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. And that’s a really bad assumption. It’s time for us to learn how to clean a 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? Why you open the lid of the machine and get a waft of stink?
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, this is good to know—of the more than 60,000 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
✅ rubber or latex gloves
✅ cleaning cloths
✅ old towels
✅ bucket or container for mixing
✅ plain white vinegar
✅ liquid chlorine bleach*
✅ hot water
If possible, turn up your water heater to at least 140 F. several hours before you 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.
- 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. Select the hottest, largest, and longest load settings if your front loader does not have such a setting.
- 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 will help eliminate the odors and any mildew that has accumulated inside the machine. Allow the machine to run through an entire wash and rinse cycle.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 similar to cleaning a front-loading machine and should be repeated monthly.
- 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.
- 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.
- After one hour, allow the machine to complete a full cycle including rinse and spin, again.
- Run a third cycle on the same settings without adding anything to the detergent reservoir. This will rinse away any remaining residue.
- 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 hydrogen peroxide will give you adequate disinfectant qualities needed for cleaning. 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 11-30-22