How to Clean a Washing Machine (Don’t Make These Mistakes)

We’ve come a long way from the days of washing clothes and linens the way my mom used to – outside by hand with a washboard and a tub.

Now we have top and front-loading machines, even energy-efficient ones!

I have to admit there was a time when cleaning my washing machine never even crossed my mind. After all, it’s a machine that cleans and should be ‘self-cleaning,’ right? Wrong!

No matter what type of washing machine you have, these hard-working appliances need regular cleaning to keep them running efficiently and avoid bad lingering smells on your clean clothes.

Luckily, cleaning your washing machine is not as difficult as it sounds. Here, we’ll explore how to clean a washing machine regularly to keep it in tip-top shape.

How Often Do You Clean a Washing Machine?

Having used both types of washing machines, I can tell you that they do develop bad, funky smells over time. However, it seems my front loader always smelled worse and sooner than my top loader.

Some recommend cleaning top-loaders at least twice a year or every three months if you live in an area with hard water, while high-efficiency top and front-loaders should be cleaned once a month because they use less water.

I think Nelly Marinez, Whirlpool’s senior brand manager has the right idea. She recommends cleaning washing machines, no matter the type, once a month or every 30 cycles, to prevent soap residue, dirt, and grime from accumulating.

Keeping up with the number of cycles would be a bit tough for me, sometimes I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast! 

So, ensuring I run a cleaning cycle once a month would be easiest. I can simply add it as a recurring monthly task to my calendar.

Furthermore, it is advised you clean all dispensers every 4 weeks to keep everything draining and working properly. 

Cleaning a washing machine

Signs Your Washing Machine Needs Cleaning

But how do you know if your washing machine needs cleaning? Once you start running a cleaning cycle once a month, everything should run smoothly, and you shouldn’t experience issues. 

However, if you’ve never cleaned your washing machine before or you forgot to clean it for one or several months in a row, you’ll need to know when it’s time to clean it.

Typically, the first sign your washing machine needs cleaning is the bad smell coming from it or your clothes after they’ve been washed.

A washing machine is the perfect place for microorganisms to grow and thrive! It is a dark, warm, moist environment with a regular food supply (detergent residue and grime). What more could they want?

Here are a few other ways you can tell your washing machine needs a good cleaning and some of the possible causes.

  • Musty/Moldy Smell – typically caused by mold or mildew growth
  • Egg or Sulfur Smell, Smelly Drains – Usually caused by bacterial growth
  • Slow Draining – Usually due to soap scum or lint build-up in the pipes
  • Stinky, Crunchy Clothes – May be due to mold or mildew growth
  • Stained or Dirty Clothes – Can be due to mold or bacterial growth
  • Visible Signs of Dirt or Grime Accumulating in the Washer – This may be due to poor drainage caused by soap scum or lint build-up in the pipes.

Though front-loaders are the most popular type of washing machine nowadays, they also appear to have the highest risk for mold and mildew growth. This is due to the way the doors are designed. 

The folds in the rubber gasket that ensure a proper seal are also excellent hiding places for mildew and mold, oftentimes growing without you noticing until the growth has taken over.

Top loaders don’t have that problem because they don’t have gaskets. Instead, the musty smell typically comes from the water and soap pooling at the bottom.

Additionally, because most top loaders don’t fill the drum with water to the top, the upper portion gets damp due to steam and splashing water. And because the top portion rarely gets submerged in water, it doesn’t get flushed regularly.

How to Clean a Top-Loading Washing Machine

There are two types of top-loading washing machines: traditional models and high-efficiency hybrids.

Traditional top loaders have an agitator in the center while high-efficiency hybrids have a flat disc-shaped impeller at the bottom.

Before you start cleaning your washer, you may need to clean the agitator/impeller. To do so, you’ll need to take them apart.

Cleaning the Agitator or Impeller

For traditional top loaders, carefully remove the agitator’s top and place it in a solution of bleach or vinegar and warm water. Let it sit for a while.

While you wait for the top to soak, spray the same solution into the agitator itself and scrub with a brush. 

After soaking, brush the top. A set of gloves can be helpful for this grimy task.

For high-efficiency hybrids, you’ll detach the impeller which is usually attached with a bolt. Once you remove it, soak it in a solution of bleach or vinegar and warm water and allow it to soak for a while. After a good soak, scrub the impeller with a brush. 

