Cleaning a fridge: 10 steps to sanitize yours with baking soda, vinegar and more

Cleaning a fridge properly will make it function more efficiently, and can get rid of pungent odors. Here are our quick hacks

A kitchen with sage green wall decor and fridge with water dispenser
(Image credit: Dan Duchars)

Cleaning a fridge comes as part of the package when you're cooking up the yummy food inside of it. A refrigerator is one of those (much loved) large appliances that is so easy to assume clean on the inside when the exterior isn't so bad, the door hiding all manner of sins... However, if you need to know how to clean a fridge then you may have noticed those jars sticking to the glass shelves, a bit of a whiff, and other tell-tale signs that your fridge is actually a little grimy and in need of attention.

After all, you chose the best fridge freezer to safely store your family's food and drink in so it should be one of the cleanest places in the house. It's only natural that spills, super tardy expiry dates, and funky odors happen, but no one wants to eat from that kind of environment, so deep cleaning yours every once in a while is key, not to mention critical to keeping your loved ones safe. 

Eating at home is great, but if you've had restaurant reservations, or ordered fast food in, those crunchy cucumbers and crisp lettuce heads can soon turn into a soggy mush. Luckily, it needn't take all day if you know a few fridge cleaning hacks.

Cleaning a fridge like a pro

Fridge cleaning essentials

1. A cool bag: grab one to keep everything chilled
2. Ice packs: any of these will cool your cool bag
3. Baking soda
4. White vinegar
5. A clean microfiber cleaning cloth or rag
6. A drain hole cleaning device: see a selection on Amazon
7. A basting tool: like these
8. A bottle brush: shop a range of sizes
9. Cotton swabs
10. Wooden toothpicks/cocktail sticks
11. A handheld vacuum cleaner: here are our faves

We spoke with the experts in household appliances, Smeg about the best cleaning agents to use and how to go about cleaning a refrigerator. Like many experts in the field, they recommend: 'Straight-forward hot soapy water will give your fridge a good clean but it's essential to make sure the shelves are properly dried. To give it a good refresh, ensure the condensate channel on the back wall of the fridge is also cleaned. Drinking straws, cocktail sticks, and cotton buds are all great for doing so.'

In addition to good old washing-up liquid and water, you can use baking soda and vinegar as a means of cleaning and sanitizing your fridge naturally. It's best to avoid any strong cleaning products as you won't want any residual chemical particles and odors near your food and drink. 

'A cluttered and dirty fridge will cause your appliance to work harder in order to keep all its contents cold, resulting in an addition to your energy bill,' warns Matthew Harrison, cleaning expert at PriceYourJob.

'Firstly, you should be mindful of how full your fridge is. A cluttered fridge, full of food that is past its best will take more energy to keep cool, so start by organizing your fridge, and clearing out rotten food, as this will allow air to circulate inside more efficiently.' 

'For routine maintenance, you should wipe down the shelves with a natural antibacterial surface cleanser. Avoid using harsh chemicals as they tend to be scented and this can transfer into food. Natural methods include a baking soda and water paste which is good for tougher stains or a simple white vinegar and water spray for general cleaning.'

'An often overlooked part of your fridge which needs regular cleaning is your fridge’s draining hole. Food tends to get lodged down the hole and cause a blockage, which means the fridge won’t work as efficiently. To clean this, use a small device, such as a straw or a specific drain hole cleaning stick, which will help ease out the blockage.' 

1. Empty the fridge and audit its contents

We'd love to say that it's okay to simply empty the contents of the fridge onto the kitchen countertops before cleaning, but it's way wiser to a) check use-by dates and bin anything that's expired, b) wipe the underside of sticky bottles and jars before you transfer them and c) put meat and dairy products in a cool bag with freezer blocks, especially if it's a hot day (bacteria will multiply speedily at room temperature). We like the XL Plus Insulated Grocery Bags by NZ home, with Fit & Fresh XL ice packs, both available from Amazon.

Melissa Maker author of Clean My Space likes to be eco-conscious also during this process, and rather than completely unplugging the fridge: 'What I actually did was I turned off the cooling mechanism so that I wasn’t wasting electricity during the cleaning process.'

Timing your fridge cleaning before your shopping delivery will make your life easier; similarly, you'll want a freezer you're about to defrost to be as empty as possible before considering the clean-up. 

