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How to Clean Your Washing Machine

Whether you have a front-loader or top-loader, you'll benefit from these cleaning tips.

If you've ever caught a whiff of a stale, musty smell in your clothing or washer's drum while loading your machine or transferring your laundry to your dryer, we've got some news: a dirty washing machine is likely to blame. Even though you rely on your washer to clean towels, clothes and linens, it also needs to be cleaned from time to time so that it can do its job well.

It's not just about odor: Leftover laundry detergent, fabric softener and soil stuck to the dispenser, inner parts and drum can transfer to clothes, leaving behind marks and stains. Mold and mildew deposits can form on the rubber door gasket on front load washers and in the detergent dispensers if water is allowed to puddle there. For these reasons alone, you should deep clean your washing machine once a month and take these simple steps after each load to help keep it fresh and clean.

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Luckily, it's relatively quick and easy to clean, according to Carolyn Forte, Executive Director of the Cleaning Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute. Methods are similar for cleaning both front- and top-loading machines, but your owner's manual or the appliance manufacturer's website will usually have the cleaning details for your specific model. Or, follow Forte's step-by-step instructions on how to clean a washing machine below.

Exactly how to clean a washing machine

With all the detergent, fabric softener, body soil and dirt that goes into your washer with each load, anything that's not removed builds up over time and creates the perfect breeding ground for mold, mildew and odors.

Here's what to do once per month for a clean, pristine machine:

  1. Run a cycle: Many newer models have a dedicated washer cleaning cycle that presets the time, agitation and water temperature, and all you need to do is simply add bleach. If yours doesn't have this cycle, add 1/2 cup of liquid chlorine bleach to the dispenser or fill the dispenser to the max line and run a normal cycle with hot water (or follow what the manual says). Or you can use a specialty cleaner, like Affresh or GH Seal star Tide Washing Machine Cleaner, according to package directions. While bleach alone will kill bacteria and mold, it may not dissolve other residues like detergent. These washing machine cleaners have ingredients to rid your machine of greasy build-ups and hard water minerals, too.
    cleaning a washing machine with bleach
  2. Set an extra rinse and spin: Once the cleaning cycle is done, run another rinse and spin just to make sure any traces of bleach or particle remnants are completely washed away.
    selecting a rinse and spin cycle to clean a washing machine
  3. Clean the dispenser drawer: Most newer machines have removable dispensers, so pop them out, take them apart and rinse them well under hot water. Use a soft toothbrush to dislodge any stuck-on gunk. Wipe dry, reassemble and reinsert them into the machine. If they are still wet, wipe them with a cloth or leave them open to thoroughly air dry.
  4. Wipe and dry the rubber seal and drum: If you have a front-loader, wipe the rubber gasket clean and dry thoroughly to prevent mold. Wipe any moisture from the drum and door or lid, too, or leave it open to air dry.
    cleaning the gaskets on the drum of a washing machine

    How to prevent a smelly washing machine

    Along with cleaning monthly, make it a habit to leave the machine door ajar or lift the lid after each use. This allows air to circulate and dry out any remaining moisture that can contribute to musty smells. Just make sure to keep children and pets away from the open machine as a safety precaution and engage the child lock on your controls if you have one.

    1. Take out clean clothes promptly: As soon as a cycle ends, empty the machine to prevent a musty odor from developing in the washtub.
    2. Remove any debris or pet hair: If you have a pet that sheds in the house, you're going to find pet hair in your washer after running several loads. Leave the door open until the pet hair and drum are thoroughly dry. Then, using your vacuum's soft brush attachment, vacuum out the fur.
    3. Dry the gasket: If you have a front loading machine, regularly check the gasket to be sure no small items, like baby socks, are trapped in there, and dry it with a towel to keep mold away.
    4. Clean the controls and dispenser: With a damp cloth, wipe the controls, door handle and any drips of detergent or softener you see on the front, sides and top of the machine and dispenser. They are easier to remove when still wet, so do it as soon as you notice them. This will keep bacteria and mold at bay and keep your washer looking its best.

      Is bleach or vinegar better to clean a washing machine?

      While some may recommend cleaning a washer with hot water and vinegar, the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab doesn't believe using vinegar to clean your washer is effective enough. Full strength vinegar (not diluted in the machine) can dissolve hard water deposits, but it's not as thorough a germ-killer as bleach or as good a cleaner as products formulated for that purpose. Plus, overusing vinegar may damage some parts, like hoses and rubber gaskets.

      As for cleaning a washing machine with baking soda, Forte says that it can help freshen and remove odors from the tub but likely won't kill bacteria or fully wash away deposits deep inside the machine.


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