How to clean a dishwasher with vinegar, baking soda, lemon and other methods

This is how to clean a dishwasher for sparkling, hygienic results and to get rid of bad smells – plus, why you should never use bleach...

How to clean a dishwasher
(Image credit: Getty)

Knowing how to clean a dishwasher is essential for this hardworking kitchen appliance to do its job correctly. And, it's a tough household job made easy by using everyday cupboard ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and even lemon.

Since your dishwasher is removing food residue from your dishes every single day, it's important that you get on top of cleaning yours correctly, so that it stays germ and limescale free. Plus, no one wants a smelly dishwasher... The good news is, that once you've established an effective dishwasher cleaning routine, it's simple to maintain. And in no time at all, you'll have your best dishwasher gleaming and ready to get those dishes squeaky clean again.

cleaning a dishwasher with baking soda and vinegar

(Image credit: Getty images)

From daily wipe-ups to monthly dishwasher cleanses using powerful natural ingredients or even a generic dishwasher cleaner, we've listed the most popular and failsafe methods below so that you can find what works best for both you and your appliance. 

Keep scrolling for our step-by-step guide along with more maintenance tips and cleaning advice from our favorite celeb cleaners like Martha Stewart and UK favorite, Mrs Hinch...

How to clean a dishwasher with vinegar

To clean your dishwasher using vinegar, you'll need to do start by emptying the dishwasher. Then, place 250ml of white vinegar in a dishwasher-safe container on the top rack. Or, pour the solution into the bottom of the dishwasher. Set the temperature to the highest heat level and run for a full cycle. Using vinegar mixed with hot water will disinfect everything and wash away any grease and grime and remove musty odours. 

How to clean a dishwasher with baking soda

After cleaning your dishwasher with vinegar you can use baking soda to freshen it up even more and get rid of any lingering smells. Simply sprinkle a few tablespoons of baking soda on the bottom of the machine. The run your dishwasher on a short cycle at the highest temperature.

interior of a dishwasher

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How to clean a dishwasher with lemon

Either place a dishwasher safe bowl with lemon juice, or both halves of a lemon on the top rack of your machine. Then run it on a normal cycle, with or without dishes. This is a great way to lightly disinfect the inside of your dishwasher, and to help keep it smelling fresh also. Lemon will even add a shine to your dishes if you leave them in on the wash cycle.

dirty dishwasher filter needing a clean

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How to clean a dishwasher filter

Remove the lower tray, look inside and locate the drain, then clean all around it. Pull the filter out and remove any chunks of food that have been left behind. Rinse and wash the filter thoroughly with hot water, using a soft toothbrush to remove any stubborn grease, and replace it. Finally, spray a little white vinegar over the drain. This will help keep it clean between washes.

cleaning a dishwasher drawer

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How to clean your dishwasher door

Use a multi-purpose cleaner or warm, soapy water to wipe away all fingerprints, grease or food residue from the dishwasher door. Then dry thoroughly with a soft cloth or piece of kitchen towel. Clean around the dishwasher buttons with a damp cloth – moving in the direction of the grain if your dishwasher door is stainless steel – as too much water could cause damage. Clean door seals thoroughly to get rid of mould and mildew, as this will eventually damage the seals and could cause the dishwasher to leak. And finally, gently brush the sides of the doors and around the edges with a small toothbrush.

How often should you clean your dishwasher? 

To keep your dishwasher running efficiently, there are different areas you should tackle on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Pull out the bottom dishwasher rack and check around the filter area to pick up any trapped food on a daily basis. Removing those food bits will stop them from clogging up your filter and causing bad smells. Also check for lodged utensils also that could stop the dishwasher spray arm from spinning correctly. 

You should then clean you dishwasher filter and the door on a weekly basis to keep your dishwasher clean and in check. Because if your dishwasher filter and the area around it isn't clean, then nothing else will be. We'd also recommend tackling the build up of grime around the dishwasher door and control buttons.

clean dishes in a dishwasher

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Deep cleaning a dishwasher

For a thorough monthly dishwasher cleanse you should remove the racks and utensil holder and wash them with hot water. Then dip an old toothbrush in the soapy water and scrub to remove any stubborn marks. Gently scrub the spray arm (this is the propeller like arm that cleans the dishes), and poke any debris or limescale through the holes with a toothpick and scrub with a sponge scourer. Rinse this under a tap and replace it. Finally, follow with the vinegar and baking soda methods listed above.

clean open dishwasher

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How do you maintain a dishwasher?

  • Scrape any excess food off plates, pots and pans before they go into the dishwasher.
  • Don't overfill your dishwasher as this will make it less efficient and the water won't have room to circulate. The same applies to cutlery.
  • Clean your dishwasher filters regularly.
  • Keep dishwasher salt and rinse aid topped up to stop limescale building up and to soften the water. 
  • Use the right setting, don’t use an economy setting if the load is really dirty and needs a hot wash.