2. Take out the shelves and fittings... then wait

How many times have you cracked a plastic shelf trying to remove it from the fridge? Put simply, if you unplug or switch off the fridge and let the plastic come to room temperature before you remove it – it's less likely to split.

And if you do safely remove glass or plastic shelves or drawers from the cold fridge and immediately put them into hot water, it's possible they'll crack in the bowl. So, letting them come to room temperature (you can work on the fridge's interior while you wait), then putting them into hot soapy water to let them soak is worth the wait.

3. Clean the inside of the fridge

Cleaning with vinegar is one of the most cost-effective ways to deodorize your fridge. With the shelves and drawers out, spray the fridge's interior with a solution of distilled vinegar and water, concentrating on any areas with dried-on gunk. Leave it to soak while you wash the shelves you removed earlier. Then return to the fridge and wipe it out thoroughly with a soft, damp microfiber cleaning cloth (rinse and squeeze it out regularly). The vinegar and water should work like magic at removing not just sticky mess and germs, but fridge smells, too (more on that later). Work from top to bottom so any debris that falls gets caught when you clean lower down.

Similarly, baking soda is antibacterial and will sort out a stinky fridge. As we said above, chemical products can leave behind smells that will be absorbed by your food, which makes natural cleaning products, such as baking or bicarbonate of soda, a much better choice – especially as cleaning with baking soda will see off nasty fridge smells at the same time. 

For a fridge that's not too dirty, simply wipe a paste made of hot water and bicarbonate of soda to the fridge's interior with a soft, damp cloth, then rinse off with a clean cloth and dry with a piece of kitchen roll. Always dry the fridge thoroughly before you put the food back in and shut the door.

For caked-on food, leave the wet paste to soak in for ten minutes or so, then wipe off once it's softened.

4. Clean your fridge's drain hole

Even if your fridge is working fine and with no pools of water, it's still good to include this as part of your deep clean. Start by removing the vegetable/crisper drawers from the fridge, then simply use a drain hole cleaning device (it's like a mini plumbing snake) to work out the blockage. 

If whatever was clogging up the hole has been there for a while, it's likely that there's a nasty surprise lurking at the back of the fridge. So to get rid of mold and mildew without gagging, use a basting syringe from Amazon to pour a small amount of vinegar and water into the drain hole. 

Assuming you've removed as much of the gunk as possible with the drain hole cleaning device, use a cotton swab to work the vinegar/water solution around the hole to remove any remaining deposits. 

Use the vinegar and water to wipe the bottom of the fridge out before returning the vegetable drawers. Keep the drain cleaning device somewhere handy (top shelf of the fridge); that way, you can tackle the drain hole every couple of months to keep the fridge running healthily.

5. Clean the fridge drawers

When it comes to fridge drawers, you won't be able to clean them properly unless you take them out completely. Pulling them out and wiping them won't allow you to get at the grime that collects in the corners, and there will be grime there, especially if you store vegetables without packaging. 

Take out and empty the drawers, then soak them in warm soapy water. Scrub the insides with a bottle brush (like the OXO Good Grips model on Amazon) or an old toothbrush. Rinse, pat dry and replace. If you're running out of counter space or are worried about forgetting where everything goes in your refrigerator – easily done – wash, dry and replace one basket or drawer at time.

6. Clean the fridge shelves (carefully)

A clean empty refrigerator with glass shelves

(Image credit: Getty/ Richard Drury (sb10066245ee-001))

So, you've removed the shelves and let them come to room temperature before putting them in hot, soapy water. You've given them a good clean... but there are still bits of hard-to-reach gunk between the surface of the shelf and the shelf surround. Our best cleaning tool? The toothpick. Simply run it along the joins in the shelf then wipe away whatever it collects. 

That cotton bud you were using earlier for the drain hole? It's handy for getting food out of grooves in the fridge's interior, too. As is an old toothbrush.

And if you want to avoid cleaning your shelves, drawers, and fridge bins in soapy water, swap it out for a couple of tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda in warm water. 

What not to do? Put the fridge's fittings into your dishwasher: the water is too hot, especially for the plastic. 

7. Wipe down the fridge seals 

Fridge door seals, otherwise known as the gasket, can quickly collect crumbs and spills, so it's worth using your handheld vacuum (with the crevice attachment) or working at them with a stiff washing-up brush/toothbrush every time you're cleaning the kitchen floor. 

