Washing and Machine

Stinky Laundry, Smelly Washer: How to Clean Your 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. 

So why is there 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 and the washer get stinky?

The answer is germs.

Machine and Detergent

Experts tell us that most washing machines are teeming with bacteria that sit and multiply, finding their way back into the washed clothes.

According to 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, and they can be transmitted to the next load of laundry. Yikes!

If you rely on your detergent 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.

Do not panic

Now before you panic, it’s good to know that 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.

A woman looking at the camera A Simple Solution for Gross, Smelly Towels

If you’ve noticed gross smelly towels in your houses, albeit appearing to be washed, dried and ready to go, perhaps you’ve also noticed that your towels have begun to repel rather than absorb water.

Getting Rid of Germs in Laundry

Chlorine Bleach

Using the right concentration of bleach and water, you can easily kill the bacteria. If chlorine bleach isn’t appropriate, such as when washing delicate lingerie or colored clothing, hydrogen peroxide or Clorox 2 (which contains peroxide), are reasonable alternatives.

Keep in mind that bleach is not necessary for every load of laundry provided you are following a routine cleaning protocol (to follow) and washing with bleach and hot water when it is appropriate.

(On a personal note, along with detergent, I frequently add one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to each load of white laundry—clothes, towels, and linens. Call it maintenance.)

A bowl of fruit sitting on a table, with Cleaning and CupKnow Your Cleaning Products

You know that blue window cleaner sitting on your counter? You paid about 28 cents an ounce for it and it’s 95 percent water. Your own products will cost only pennies to make and will not contain toxic chemicals that could be harmful to your family and the environment.

Hot Water

If possible, turn up your water heater to at least 140 F. the day you do laundry or when you wash linens and underwear. Then use the HOT setting for items that can tolerate being washed in hot water.

CAUTION: Be sure to return the water heater setting to 120 F. to avoid unintentional scalding, especially if there are children or elderly living in your home.

Clean the Machine

Washing machine manufacturers almost always include a cleaning directive in the owner manual. My 6-year old GE front loader even 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 follow these general instructions:

RELATED: Fabric Softener Products are the Problem Not the Solution

How to Clean Front-Loading 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 wash clothes 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 detergent reservoir. 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 detergent reservoir. This is going to kills 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 without adding anything to the detergent reservoir. This will rinse away any remaining residue.
  5. Fill a bucket with a solution of 1 cup liquid chlorine bleach and 1-gallon 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, rinsing it as needed in the bucket. Follow with a clean, dry cloth to remove any remaining moisture from the seal area.

How to Clean Top-Loading 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) 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 cup liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon 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.  

CAUTION: Be careful to never mix vinegar and bleach. Ever. The cleaning process above provides for these substances to go into the machine separately, followed by complete rinse cycles to clean out the reservoirs.


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  1. 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!

  2. Robin Wagar says:

    I had no issues for years with my front loading machine and then started having a sour smell despite doing all of the things listed to clean the washer. I use Afresh or Tide washer cleaners and have a clean reminder for my washer. I clean around the seal and inside and also inside the soap and softener dispenser. After I decided to take that entire drawer thing out and take all of the pieces apart and clean them, I looked inside where the drawer was and was shocked to see a lot of mold in the little finger things at the top area where the drawer fits in. I scrubbed the area clean and have not had a problem with a sour smell since. Without removing that drawer there is no way to see inside this area. I also now take that drawer out when my laundry is done doe it completely air dries as well as leaving the door open. I hope this helps.

  3. Gil says:

    We purchased a front loader. In researching this issue I read articles that stated you should NOT use liquid soap in a front loader, due to the contents in liquid soap, which attaches to so much of the inner workings of a front loader. So we did what was recommended. Cleaned vigorously with bleach, vinegar, etc, and then changed to powdered soap. It made a HUGE difference!

  4. Carol says:

    Do the washer machine tablets work? Have you ever tried them? Years ago the repair man took my washer apart and the gunk was terrible between the inner and outer tub. Will vinegar get rid of this?

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Check to see if hydrogen peroxide is acceptable. It’s a little more expensive than bleach, but has many of the same whitening properties!

    • Don says:

      If possible, don’t drain your washer into your septic tank at all. A separate non-septic tank drain can be set up pretty simply. Or, you could let that load drain into buckets, and then dump the water outside where you don’t want anything to grow.

  5. katyll says:

    For those with a top-loading washer: you don’t have to open the lid when you pause the washer. I don’t know why you’d do that – is there an advantage to the water getting cold faster? I’d also let the washer run for more than a minute when the water was super hot. Why let all that prime cleaning water go to waste? Agitate it for at least five minutes, THEN pause it. (Oh, and btw, excellent “recipe” for cleaning a washer – thank you! 🙂 )

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Not all top loaders have a pause button—older machines and those that are more manual than digital. Your point is well-taken, however, for a newer digital machine.

      • katyll says:

        My machine is three years old, and I deliberately sought out a machine that was more manual than digital (simply because there are fewer things to go wrong.) But thanks for the info on the lack of a pause button; I had no idea, especially since it’s something I use a lot!

  6. Cally says:

    where does the lint in my washer come from? when i wash jeans or other “darks” they have smudges of white-ish lint on them. since i prefer to air dry our laundry those spots are more visible after drying. if i machine dry them then the lint comes off.