Rinse the drum and replace the agitator/impeller.

Some washers have preset self-cleaning cycles that don’t require detergent or bleach. Be sure to consult your user’s manual before you do any extra work.

Cleaning Your Top-Loading Washing Machine

If your top loader doesn’t have a self-cleaning setting, follow these steps to achieve a spotless washing machine.

Step 1: Run a Hot Water Cycle with Vinegar

Remove all clothing from your washer and check there is no detergent or fabric softener in any of the dispensers.

Add 2-4 cups of distilled white vinegar to the detergent dispenser if it has one or directly to the drum if it doesn’t. Do not add any detergent.

Run the empty washer on the longest hot water cycle. 

Step 2: Pause the Cycle and Soak with Vinegar

As you run the hot water cycle, allow the drum to fill and agitate for about a minute, then pause the cycle for an hour. 

This will allow the vinegar to soak, killing bacteria and mildew and cutting through grime while deodorizing.

If your washing machine doesn’t have a pause setting, simply add the vinegar to the drum and allow it to sit for an hour before turning on the hot water cycle.

Step 3: Scrub the Inside of the Washing Machine

While the vinegar soaks, mix roughly ¼ cup of distilled white vinegar with a quart of warm water in a bucket or a sink.

Using a sponge or toothbrush clean the inside of the washing machine. I find that old toothbrushes are especially handy for difficult-to-reach nooks and crannies.

Clean all the dispensers (detergent and fabric softener) if it has any, as well as the inside of the lid and around the opening. 

If any of the dispensers are removable, soak them in the vinegar-water solution before scrubbing.

Step 4: Clean the Washing Machine’s Exterior

Wipe down your washing machine’s exterior, including the dials, with a damp microfiber cloth and the vinegar-water solution. Top loaders usually collect a lot of dust and detergent platters.

Step 5: Run a Hot Water Cycle with Baking Soda

Once the hot water-vinegar cycle is complete, run one more empty, long cycle with hot water. Do not add detergent or vinegar to this cycle.

This time, add ½ cup of baking soda to the drum. This will help remove any leftover or loosened grime and buildup from the first cycle.

Step 6: Wipe Down with a Microfiber Cloth

Once all the cycles are complete, wipe the inside of the entire washing machine with a microfiber cloth. 

If you don’t have microfiber cloths, I recommend you get a few. They are excellent for cleaning because they are very absorbent and don’t leave lint residue behind.

Cleaning the inside of the washer door

How to Clean a Front-Loading Washing Machine

Front-loading washing machines are cleaned differently because of the rubber gasket. This rubber seal around the door is the perfect place for mold and mildew to grow due to leftover detergent and grime.

If your front loader does not have a self-cleaning setting, follow these steps to remove buildup and foul smells from your machine.

Step 1: Run a Hot Water Cycle with Vinegar

Remove all clothing from your washer. Ensure there is no detergent or fabric softener in any of the dispensers.

Fill the detergent dispenser with distilled white vinegar to the max line. Do not add any detergent.

Run the empty washer on the longest hot water cycle. 

Step 2: Pause the Cycle and Soak with Vinegar

As you run the hot water cycle, allow the drum to fill and agitate for about a minute, then pause the cycle for an hour. 

This will allow the vinegar to soak, killing bacteria and mildew and cutting through grime while deodorizing.

Step 3: Scrub the Inside of the Washing Machine

While the vinegar soaks, mix roughly ¼ cup of distilled white vinegar with a quart of warm water in a bucket or a sink.

Using a sponge or toothbrush clean the inside of the washing machine, including the gasket. 

Step 4: Clean the Washing Machine’s Exterior

Wipe down your washing machine’s exterior, including the dials and the door, with a damp microfiber cloth and the vinegar-water solution. 

Step 5: Run a Hot Water Cycle with Baking Soda

Once the hot water-vinegar cycle is complete, run one more empty, long cycle with hot water. Do not add detergent or vinegar to this cycle.

This time, add ½ cup of baking to the drum. This will help remove any leftover or loosened grime and buildup from the first cycle.

Step 6: Wipe Down with a Microfiber Cloth

Once all the cycles are complete, wipe the inside of the entire washing machine with a microfiber cloth. These cloths will absorb moisture without leaving lint residue behind.

