How to clean a washing machine: the ultimate guide to fresh laundry

Want to know how to clean a washing machine that's a little, well, smelly? This is the only guide you'll ever need – freshen up, descale, and banish bacteria with these easy cleaning tips

Smelly washing machine: how to clean a washing machine
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

This is the ultimate guide on how to clean a washing machine. Washing machines can become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria if not cleaned regularly, not to mention the fact that they can get smelly after a while. To keep your washing machine fresh and hygienic, give it a weekly maintenance clean; your laundry (and your health) will thank you. 

Just follow this simple step-by-step guide to foolproof washing machine cleaning.

Need a new one? See our guide to the best washing machines you can buy. If you're just looking for a washing machine cleaner, jump straight to our buyer's guide for the best you can buy.

Read your washing machine’s manual for instructions on how to clean; some manufacturers discourage the use of de-scaling products in their machines. In some cases, this may invalidate your warranty, so check before you do anything. 

1. How to clean a washing machine's detergent drawer

The washing machine detergent drawer gets surprisingly dirty for an area that's designed to hold detergent. You'll find that mould and mildew – and just general gunk – can quickly build up, and with it, bacteria. Not a great place to start your wash, right? 

Now: To begin cleaning your washing machine, remove the detergent drawer at the front of the machine (check your manual if you need advice for how to fully remove it). Soak the drawer in hot, soapy water and, using an old toothbrush, scrub away any soap build up or mould. Rinse thoroughly, and dry with a tea towel. Before you put it back, clean out the cavity – it's likely there's some hidden mould there, too.

Later: Leave the detergent drawer open in between wash cycles, to prevent mould growing in there. Use only as much detergent as is necessary, following the guidelines on the packaging; overloading detergent will create a build up inside the machine.

Find the best ways to get rid of household germs – and how to get rid of mould and mildew, too.

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Need to budge some tough mould and mildew? Our best mould sprays are a good place to start...

2. How to clean a washing machine with vinegar

Cleaning your washing machine once a month is a wise move. It will help keep your whites whiter and ensure a sweet-smelling pile of laundry. 

Now: Set your machine on its hottest cycle (or a minimum of 60ºC) and pour 230ml of white vinegar directly into to the drum. The vinegar is the perfect solution to help to purify your machine – it's an excellent, natural way to kill bacteria, and the smell will disappear during the rinse cycle. 

Later: Keep a bottle of white vinegar handy near your washing machine – perhaps alongside your washing powder. That way, you'll easily remember to keep up the cleaning routine.

Use our guide to cleaning with vinegar to find lots more useful tips.

3. How to clean a washing machine with bicarbonate of soda or baking soda

Using bicarbonate of soda is one of our very favourite cleaning hacks. It'll tackle washing machines with ease, but you can use it to clean everything from fridges to carpets, too, so having some handy is useful.

Now: Add two tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda into the detergent drawer, this will be acting as the soap. The soda and vinegar work together to naturally break through dirt and remove mould while cleansing and refreshing your washing machine. Start the hot cycle. 

Later: Once a month run an empty hot wash to eliminate any build-up and smells, adding the bicarbonate of soda or vinegar as an extra precaution. 

Use our guide to cleaning with bicarbonate of soda to find lots more useful tips.

4. How to clean a washing machine with bleach

If you're a fan of cleaning with bleach, you won't baulk at using it to clean a washing machine. It is, obviously, very effective at cleaning dirt and mould from both the drum and detergent drawer of the washing machine, and also the exterior.  

Now: Add half a cup of bleach directly into your washing machine's drum, and half into your detergent drawer. Run an empty hot wash. If you can pause your wash once the machine has filled with water, do so for a good hour. Then start the cycle again. Run an extra rinse cycle to ensure all the bleach has been removed. Once it's finished, wipe down the inside of the door and dry out the seals. 

Later: Next time you put on a wash, ensure it's a white one that might benefit rather than be damaged by any bleach residue left in the washing machine.

