Yes, You Need to Clean Your Washing Machine

If you're a fan of fresher, cleaner laundry, it's worth a few minutes every month. Follow these four easy steps for a mean, clean washing machine.

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Be honest: When was the last time you cleaned your washing machine? It may sound odd to clean a machine that's built to clean things, but washing machines can be really gross. One study found that bacteria like salmonella and E. coli from diapers and underwear is often present in washing machines—and can leech onto what you think are your freshly washed clothes.

The good news is that cleaning your machine—and keeping it that way—is a few spritzes away thanks to a growing number of washing machine cleaners on the market. For fresher, cleaner clothes, here's how to clean your washing machine in four easy steps.

How Often to Clean Your Washing Machine

Make a habit of spraying the interior of your washing machine with a commercial washing machine cleaner after every wash to stave off hard-water minerals, detergent scum, bacteria, and telltale black or gray spots.

For best performance, follow up with a deep clean every month.

What You Need:

  • Washing machine cleaner
  • Toothbrush

How to Clean Your Washing Machine With a Specialty Cleanser

Step 1: Spritz the Interior

Spray the inside of your machine with washing machine cleaner, and then let the formula sit for 30 minutes.

Step 2: Detail the Parts

While you're waiting, use a toothbrush to scrub the fabric and bleach dispensers or remove those drawers and hand-wash them.

If your machine is a front-loader, remove hair and debris from the rubber gasket inside the door, and spray and wipe inside the flaps until clean.

If your machine has a filter behind the hatch, remove the filter and rinse off any debris or dirt.

Step 3: Run a Cycle and Wipe

Run an empty cycle on hot and, while that's going, wipe the outside clean.

Step 4: Open the Hatch

After each cleaning, leave the hatch open to thoroughly dry the machine's inside.

How to Get Rid of and Prevent Smells in Your Washing Machine

So you've given your washing machine a thorough cleaning, but a funky smell persists. The most likely culprit is mold and mildew due to high humidity. Less likely but possible, odors may be caused by the improper use of laundry detergent and softener, hard water, or a clogged drain.

Mold and Mildew Smells

Mold and mildew smells are generally caused by high humidity, which may be due to poor air circulation in the room your washing machine is located, or perhaps you just live in a chronically high-humidity area. Regardless of the reason, you can prevent these smells by adopting the following habits:

  • Give your machine a thorough monthly cleaning, as recommended.
  • Leave the washing machine door and the dispenser drawer slightly open when not in use.
  • Remove clothes as soon as the cycle has finished, and don’t leave them sitting in the drum.
  • Run a fan in the laundry room to improve airflow, and consider investing in a dehumidifier.

Soap-Scum Smells

Using the correct laundry products and the correct amount can help forestall the accumulation of soap scum, which tends to stink if built up enough. Follow these tips for getting rid of soap scum buildup and, even you if don't have unpleasant odors, it'll do your machine good:

  • If you own a front-loading machine, use laundry detergents made for high-efficiency (HE) machines. Normal detergents produce more suds than your front loader may be able to handle, and fewer suds means less scum.
  • Read your detergent's directions carefully, and don’t use more than recommended. If you’re accustomed to old (non-HE) detergents, you’d be surprised at how little HE detergent is required per load.
  • Avoid using a liquid fabric softener in your front-loading washing machine. Smell-wise, dryer sheets and dryer balls are better alternatives for your washing machine.

Hard-Water Smells

If you have hard water, as many households do, it can leave dissolved minerals behind in your washing machine after each wash cycle. Minerals build up over time, forming limescale and causing washer odors that may be accompanied by a powdery residue left on just-washed clothing. Luckily, there are several ways to combat odors caused by hard water:

  • Use water-softening tablets—commonly sold in grocery stores as "water softeners" or "water conditioners"—to prevent smelly build-up from accumulating in your washer.
  • Add ½ cup laundry borax to each load. Borax softens water by producing a soluble calcium complex that prevents mineral buildup.
  • Consider installing a whole-house water softener system. Yes, that can be a costly proposition, but it's likely to affect many other improvements around the house, like reducing cleaning chores, increasing the efficiency of your water heater, benefiting your skin and hair, and making your food taste better, among other advantages.

Sewage Smells

If you're unfortunate enough to have your washing machine smell like sewage even after you clean it, the issue may be a clog in your drain standpipe. Unless you're comfortable attempting to unclog the pipe on your own, we recommend calling a plumber for this one.

If you're inclined to tackle this one yourself, you have the option of using a drain auger, drain snake, or liquid clog remover to release the clog from the offending pipe. After dislodging the clog, use a garden hose to run water through the pipe to confirm it's clear, and then, with the drain hose positioned back in the pipe, run the washing machine through a test cycle.

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