Then take a soft cloth, wrap it around a blunt knife, dip it in that vinegar/water solution, and run it gently along the crevices in the seals to collect the gunk. Use a fresh, dry cloth or kitchen towel to repeat the process – this should ensure the crevices are hygienically dry before you shut the fridge door again. 

8. Clean the freezer compartment

If you've come this far, you may as well go all the way and learn how to clean a freezer if you refrigerator has one as part of it. First things first: place a towel at the bottom of the freezer to absorb any water that spills when you defrost it. 

When defrosting a freezer, switch it off at the mains, then empty it, stashing any food into a freezer bag to keep it frozen. Shelves and trays should be allowed to come to room temperature before you stick them in warm water to avoid cracking (more on that, above). 

Leave the door open for a few minutes to allow the ice to start melting – you could be tackling the fridge now if you're going for time efficiency. Then use a freezer defroster ice shovel (yup, that's a thing, and you'll wish you had one if you've started without) to remove the biggest chunks of ice, being careful of the freezer's lining. 

Next, fill a cheap spray bottle with equal parts of warm water and distilled vinegar and spray the freezer walls. Use a soft cloth to work the water/vinegar mix into the surfaces, then dry thoroughly. 

You can help your freezer function at its best by not overloading it; storing food evenly within it so that air circulates properly, and ensuring food is properly covered or in an airtight container when it goes in. Wiping up fresh ice tray spills will help keep it ice-free. We've loads more on organizing a freezer if yours isn't quite Tetris-tidy and you've got freezer-burnt nuggets and fish sticks splayed out on the shelves.

9. Allow the fridge and freezer to cool, then restock

With the fridge washed and thoroughly dried, shut the door (switch the temperature regulator back on if you need to) and wait for the temperature to reach 4°C/40°F or below before replacing the food. Use your fridge's fast-cool function if it has one to speed up the cooling process. Similarly, check the freezer is back to -18ºC/0°F before you put the food back in.

It's worth pointing out at this stage, that if you don't plan on using the food before its use-by date, pop it in the freezer. Most packaged foods have clear labeling and advice on whether the product is suitable for freezing. But, if it doesn't, we've got a comprehensive guide on how to freeze food.

And, if you've used this task as an... ahem excuse to order takeout – make sure you store the leftovers correctly. Lynsey Crombie, aka Lynsey Queen of Clean, says: 'Keep leftovers in small plastic containers labeled. I find the containers you get after having a Chinese or Indian are really handy and a great size too. Also, label the portion size and the date you put it in the fridge.'

Find some cute BPA-free containers to match the aesthetic of your fridge. Go for a simple clear design (like this Rubbermaid 4-piece set from Amazon), or choose a pastel-colored set for the kids.

10. Finally, clean the outside of your fridge

Close-up of unrecognizable woman in kitchen cleaning refrigerator handle with disinfectant wipe

(Image credit: Getty/Grace Cary (1211844291))

Just as you used soapy water or baking/bicarbonate of soda inside the fridge, you can use both on the outside of a white appliance, too. Simply wet a soft cloth, pour on the soda and you're good to go. Remember to clean the top of the appliance's doors, since those can become sticky or dusty, and pay attention to the areas around handles, which become grimy with constant contact.

Handles can be a germ hotspot (harboring more than toilets in some cases) but don't use any old product on them. Instead, take time to read through our tutorial on how to clean stainless steel properly. This includes working with the grain, drying thoroughly to prevent water spots and finishing with oil.

For the rest of the refrigerator outer, there's no need to buy the best cleaning supplies if you have vinegar leftover. The acetic acid will break down any bacteria while keeping your fridge grips fingerprint-free and super shiny. Anti-bacterial wipes are also good to keep on hand, so grab a few tubs from Clorox on Amazon

How often should you clean your fridge?

'Schedule your fridge clean in your cleaning schedule. I like to clean out my refrigerator weekly, before rubbish collection day and before the shopping is delivered.' says Crombie.

How to clean a fridge that smells

The first thing to do if your fridge smells is to check for food that's gone off, and ensure the fridge's temperature is correct (you can buy fridge thermometers on Amazon if yours doesn't have one; your fridge should be at or below 4°C/40°F, and the freezer at -18°C/0°F). 

Neither seems to be an issue? Clean the fridge thoroughly, including the drainage channel (more on this, below). 