5. Leave the washing machine to dry

Cleaning a washing machine doesn't just involve cleaning – allowing it to dry properly is a must to prevent mould build-up in the first place. 

Now: Let the cycle come to a natural finish and open the door letting the inside of the drum air-dry. If any bad smells or excess grime are lingering repeat the process again.

Later: In between washes leave the door open, or at least until the interior and drum has dried out. This reduces the chance of mould and bacteria growing inside. 

6. Clean the washing machine's rubber seals

The rubber seals of a washing machine, like the detergent drawer, are a haven for mould and mildew – but you'll also find everything from coins to hair in there.

Now: Using a damp cloth saturated with soapy water wipe around the rubber seals of the washing machine. Be careful when you lift them away from the metal as you may accidentally rip or unseal them. Where possible wipe away any residue that is stuck to the seal. If necessary gently remove any stubborn grime with a toothbrush.

Later: Run a hot maintenance wash according to the washing machine manufacturer’s instructions. After every wash, as you empty the washing machine, check that nothing has been deposited into the crevices between the seals.

The best way to stop mould growing on the seal in the future? Leave the washing machine door open for a few hours after you’ve removed a load of clean washing to let the moisture out, and clean the seal as above regularly.

7. How to clean the washing machine's filter

The washing machine's filter, usually found beneath the drum door just above floor level, stops all the nasty stuff that gathers in the crevices too – fluff, hair and coins – from reaching the pump. So, it does an important job. But... just like the detergent drawer, it can be a great place for mould and germs to grow, which can, in turn, make your washing machine smell. 

Now: Check your washing machine's instructions to find out how to remove the cover if it's fixed, and how to remove the filter. The user manual should also explain how to clean the filter. You may need to place a bowl or tray on a towel beneath it to catch leaks from the drain. Replace the cover carefully.

Later: Repeat this process once every three or four months and your washing machine will function so much better.

Want to get rid of household smells? Find out how in our feature.

8. How to clean a washing machine's exterior

The drum in particular becomes quickly dusty, but the detergent drawer can drip, as can the drum itself during or after a wash.

Now: Using a damp cloth and washing up liquid, clean any stains from the outside of the washing machine and wipe away any dust. Dry the exterior with a clean kitchen towel. 

Later: Keep it up – a quick, regular wipe over will be easier in the long run than a thorough annual cleaning.

9. Use your washing detergent to clean your machine

It's perfectly fine to run a maintenance clean with laundry detergent rather than a specialised washing machine cleaner. You can use your regular detergent – although we find that what works best is a natural, plant-based detergent marked as 'concentrated'. These are typically stronger, so you don't need to use a lot of it, and they leave your washing machine sparkling clean. Our favourite is the Method Concentrated Laundry Detergent in Wild Lavender. It's 95 per cent plant based and contains powerful enzymes that are up to the task of deep cleaning your machine, as well as your clothes. And it smells so, so good. It also comes in refillable, recycled packaging. 

10. Use sodium percarbonate to deodorise your machine

Sodium percarbonate is also often labelled as 'laundry bleach' or 'oxygen bleach' and does a really good job at freshening up and ridding washing machines of unpleasant smells.

Stronger than baking soda but safer than liquid bleach, it's a great all-rounder for your weekly maintenance clean. It comes in powder form and should be used in exactly the same way as sodium bicarbonate. 

11. How to stop washing machine smells

You've now cleaned your washing machine – but how do you ensure the bad smell doesn't return? These are the easiest ways to make sure that your washing machine stays fresh-smelling for longer:

  • Keep the washing machine door open: this will prevents excess moisture accumulating and mould from growing
  • Avoid using too much detergent: paradoxically, too much detergent causes bad smells because it builds up inside your washing machine. Use washing powder at least sometimes, even if you prefer liquid detergent
  • Don't forget the boil wash: even if you don't use the soda crystals, a hot wash every week will keep your washing machine smelling better than if you just do cold cycles.
  • Brushing off any excess dirt from muddy clothing before putting inside your appliance will keep it as clean as possible.
  • If you live in a hard water area, use a water softener attached to your in-flow pipe or put softener tablets in with your wash. Both of these will help minimise the build-up of lime scale.
  •  Washing machine cleaners will keep yours fresh – and keep your washing white, too.