Alternative to the Two Cycles

If you don’t think your front-loading washer is very dirty and you have been keeping up with the monthly cleaning, or if you’re short on time, you can combine the vinegar and baking soda steps into one hot water washing cycle. 

Simply fill the detergent dispenser with distilled white vinegar to the max line. Then add half a cup of baking soda to the softener dispenser.

Start the longest wash cycle with hot water.

Allow the drum to fill with water. Once the baking soda and vinegar have mixed, pause the cycle, and let it sit for about 30 minutes to soak.

Then, let the cycle continue. Doing this will keep your machine clean, even when you’re short on time.

Clean All the Different Parts as Well

Washing machines have many components that can easily be overlooked. Let’s take a look at the different parts of your washing machine and how to properly clean them.

Cleaning the Gasket

The gasket is an important part of front-loading washing machines. It seals the door ensuring no water leaks out during each washing cycle.

However, the many folds in the rubber are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and mildew, which are often difficult to spot until they’ve taken over.

To clean, spray a distilled white vinegar and water solution, a bleach-water solution, or a rubber-safe antibacterial cleaner all around the gasket, ensuring to pay attention to all the folds.

Allow it to soak for a bit, then using a soft-bristle brush, scrub away and rinse with clean water. Dry the gasket as thoroughly as possible with a microfiber cloth. 

Check the gasket once a week by running a clean microfiber cloth around the inside. If the cloth has any green, brown, or black residue, you’ll know it needs cleaning.

If time allows, I recommend doing a quick cleaning once a week anyway to prevent growth from taking hold.

Washing machine filter

Removing and Cleaning the Filter

Front loaders and top loaders keep their filters in different places.

A top-loader filter location will vary depending on the brand and model. It is best to consult your owner’s manual to determine where it is and how to remove it.

Typically, it is located inside the fabric softener dispenser or the agitator.

Front-loaders usually have their filters at the lower front of the machine. You may need to use tools to open the compartment.

Before removing any parts, be sure the appliance is unplugged.

Once you take the filter out, remove any lint and debris carefully as there may be sharp objects, such as pins. You may also find coins or keys.

Run the filter under hot water and scrub it with an old toothbrush. You can also make a solution using 2 cups of vinegar, ¼ cup of baking soda, and ¼ cup of water.

Rinse thoroughly and dry with a microfiber cloth.

Cleaning Inside the Drum 

To clean the drum, simply run a hot water cycle using vinegar, bleach, or soda crystals. Never combine bleach with anything else, especially vinegar, ammonia, or detergent.

Once the cycle has finished, wipe down the inside with a microfiber cloth.

Cleaning the detergent dispenser

Cleaning the Detergent and Fabric Softener Dispenser

Detergent and fabric softener dispenser can easily accumulate soap scum, even mildew if not cleaned often. Not only is it unsightly, but it can cause obstructions in your machine.

Most machines have removable drawers, especially front loaders. If your washing machine has removable drawers, wipe them with a paper towel, then place them in a bucket or sink with warm, soapy water for about 30 minutes.

Using a sponge, microfiber cloth, or old toothbrush, clean the dispensers, paying particular attention to those difficult-to-reach crannies.

Once done, rinse and dry thoroughly before placing it back in your washing machine. 

Cleaning a Washing Machine with Bleach

Chlorine bleach is an excellent sanitizer that should be handled with care. 

Always use bleach in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves, as the fumes could cause you harm, and contact with your skin could cause irritation. 

Be sure to open a window or turn on the exhaust fan whenever you handle this cleaner and NEVER mix bleach with any other cleaning products, especially ammonia. 

Cleaning a Top Loader with Bleach

To clean your top-loading washing machine with bleach, follow these steps:

  • Step 1: If your top loader has a detergent dispenser, add 2 cups of bleach to it and 2 cups into the drum. If your washer doesn’t have a dispenser, simply add 4 cups of bleach to the drum.
  • Step 2: Run a long, hot cycle.
  • Step 3: Pause the cycle once the bleach and the water have mixed. Allow it to sit for 30 minutes. If you cannot pause the cycle, then add the bleach to the drum and allow it to sit for about one hour. Then, start the hot water cycle.
  • Step 4: Restart the cycle and allow it to complete. 