How to deal with a smelly dishwasher

Running your dishwasher on a hot wash once every month will stop it smelling, and it's worth doing this if you use the eco or cool wash programme during the rest of the month as these washes might be eco-friendly, but they allow food residue to build up more readily.

If you're still getting unpleasant smells from your dishwasher – or worse, bits of food that seem to come from absolutely nowhere – you may be dealing with a waste blockage, or the waste pipe is bent out of shape, restricting the flow of waste water. You'll need to switch off and pull out the device to inspect. If the waste pipe is bent, you may want not to push the dishwasher back in all the way.

How to descale a dishwasher

You could go with the branded cleaner from your dishwasher manufacturer, or a proprietary cleaner, but if you’re after a store cupboard solution for limescale build up, then try cleaning with vinegar. Fill a large dishwasher-proof cup with the liquid, add it to the top basket, and run a cycle without detergent (or any dishes, of course).

top shelf of dishwasher being removed and cleaned

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Dishwasher salt – what is does and why it's important

What does dishwasher salt do?

Dishwasher salt helps your dishwasher run properly, by softening the water which helps your dishwasher detergent dissolve more effectively for better and more sparkling clean results. 

Simply fill up the dedicated salt unit, being careful to not let the salt sit anywhere else in your dishwasher as it won't run properly and could leave your dishes with a salty residue.

Can you use regular salt instead of dishwasher salt?

As tempting as it may be, don't do it. Regular cooking salt isn't suitable for dishwashers as it contains anti-caking agents which can clog up your appliance.

Do you need dishwasher salt and rinse aid? 

Dishwasher salt and rinse aid do different things. Rinse aid does what it says on the can, it helps the water run off your dishes more easily for streak-free results. If your water is particularly hard or you’re noticing a film on your clean dishes, a rinse aid is a necessary addition.

streak free glasses in a dishwasher

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Can I use vinegar as a dishwasher rinse aid alternative?

You might be tempted to use vinegar as a rinse aid for your dishes as well as for cleaning your dishwasher, but it's not recommended. 

Some natural cleaning hacks may suggest using white vinegar in lieu of a pricey rinse aid, but resist this idea. Vinegar is very acidic, so it can break rubber gaskets and hoses if used too often. Plus, it can mix with salt from your food and discolor metal flatware or pans. 

Can I clean a dishwasher with bleach?

Despite what you might read elsewhere, do not use bleach or harsh cleaners to clean your dishwasher; doing so will damage the seals and dishwasher itself over time.

using a commercial dishwasher cleaning tab

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What's a good commercial dishwasher cleaning product?

If you don’t want to clean using vinegar as a deep cleaning agent for your dishwasher, you can buy a cleaning product, such as Dr Beckmann Service It Deep Clean

Make sure you read the instructions in full before use and wear rubber gloves. Simply follow the instructions on the packet and pour all the powder directly into the bottom of the empty dishwasher and run cycle as normal, every week.

Can I use a washing machine cleaner in my dishwasher?

Much like you can use a dishwasher to clean other weird and wonderful things, you may be tempted to use another appliance cleaning product in your dishwasher too. But our advice is: unless the product is specifically labelled as being suitable for dishwashers, avoid using it. 

One of the potential problems with using a different cleaning product in the dishwasher is that it may foam too much, making your dishwasher unable to drain off the froth. Some newer dishwashers will then activate an anti-flood device that can only be deactivated by draining the dishwasher manually. 

Never, ever use dishwashing liquid in the dishwasher for this reason, or laundry detergent. If you don't want to spend too much money on different products, Ecozone make washing machine and dishwasher cleaner tablets suitable for both appliances. 

pouring cleaning fluid on to a sponge scourer

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Expert tips on how to clean a dishwasher

You only learn from the best, and so here are some words of wisdom from our favorite house-proud names.

Martha Stewart's dishwasher cleaning tip

When cleaning brown stains often as a result of calcium or iron buildup, Martha Stewart suggests: 'use citric acid... Empty the dishwasher, fill the detergent cup with citric acid, and run a complete cycle. Run the dishwasher through a second cycle without the crystals but with detergent.'

Mrs Hinch's dishwasher cleaning tip

When it comes to commercial dishwasher cleaning products, beloved Sophie Hinchliffe swears by 'the Fairy platinum plus all-in-one, that's all I use' as it lessens the need to soak dishes before loading the dishwasher. Find them on Amazon.

Lynsey Crombie's – AKA The Queen of Clean – dishwasher cleaning tip

Lynsey Crombie largely uses our method as above, and when it comes to cleaning the exterior of your machine she recommends: 'Wipe down all your seals and around the door with a solution of 50% white vinegar, 20% neat lemon juice and 30% water.' 

'I put the solution in a spray bottle as it can be used for other household cleaning jobs. I use Lemon juice as this leaves a fresh clean smell and lemons are also great for breaking down dirt and grim.'

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