12. How to clean a washing machine with vitamin C

There are two main ways to try and get rid of buildup in your washing machine: one is with an alkaline substance such as baking soda. Baking soda's high ph makes it perfect for cutting through greasy and oily stains, making it very effective in kitchens. However, if you live in a hard water area, you may have noticed that cleaning your washing machine with baking soda isn't doing a lot.

If that's the case, it's time to try the opposite – acidic – approach. Citric acid and ascorbic acid (commonly known as vitamin C) are reducing or chelating agents, which makes them particularly effective for cleaning buildup associated with hard water – rust, limescale, and soap scum or detergent buildup.

Bring a pan of water to the boil, take off the heat, and dissolve approximately 200 grams of ascorbic acid powder and 100 grams of citric acid powder in the water. Add the warm solution directly to the drum of your machine and pour a little into the tray. Run the machine on a hot wash without any clothes. Don't use citric acid undiluted on plastic washing machine trays as it could cause damage.

13. How to get rid of limescale in the washing machine

As for your washing machine, there are plenty of products around, but white vinegar will do the job a treat, too. Add a large cup to the detergent drawer and run a hot wash cycle. Keep your clothes out of the equation for this wash, of course.

If your washing machine manufacturer discourages the use of vinegar in the machine, we've tried out the best washing machine cleaners. Our favourite is Calgon Washing Machine Tablets 2 in 1, as they not only clean inside the appliance but help to protect the drum and any plastic parts from limescale build-up, too.

Find out how to clean a washing machine from top to bottom in our guide. 

Best washing machine cleaner

We're big fans of natural washing machine cleaners (think: vinegar) BUT not every washing machine manufacturer approves, and you can invalidate your warranty if you use anything but what they recommend to keep your machine clean and limescale-free. 

We've tested tons of the best washing machine cleaners at Realhomes.com Towers on our own washing machines. We've noted the results, taken the products' plus points into account (Does it kill bacteria? Does it protect the plastic parts of the washing machine?), and, of course, looked for good value for money.

The result? We think the best washing machine cleaner you can buy is Calgon Washing Machine Tablets 2 in 1. Here's a quick sum up:

  • Cleaning: they do the job, as you'd expect. 
  • Germ killers: they kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria, which is what will make your washing machine smell. 
  • Protecting: they also protect the drum and plastic parts of the machine from damaging limescale buildup, too. 
  • Soften hard water: they contain active polycarboxylates, and that's how they protect your machine from limescale.

How often do you use them? Ideally, add a tablet to every wash for best results. If that's too often for you (we're talking budgets here), once a week will do the job. Of course, it also depends how much you wash weekly – and how soiled your wash is: muddy dog walkers and sports fans, and sweaty gym bunnies (*guilty) will need to use the tablets more often than those of you who glow rather than sweat and waft about in linen (*that's not us).

Our advice? Buy in bulk – the link above will take you to today's best deal. On Amazon, they work out at about £1 a wash – not a big expense if it saves you emergency trips to the launderette and emergency plumber call out fees. 

Our second favourite washing machine cleaner, in case you're interested, is Dettol Washing Machine Cleaner in lemon. It can be used less frequently than our number one pick, making it a cheaper choice, but we prefer Calgon because it's proven to really tackle limescale (and all our testers live in an area where that's a problem). Not a problem for you? Pick number two for a more economical buy.

Watch the Real Homes Show for even more home cleaning tips

Have you got your Marigolds at the ready? You might want to check out the latest episode on our TV channel which features top tips for cleaning with humble store cupboard ingredients.

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