How to Clean a Dishwasher for Sparkling Clean Dishes

Good riddance, stinky odors.

The concept of cleaning something that cleans for you might feel a bit counterintuitive. Still, dishwashers can begin to harbor some yucky stuff that makes for funky smells, lingering residue, and even mold. Not only are the odor and sight of a dirty dishwasher off-putting, but your machine won't perform as well if it's not clean. That ultimately translates to dishes that are less than sparkling. The fix: You'll need to learn how 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 requires some elbow grease, but streaming an upbeat playlist or your favorite podcast can make the task more enjoyable. Keep scrolling for 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.

clean dishwasher in chic kitchen
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How Often Should You Clean Your Dishwasher?

How often you should clean your dishwasher depends on how much use it's getting. Generally speaking, Peterson recommends cleaning your dishwasher every two to four months. Cleaning guru Jelina Saliu, the chief innovation officer at Safely, says her dishwasher is in constant use so she cleans it once a month.

It's time to clean your dishwasher when one or more of the following is present:

  • A mildew-y or funky odor
  • Dishes aren't getting as clean
  • Dishes have white/yellow mineral deposits
  • Dishes smell
  • There's a film on the interior surface
  • You see mold

What You'll 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

  1. Remove items. Empty your dishwasher of all dishes and silverware. If you're able to remove the racks, then do so. This will make them easier to clean. If it's not possible, that's OK.
  2. Wash the racks and door gasket. Use hot soapy water and a scrub brush to clean the rack and door gaskets. Alternatively, you can spray them generously with equal parts vinegar and water and gently scrub.
  3. Scrub interior walls. Soap scum and grime can accumulate on the walls and door of the dishwasher from constant use. "Scrubbing them down with hot soapy water and a cloth or scrub brush can make a huge difference," says Peterson.
  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 the 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.
  5. Clear the drain. Once you've removed the filter, you can clean the dishwasher drain. Remove any food particles or buildup, then use a sponge and hot soapy water or your vinegar mixture to clean. Rinse and then re-insert the filter.
  6. Run two cycles. You should run two separate cycles to fully clean your dishwasher—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."
  7. Clean the exterior. While your dishwasher runs you can clean 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, then rinse with a damp cloth and dry. You can also use a glass cleaner and a lint-free cloth for glass exteriors.

How to Clean a Moldy Dishwasher

Our cleaning pros say you can follow the same steps as above to clean a moldy dishwasher. However, you'll want to wear gloves and a mask for safety as you work. If the mold is pervasive, use a store-bought, mold-targeting cleaner instead of vinegar, baking soda, and soap. Also, let your dishwasher air-dry by keeping it open after the cycle runs. This further discourages mold and mildew growth.

How to Prevent a Smelly Dishwasher

Smells are bound to happen when you combine water and food particles. However, the following can 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 the water used in the dishwasher is running hot
  • Don't run other hot water appliances while the washer runs to avoid diverting resources
  • Keep your dishwasher cracked open when not in use to prevent mildew and mold
  • Place newspaper and/or a bowl of baking soda in the dishwasher when it's not used for an extended period of time (like when you're on vacation)
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