How to clean a washing machine: 14 ways to sort a smelly washing machine

Cleaning a washing machine is essential for getting your laundry as fresh as can be. This is how to sanitize your washer using both natural methods and cleaning solutions

A retro domestic kitchen with yellow kitchen cabinetry and doors and black washing machine appliance
(Image credit: Getty / 10'000 Hours (#1227138220))

Cleaning a washing machine regularly is one of those jobs that we hadn't given much thought to. But luckily this guide on how to clean a washing machine covers all the steps, from giving the drum a good clean to ridding the detergent drawer and seal of mildew – the main culprits of a smelly washing machine. 

Your washer is designed to clean your clothes, so if you don't clean it, how can it do its job properly? It could be depositing all kinds of mold, bacteria, and germs on your laundry in the process of 'cleaning' it, so you can wave goodbye to that sought-after fresh cotton smell.

Don't worry though as cleaning your washing machine is really easy, even if you have left grime to build up for some time. What's more a lot of the ingredients you need to get it gleaming could already be in your kitchen cupboards. So, whether you want to use gentle vinegar and baking soda, or perhaps blitz through bacteria with bleach, we have plenty of methods to clean in a way that suits you.

We've covered everything in our guide to help you wash a washer from the inside top or front loader drum to the door seals, detergent drawer, filter, and exterior.  While some of the best washing machines now have antimicrobial technology built into them, it's best to have this guide handy to keep your washer in perfect working condition for years to come.

Our step-by-step video on cleaning a washing machine

What to use when cleaning a washing machine 

Cleaning your washing machine should be easy. As a first step, read your washing machine’s manual for instructions on how to clean it; 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. 

There are plenty of specialist products on the market too. Check out our pick of the best washing machine cleaners for more, or scroll on to see your washing machine cleaning kit list.

Equipment list

1. Baking soda: get bicarb cheaply on Amazon (opens in new tab)
2. Bleach (optional):
Clorox kills 99.9% of germs (opens in new tab)
3. White vinegar:
Heinz sells it cheaply on Amazon (opens in new tab)
Washing machine cleaner (optional): we like Tide's products on Amazon (opens in new tab)
5. Laundry detergent: choose by fragrance or skin type (opens in new tab)
6. Washing pods: Arm & Hammer's 4-in-1 are our go-to (opens in new tab)
7. An old toothbrush: or buy a value 3-pack from Colgate (opens in new tab)
Dish soap: Choose from a wide range of washing-up liquids on Amazon (opens in new tab)
9. Sodium percarbonate (opens in new tab): often labeled laundry bleach or oxygen bleach powder on Amazon (opens in new tab)
10. Citric acid or ascorbic acid: Get your Vit C on Amazon (opens in new tab)
11. A tea towel: upgrade your old dish cloths with budget-friendly options on Amazon (opens in new tab)
12. A microfiber cloth: Choose white or multicolored options (opens in new tab)
13. A bowl
14. A tray
A towel
A saucepan (opens in new tab) (with access to a hob)
A kettle or boiling water tap
18. A scourer:
get Scotch-Brite's non-scratch scrub sponges on Amazon (opens in new tab)
19. Soda crystals:
Dri-Pak does the job (opens in new tab)
20. Epsom salts: many magnesium sulfate options on Amazon (opens in new tab)
21. Rubber gloves: get your household cleaning gloves from Amazon (opens in new tab)

1. Cleaning a washing machine: the basic method

The first thing to know about achieving a clean washer is that very hot water will do a lot of the job for you. So, if you've never cleaned your washing machine, just pop it on the hottest cycle it's got with no clothes in it. You can use a washing machine cleaner (like Tide's individually-wrapped powder packets (opens in new tab)) or a bit of laundry detergent, but even just near-boiling water should give you a clean(er) washing machine.

Some newer models have a dedicated washing machine cleaning cycle designed to run safely without popping anything in. Just have a look at the washing symbols.

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

Remove the detergent drawer at the front of the machine (check your manual if you need advice on how to fully remove it). Soak the drawer in hot, soapy water and, using an old toothbrush, scrub away any soap build-up and get rid of mold. Rinse thoroughly, and dry with a tea towel (opens in new tab). Before you put it back, clean out the cavity – it's likely there's some hidden mold there, too.