    • katyll says:

      You can still air dry them, but use a dryer to get the lint off. Put your dry clothes in the dryer, then put in an old tee-shirt, dampened and with the water wrung out. Put in a dryer sheet, then close the door and set it on a medium setting for a few minutes. The anti-static in the dryer sheet combined with the dampness from the tee-shirt will pull the lint off anything in a few minutes, plus make it soft and nice smelling to boot. And bonus: if you use a dryer sheet just for this, you can reuse it for a dozen such loads!

    • Adam says:

      Lint is broken down fibers from your linen. Mechanical action in the wash will break down fibers and tear apart creative lint. It’s also compounded in the dryer due to heat which makes most believe lint is only created in the dryer. If you use a front load washer there should be a trap at the front that you should clean out at least once every other month. Lint is inevitable in all laundry.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      You might need to clean the filter! Many washing machines have a filter between the tub and pump that catches errant stuff before sending the water down the drain. Check your owner manual. If you don’t have it, google the make and model. It’s amazing what you can find online.

  7. Andrea says:

    My detergent reservoir def. won’t hold two cups at once – my machine is only a year old but not sure I’ve seen one that would hold that much? Do I just pour in whatever will fit? And JUST in the detergent cup?

    • Mary Hunt says:

      If yours is a top loader, yes just pour it in. If it’s a front loader, that amount of liquid may trigger it to empty once you close and lock the door. I have a top loader and it looks like the reservoir wouldn’t hold more than a tiny bit, but it seems to have a back-up reservoir in there somewhere, because I really can pour in two cups. I don’t know where it goes but it doesn’t trigger the machine to go into an automatic empty cycle. Experiment with water to see how much you can pour in.

    • Adam says:

      This article is filled with inaccuracies and/or outright lies. My guess, is it’s a sponsored article from the industry that makes soap. Hot water and bleach do not kill bacteria. That is a matter of fact. The best thing to do it open your door after each wash and allow your machine to breath. All OTC detergent is PH neutral and does nothing to fight against bacteria.

      • Andrea says:

        I do keep the door open most of the time and also use Affresh once a month or so with the tub clean cycle. Hoping that keeps things at bay. 🙂

      • Mary Hunt says:

        If you don’t use bleach, sunshine really is a great option. But that means hanging your wet clothes out on a clothes line in the sun where the UV rays will kill bacteria like nobody’s business! Honestly, I think that it is the easy answer to why our clothes smelled so fantastic and clean back when we were kids. Yep. Our moms were out there with clothes pins baskets of wet sheets, towels and our favorites shirts 🙂

      • Mary Hunt says:

        No sponsorship at all, Adam. Your credentials in stating your “facts?”

        I’m sure Dr. Aaron Glatt, president and CEO of New Island Hospital in Bethpage, N.Y., and a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America would disagree.

        As would Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, who has done extensive research on the germs that fester in our washing machines.

        Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine and author of the book, “The Secret Life of Germs,” tells us that if you’re not using bleach or very hot water, you’re not killing the bacteria.

      • katyll says:

        Bleach doesn’t kill bacteria?? Have you notified all those scientists who have said otherwise for eons?

  8. Gina Stevens says:

    Thanks, Mary. Washers are the rare exception, where the technology has gone backward. I’m old enough to remember when washers CLEANED clothes, smelled fresh, like detergent,we didn’t have to leave the door open and they lasted for 30 years.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      You’re right. I think one of the culprits is the “water-saving” feature that, I believe, has been mandated by law. Manufacturers have few choices when it comes to water and energy use in home appliances. Even toilets are regulated for how much water then use per flush. My biggest challenge is not adding too much detergent—more than can be fully rinsed in what seems like one cup of rinse water! I’m not kidding when I tell you use a measuring spoon to add just 2 tsps of detergent to my front loader. And (shhhh!) I wash everything in at least warm if not hot water. And double rinse. I hope the Laundry Police do not get wind of this.

      • jimijean says:

        So much for government mandated water saving features on appliances, etc. You know what that causes, don’t you? The stool gets flushed TWICE. The washer gets an extra rinse run. And so forth…..

      • Red says:


        You might be interested in knowing there are machines that say don’t use bleach! The reason on mine seems to be that about 1-2 quarts of water is kept in the machine. If I have to clean out the pump area and drain that water I’m advised to add water back before running the machine! That said I deliberately bought a machine that will heat water to 170 degrees, the temperature research told me that bacteria is killed, at least E. coli !

        I’ve also gone to using a coffee measurer for soap. Otherwise I get too much in the scoop. Those scoops are 1/8 cup, normally, which should be 2 tbs. To me the measure depends upon the concentration of the product so figuring out what works takes some trial. And, our cue of sudsing is useless although tempting! Fortunately, I’m not having trouble with stinky laundry, but getting used to not smelling soap that we associate with clean has taken me a while to adapt to. No-smell should be associated with clean, too!

      • vlabry says:

        jimijean is correct. All toilets at my house – 3 of them – get flushed twice; the handle is always held down until the tank has emptied completely into the bowl. My belief, the problem with clogged pipes is not a lack of pressure with the flush. It is a lack of adequate liquid to completely move the “debris” down the pipes. All laundry gets a deep rinse and an extra rinse. When I have washed an extra dirty load it gets a second “water only” wash. I wash everything in either hot or warm water. All but the tiniest of loads are washed on the deep fill setting. I am unable to choose a rinse temperature so everything gets a cold water rinse; which I hate. So yes, the government can dictate to manufacturers regarding water usage and temperature settings but it cannot control the methods we use to insure clean sanitized laundry according to our own personal standards and needs.

  9. J. R. says:

    All well and good for those who own their own laundry equipment. Not at all useful for those of us who use apartment building laundry rooms or laundromats.

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