You can use vinegar or bicarbonate of soda to clean the fridge, but if you don't have those handy, try the following:

  • Ground coffee: spread on a tray and left in the fridge will soak up any bad fridge smells after a couple of days. You can also use coffee grounds for cleaning your kitchen bin too.
  • Activated charcoal: will work in the same way as coffee does. Find it on the Viva Doria store on Amazon.
  • Porridge oats: same technique, leave them for a couple of days then dispose of them in your kitchen trash can. Get rolled oats for cheap on Amazon.
  • Vanilla-soaked cotton wool: got some vanilla extract in your baking drawer? Soak a few balls of cotton with it and place them inside your fridge to make it smell like freshly-baked cookies.
  • Lemon halves: placed face down on a shelf will work at making your fridge smell citrusy. If you don't want to waste them, try using orange peel in the same way.
  • Airtight food containers: these will keep food and its smells properly contained.

Why does a fridge have water at the bottom?

Condensation naturally builds up in a fridge, and it should be collected into the drain hole at the back of the fridge (it's usually about the height of the lowest shelf). There, it will go into an evaporation pan where it will... evaporate. 

However, if your drain hole has become blocked by food, it's likely that all that condensation will end up at collecting as pools of water at the bottom of the fridge, and often inside your vegetable drawer. First thing to do is to check for obvious blockages. If that doesn't work, you'll need to clean your fridge's drain hole as above.

What to do with your fridge when you go away

Going on a prolonged holiday? The best thing to do – if you don't want to return to a fridge of moldy food – is to remove anything that's at risk of going off, and freeze it if possible. Better still, if your home is prone to power cuts – eat it before you go, or give it to friends and family to use up. 

If you're going to be away for a really long time, it's best to empty the fridge completely, switch it off, clean it and leave its door open. Then, just get your online grocery shop lined up for your return and you'll thank your past self for being so organized.

How to deodorize a refrigerator between cleans

Depending on what kinds of food you store in your fridge, even a regularly-cleaned one can be a bit whiffy. Cheese, garlic, and other strong-smelling foods are often responsible for an unpleasant smell in the fridge, even when the food is in good condition.

Storing smelly foods in airtight containers is a good way to ensure your fridge doesn't smell, but another option is placing a cup filled with baking soda inside your fridge (you might need you on each shelf for larger fridges). Baking soda absorbs strong smells and prevents them from lingering inside the appliance. 

Expert tips on keeping your fridge clean

A few final fridge cleaning tips from the pros. Maker mentions, 'It’s important you dry everything really well because you don’t want any excess moisture going into the fridge after you’ve cleaned it’.

Mrs Hinch shares, ‘For a quick clean I fill the large drawer with warm soapy water and use this to wipe out the fridge! I’ll soak the shelves and liners in the sink.’

And Crombie has a tip for avoiding spills in the first place – it's all in the organization, or assigning 'food zones'. She explains: 'No matter how careful you are, invariably food can drizzle out or spill down the side of a container onto a refrigerator shelf.'

'Clean it all up so you’re ready to reload. It might seem silly to have zones in your refrigerator, but this helps me not only remember where things belong, but it’s helpful to other family members and guests who are helping out in the kitchen.'

'You can even use actual labels for the shelves so everyone should know where things go! There are some cute repositionable ones that can make it look nicer too. Take note of the height of your items that will go back in so that you can group like items and adjust shelf heights if necessary.'

A set of retractable drawer organizers in refrigerator

(Image credit: Amazon)

'Another idea is to use fridge bins or plastic baskets to organize items by group. For example, you can keep your entire sandwich-making condiments in a bin and when it’s time to make sandwiches, you can pull it out and have everything handy for all preferences without having to open the refrigerator several times.'

Bins will also catch any spills making it easier to clean them, rather than the whole fridge should you have a mishap.

We've searched on Amazon, and the mDesign plastic bins look so Instagrammable when filled with your favorite snacks (whether that's fresh fruit or something chocolatey!) Stackable slimline fridge baskets from JRing are good for small fridges, or, these HapiLeap retractable drawers clip underneath your glass shelves  – very clever!

Lucy Searle

Lucy is Global Editor-in-Chief of Homes & Gardens having worked on numerous interiors and property titles. She was founding Editor of Channel 4’s 4Homes magazine, was Associate Editor at Ideal Home, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of in 2018 then moving to Homes & Gardens in 2021. She has also written for Huffington Post, AOL, UKTV, MSN, House Beautiful, Good Homes, and many women’s titles. Find her writing about everything from buying and selling property, self build, DIY, design and consumer issues to gardening.