How to Clean a Dishwasher for Sparkling Clean Dishes

Yes, it washes your dishes, but a dishwasher needs you to wash it. Say goodbye to funky smells, residue, and mold—and hello to fresh and clean.

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The thought of learning how to clean a dishwasher—a cleaning appliance—seems counterintuitive, yet dishwashers harbor some yucky stuff: funky smells, lingering residue, and even mold. The odor and sight of a dirty dishwasher is off-putting but, more importantly, your machine doesn't perform well when it's not clean—the same way your washer won't work as well unless you've periodically run a washing machine cleaner through it. That ultimately translates to dishes that are less than sparkling. The fix: Learn to clean a dishwasher the right way.

"Over time, food particles can accumulate in the drain filter, drain hose, spray arm, or elsewhere in the dishwasher," notes Vera Peterson, president of Molly Maid, a Neighborly company. "Standing water [or stagnant moisture] can also cause mold to grow inside the dishwasher."

Deep-cleaning a dishwasher, even the best models, requires some elbow grease, but streaming an upbeat playlist or your favorite podcast can make the task more enjoyable. It will also help extend the life of your dishwasher and keep it running longer. Our experts give the full rundown on how to clean a dishwasher, even if it's moldy, smelly, or simply isn't cleaning dishes as well as it should.

How Often to Clean a Dishwasher

Dishwasher cleaning frequency depends on how much it's used. Generally, Peterson recommends cleaning your machine every two to four months, regardless of whether it's a built-in or countertop dishwasher. Cleaning expert Jelina Saliu, president of Safely, cleans her dishwasher—which she says is in constant use—once a month.

You know it's time to clean your dishwasher when you notice any of these:

  • A mildew-y or funky odor
  • Dishes that aren't getting clean
  • Dishes with white or yellow mineral deposits
  • Dishes that smell
  • A film on the dishwasher's interior surface
  • Mold

What You Need:

  • Vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • Soap
  • Brush or sponge
  • Washcloth
  • Bottle brush
  • Cleaning cloth
  • Store-bought mold cleaner (optional)

How to Clean a Dishwasher With Vinegar and Baking Soda

Step 1: Remove Items

Empty your dishwasher of all dishes and silverware. Remove the racks, too (if possible) to make them easier to clean. (If racks aren't removable, that's OK.)

Step 2: Wash Racks and the Door Gasket

Use hot soapy water and a scrub brush to clean the rack and door gaskets. Alternatively, generously spray them with equal parts vinegar and water, and then gently scrub.

Step 3: Scrub Interior Walls

Constant use causes soap scum and grime to accumulate on the dishwasher's walls and door. "Scrubbing them down with hot soapy water and a cloth or scrub brush can make a huge difference," says Peterson.

Step 4: Clean the Dishwasher Filter

The most common cause of dishwasher odor is a clogged drain filter. If your dishwasher has one, it's most likely located on the bottom rear of the tub. Peterson says to remove this filter and clean it in your kitchen sink with hot soapy water—or your vinegar mixture—and a bottle brush to reach all the crevices.

Step 5: Clear the Drain

With the filter removed, proceed to cleaning the dishwasher drain. Remove any food particles or buildup, and then use a sponge and hot soapy water—or your vinegar mixture—to clean. Next, rinse and re-insert the filter.

Step 6: Run Two Cycles

To fully clean your dishwasher, run two separate cycles: one with vinegar and one with baking soda. "For the first cycle, place a bowl filled with distilled white vinegar on the top rack of the dishwasher and run a normal cycle," says Peterson. "Then, pour a cup of baking soda into the bottom of the dishwasher and run a second cycle."

Step 7: Clean the Exterior

While your dishwasher is running, tackle the exterior. For stainless steel, use a stainless steel cleaner and wipe dry with a lint-free cloth. For plastic or glass surfaces, wipe with a damp cloth and a drop of detergent, and then rinse with a damp cloth and dry. For a glass exterior, you can also use a glass cleaner and lint-free cloth.

How to Clean a Moldy Dishwasher

Our cleaning pros say you can follow the same steps as above to clean a moldy dishwasher, but it's important to wear gloves and a mask for safety as you work. For pervasive mold, use a store-bought, mold-targeting dishwasher cleaner (instead of vinegar, baking soda, and soap). After the cycle runs, keep your dishwasher open to air-dry, which further discourages mold and mildew growth.

How to Prevent a Smelly Dishwasher

Whenever you combine water and food particles, smells are bound to happen. Follow these tips to keep odors at bay and help your dishwasher stay clean for longer:

  • Thoroughly rinse dishes and silverware before placing them in the dishwasher.
  • Deep-clean your dishwasher once every one to four months.
  • Clean the dishwasher drain and filter at least once a month.
  • Run vinegar and baking soda cycles every two weeks.
  • Double-check that water used in the dishwasher is running hot.
  • Don't run other hot-water appliances while the washer runs (to avoid diverting resources).
  • When not in use, keep your dishwasher cracked open to prevent mildew and mold.
  • When not used for an extended period (like when you're on vacation), place newspaper and/or a bowl of baking soda in the dishwasher.
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