The washing machine detergent drawer gets surprisingly dirty for an area that's designed to hold detergent so it's crucial to start here.

Laundry room with a top-load washer

(Image credit: eyecrave productions / Getty)

3. How to clean a washing machine with vinegar and baking soda

If you don't want to splash out on expensive specialized products, this natural dirt-busting duo is the best way to clean a washing machine in our opinion. In fact, there are few things you can't clean with vinegar with amazing results – it's such a store cupboard crowd pleaser. The combo is super cheap, too.

Top load washing machines: Set your machine on its hottest cycle (or a minimum of 140ºF/60ºC) and pour one cup (230ml) of white vinegar (opens in new tab) directly into the drum. Cleaning with 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. When the cycle is over, add a 1/2 cup of baking soda (opens in new tab) (approx 60g) to the drum and start the hottest cycle again. Baking soda is a great way of getting rid of odors, so using bicarb to clean is a surefire way to counter a smelly washing machine and other household smells. Clean the door seals and exterior once done and ensure the inside is totally dry by wiping it down and then leaving the door open.

Front load washing machines: Pour two cups of white vinegar (475ml) into the detergent drawer, and run the washer through its hottest cycle. Once complete, run the hottest cycle again, adding 1/2 cup baking soda (60g) to the drum directly. Then wipe the inside of the washer drum down with a microfiber cloth (opens in new tab) and clean the exterior and door seals also.

4. How to clean a washing machine with bleach

Cleaning a washing machine with bleach isn't as scary as it sounds. Dollar for dollar, it's one of the best cleaning supplies, and will get used throughout the home. While we can't imagine your appliance gets as dirty as the toilet, don't underestimate the benefits of disinfecting your washing machine because clothes do touch your skin and nasties can be passed on.

Top and front loader: Add half a cup of bleach (we like Clorox) (opens in new tab) 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 washing machine door and dry out the seals. 

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

Note: 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. It's a savior when it comes to stain removal on light-colored clothes! So if you're trying to get makeup out of clothing, for example, use this as an opportunity to go a little more heavy-duty in lieu of your eco-friendly laundry detergent.

A laundry room with washer, dryer, and houseplants

(Image credit: Eva-Katalin / Getty)

5. Cleaning a washing machine's rubber seals

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

Use a damp cloth saturated with soapy water and 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.

6. How to clean a washing machine 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 mold and germs to grow, which can, in turn, make your washing machine smell. 

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.

While we're talking hair, fur, and fluff, your handheld vacuum will be your speedy sidekick to assist you in cleaning the inside of your washing machine. Before laundry day, use your portable vac to sweep up any visible strands of human hair or pelt from your pet. Our Roidmi Nano P1 Pro handheld vacuum review springs to mind suitability-wise because it's small and super slimline, but doesn't skim on power.

Alternatively, if you have a lightweight vacuum for pet hair, you might be able to get to work with this.

Alex and Sam Reid put their DIY skills to the test, transforming a dilapidated 1950s house with reclaimed wood, upcycled furniture and vintage French finds

(Image credit: Darren Chung)

7. 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. If it is in a laundry room, or perhaps a space where pets come in and out of the home, it will likely get splashed with other muck from time to time so will need a good clean.

Top and front loaders: 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.

8. Use your detergent as a washing machine cleaner

It's perfectly fine to run a maintenance clean with laundry detergent rather than a specialized 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 favorite is the Method Concentrated Laundry Detergent in Lavender and Cypress scent (opens in new tab). It's 95 percent plant-based and contains powerful enzymes that are up to the task of deep cleaning a washing machine, as well as your clothes. And it smells so, so good. It also comes in refillable, recycled packaging. 

We're also big fans of Smol (opens in new tab) – an online company that sends you washing pods every month, based on how many washes you do weekly. These pods come in bio or non-bio versions and they are eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and very convenient since they get delivered straight to your door. They also work out to be cheaper than normal washing pods, somehow, while you can grab your first box for free (opens in new tab) – just pay for the postage – so that you can try before you buy. 