Cleaning a Front Loader with Bleach

To clean a front loader with bleach, follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Add 2 cups of bleach to the detergent tray.
  • Step 2: Run the longest hot water wash cycle.
  • Step 3: When the cycle starts, let the drum fill with the bleach and the water, then pause the cycle. Allow the mixture to sit for about 30 minutes.
  • Step 4: Continue with the cycle.

Sometimes there’s a lingering bleach smell that gets transferred to your clothes or linens. To avoid this, run the empty washing machine on a rinse cycle to remove any bleach residue.

Cleaning a Washing Machine with Soda Crystals

Soda crystals or washing soda (sodium carbonate) is an effective water softener and multi-purpose cleaner.

One of its strengths is its ability to dissolve grease and soap scum, making an excellent washing machine cleaner.

To clean your washing machine with soda crystals, add 2 cups to your washer’s drum. Then, run a long, hot washing cycle. The hot water will dissolve the crystals for an effective cleaning solution.

To keep your washer in tip-top shape, clean your washer with soda crystals once a month.

If your washer’s dispensers need some attention, soda crystals will do the trick. Just combine ½ cup with 2 cups of hot water. Dissolve and pour the solution into the drawers before starting the cleaning cycle.

Sounds pretty simple to me!

DIY and Natural Cleaning Solutions

If you don’t want to use bleach and don’t have vinegar handy but want to stick with natural cleaning solutions to keep your washing machine working properly, then here are a few do-it-yourself solutions you might want to try.

Hydrogen Peroxide and Lemon Juice

Combining these natural ingredients can help you fight bacterial growth as well as mold and mildew.

Mix 2 cups of water, ½ cup of hydrogen peroxide, and ¼ cup of lemon juice (make sure it has no additives, such as sugar, which can leave residue and help microorganisms grow).

Vinegar and Lemon Juice

Don’t have hydrogen peroxide, or do you want a more effective deodorizer? This combination is not only an all-purpose cleaner, but it can help deodorize your washing machine, leaving it smelling fresh and citrusy.

Combine 2 cups of water, ½ of distilled white vinegar, and ¼ cup of real lemon juice (no sugar or additives).

Distilled White Vinegar

It can’t get simpler than this!

Mix 1 cup of distilled white vinegar with 4 cups of water for an effective cleaner that keeps microorganisms away while deodorizing.

All of these DIY solutions can be used in a spray bottle to clean your washer or to clean your front loader.

To use in your top loader, simply double each recipe. 

My Favorite Ways to Keep My Washer Clean Longer

Here are some great ways I have found to keep my washing machine clean longer. Enjoy!

Don’t leave wet clothes in the washer for too long or overnight. As a working mom of an energetic 8-year-old, I know sometimes you’re way too exhausted at the end of the day and either forget to move your washed clothes to the drier or think it’ll be ok to do it in the morning.

Don’t! Your damp clothes will create the perfect environment for microbes to grow and you’ll end up doing extra work because you’ll have to run the washer again to remove the musty odor.

Take an extra few minutes to transfer your clothes to the drier. Or better yet, get your kiddo to do it!

Use the right laundry detergent for your washer. If you have a high-efficiency (HE) washer, use an HE detergent. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an excess of suds that will build up residue and soap scum.

If you make a mistake, just run a couple of hot water rinse cycles to clean the washer and pipes.

Be sure to leave your washer’s lid or door open after a cycle. It’ll help it dry out faster. I also like to leave the drawer dispenser open to help the water evaporate.

Bonus points if you run a microfiber cloth around the rubber gasket of your front loader to wick moisture away.

I don’t have this problem where I live, but if you live in a place with high humidity or if your laundry room gets too humid, a dehumidifier can be extremely helpful in keeping your washing machine dry.

  • I like to wash my clothes and linens with cold water as much as possible. However, it is a good idea to run a warm or hot water cycle every once in a while to prevent dirt and detergent buildup in your machine.
  • Don’t overfill your washer with clothes as it can lead to excess moisture in your washer.
  • Along the same lines, don’t underfill your washer with clothes either. This can leave behind detergent residue.
  • Don’t use more detergent than specified for your load size. Using too much detergent can clog up the internal mechanisms of your machine.

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