I learned that from, but it seems to work well. Also put some in the fabric softener dispenser at the same time. The directions are on the product label for washers, dishwashers and other items.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Great tip Jean. CLR is a fine product for removing calcium, lime, and rust deposits. But CLR does not kill bacteria and germs.

      Reply
  4. Red says:

    When we bought our front loading machine 18+ years ago I insisted it have the ability to heat water to 170-180 F (I’ve forgotten which). I had just read an article sponsored by Clorox that showed how much bacteria was left at least around the top of a top loading machine. I was also found that many front loading machine advised against using Bleach in their machines. ( I presumed this was because the machine holds about 1 quart of water after emptying.

    It was a tough conversion as I grew up with always bleaching towels, sheets, and cotton underwear! And, yes towels faded but that wasn’t seen as a reason to avoid sanitizing towels! Now I can’t believe that nearly all bedding comes with labeling saying cold water or similar.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Bleach is not effective against the hard water minerals, soap, and scum that build up in the hoses and gaskets of a washing machine. Vinegar is.

      Reply
  5. Chery. says:

    I’ve had a front loader for 16+ years. I started right away with a large scoop of baking soda and leaving the door open slightly. No smells or mold.

    Reply
  6. Hope says:

    My front-load washer’s detergent dispenser will not hold 2 cups. Will the protocol work if I fill simply use as much as it will hold?
    Thanks for your un-ending efforts to help us save money in so many ways!

    Reply
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