Washing machine with its door open and laundry spilling out

(Image credit: Getty)

9. Use sodium percarbonate to deodorize your machine

Sodium percarbonate (opens in new tab) is also often labeled as 'laundry bleach' or 'oxygen bleach powder (opens in new tab)' 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 washing machine clean. It comes in powder form and should be used in exactly the same way as sodium bicarbonate. 

10. How to clean a washing machine with vitamin C

There are two main ways to try and get rid of build-up 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 when cleaning a kitchen. 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 (opens in new tab) 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. Alternatively, use hot water from your kettle or boiling water tap to activate the aforementioned solution. 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.

laundry room

(Image credit: IKEA)

11. 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: a clean washing machine is the main objective after all.

12. Clean a washing machine with soda crystals and vinegar

For the best results when cleaning your front or top-loader washing machine, always put the crystals directly inside the drum. Clean your tray and door separately with a brush, using vinegar and/or washing-up liquid. Scrub like you mean it using a scourer (we swear by Scotch-Brite's non-scratch scrub sponges (opens in new tab)) to get rid of residue buildup and any mold. 

Then, pour half a pack (500 grams) of the soda crystals into the drum and run the machine on the hottest cycle it can do. Always choose the full cycle length to really get the benefit of the crystals' cleaning power. You can also add a bit more vinegar to the detergent tray to clean and disinfect the hard-to-reach parts of your washing machine.

Stack of folded colorful clothes

(Image credit: NYS444/ Getty)

13. Cleaning your washing machine with Epsom salts and vinegar

Epsom salts are a hugely underrated cleansing agent, used for generations to treat various skin conditions. If it's good enough for your bath, it's definitely good enough for your washing machine. 

Epsom salt is very different from table salt; its chemical composition is magnesium sulfate, containing magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen. Salt is sodium chloride. The benefits of Epsom salts in your washing machine go far beyond a simple scrubbing action from the salt; instead, its chemical composition is naturally antibacterial, so it will disinfect a washing machine rather than just scrape the inside of it. 

This natural product usually comes packed in large quantities. However, you can use the rest of your salts to enjoy a relaxing bath or to clean tiles. Not bad for just one product and it will save on cupboard space too.

How to:

  1. Simply add a cup of Epsom salts to half a cup of vinegar, or even just water, and add directly to the drum. 
  2. Run the washing machine on the hottest cycle it can do, pausing the machine at the beginning of the cycle and letting the saline solution soak for at least half an hour.
  3. Let the machine finish the cycle and enjoy the results. 

14. Try these smelly washing machine home remedies

Prevention is better than cure, so rather than waiting until your washing machine smells a bit funky to go gung-ho on cleaning, incorporate these small measures into your routine:

  • Leave the detergent drawer open: Letting this area air out in between wash cycles will help prevent mold growing in there. 
  • Measure detergent: Use only as much detergent as is necessary, following the guidelines on the packaging; overloading detergent will create a build up inside the machine.
  • Run empty hot washes: Once a month run an empty hot wash to eliminate any build-up and smells, adding in baking/bicarbonate of soda or vinegar as an extra precaution.
  • Air out the drum: In between washes leave the washer door open, or at least until the interior and drum has dried out. This reduces the chance of mold and bacteria growing inside. 
  • Keep seals clean: 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.
  • Keep the filter clean: Repeat the filter cleaning process once every three or four months and your washing machine will function so much better.
  • Take care of the exterior: A quick, regular wipe-over will be easier in the long run than a thorough annual cleaning.
  • Keep dirt out: Brushing off any excess dirt from muddy clothing before putting it inside your appliance will keep it as clean as possible.
  • Think about limescale: If you live in a hard water area, use a water softener attached to your in-flow pipe or put limescale softener tablets in with your wash. Both of these will help minimize the build-up of limescale.

Clothes drying outside on a drying line

(Image credit: manonallard/ Getty)

How often should you clean your washing machine?

Cleaning a washing machine, whether you have a free-standing model or one of the best integrated washing machines shouldn't just be a spring cleaning job, but a regular occurrence. Washer hygiene is essential to keep your appliance working properly too so deep clean yours every month, depending on how often you use it, to keep your whites whiter and ensure a sweet-smelling pile of laundry. 

You need to do a little bit of cleaning with every use, by drying any standing water in the seal and wiping any lint off the door. Then, follow this maintenance guide to keep it in top condition:

Weekly washing machine clean: Once a week, give your washing machine a once-over with a gentle disinfectant. Just get a sponge or cloth, a mix of soapy water, or your favorite disinfectant diluted according to the instructions on the packaging and wipe inside the drum, around the seal, and inside the door. Don't forget the outside too. Those buttons can be a breeding ground for bacteria as you often press them after handling dirty clothes.

If you use a lot of fabric conditioner or other additives that can build up, run a hot wash once a week after your last load to give the machine a really good rinse. Then allow it to dry with the door open.

Monthly washing machine clean: Do a maintenance wash at least once a month. To do this, make sure your washer is empty. Then add an over-counter washing machine cleaner or instead use bleach, vinegar, baking soda (or any of the ingredients listed above) and follow the packet instructions or our advice above.

Choose a standard washing cycle and the hottest temperature available. You want to give everything a good time to come into contact with the cleaner and use the heat to kill germs. Start the cycle and once finished, give the door and seals a good dry to remove excess water. Then leave the washing machine open until everything has dried out.

Quarterly deep clean: Every three months or more, make sure you do the above and give the detergent drawer and filter a good clean too. Follow our advice above, taking out any removable parts to give them a thorough clean, before drying fully and replacing them.

Doing all this might take time, but a good maintenance routine will ensure your clothes are cleaner and your washing machine lasts much longer.

What not to do when cleaning a washing machine

One common mistake when using a washing machine (we're guilty) is trying to run an empty, hot cycle with lots of detergent. What can happen is that the detergent foams up too much inside the drum, which can then cause frothy water to begin spilling out of the machine through the tray compartment, flooding your kitchen. 

The solution? Don't use liquid detergent, or even the best washing pods, when running a service wash, and if you're using powder detergent, only add a little bit. Better still, avoid using your regular detergent altogether and use a dedicated washing machine cleaner instead or just a little bit of bleach. 

The best commercial cleaning products to try

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 commercial washer cleaners at Real Homes on our own 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? Here's a quick sum-up of what to look at on the labels...

  • Cleaning: they do the job, as you'd expect. 
  • Germ killers: they kill 99.9 percent 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 build-up, too. 
  • Soften hard water: they contain active polycarboxylates, and that's how they protect your machine from limescale.

How often should you use a washing machine cleaner? 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 on 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. This saves you money and emergency trips to the launderette, as well as emergency plumber call-out fees. 

We mentioned Tide being our favorite powdered washing machine cleaner, but in case you're interested, there are some other commendable options, depending on your budget, and what you prefer to work with.

If measuring out powder petrifies you, try using tablets to deep clean your washing machine. Affresh Washing Machine Cleaner (opens in new tab) is an effective cleaner that reviewers loved for its ability to cut through soap scum and mold, and eliminate odors. It's also made without harsh chemicals and leaves no strong scent behind.  The Affresh tablets, like most washing machine cleaners, are designed to be used once per month. The tablets should be used in an empty wash cycle and not combined with laundry.

Another good washing machine cleaner is OxiClean Washing Machine Cleaner with Odor Blasters (opens in new tab). It can also be used once a month but is a few dollars cheaper. We recommend Affresh because it's proven to really tackle soap scum and buildup as well as odors, something reviewers loved. Not a problem for you? Pick number two for a more economical buy.

But, if you've got a small under-the-sink space, a bottle of liquid washing machine cleaner might be better. In which case, look to Lysol's offering, available at Walmart (opens in new tab).

Still struggling with a smelly washing machine

If your washing machine is still smelling a bit gross, it might be time to get a little more hands-on. You may need to disconnect your washing machine (safely does it), and then either go about diagnosing and repairing the washing machine fault or call in the pros to fix your washer. The pipe connection and waste outlet can be another source of stink, so disconnecting gives you chance to inspect (and clean) these.

If your appliance has gone completely kaput and you're no longer under warranty or don't have the right insurance, it might be time for a new machine. Take a look at the best washing machine deals to save your pocket (and your sanity when the kids need their sports kit). 

Laundry time! Just be sure to clean yours during the day – even if you have one of the quietest washing machines, you don't want to be running a wash cycle when you're trying to snooze...

Anna is a professional writer with many years of experience. She has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. She covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design.