Why does my washing machine smell? 5 things that may be causing the laundry day ick

Uh oh, stinky

Pink washing machine with an open door on green background
(Image credit: Future)

If you're getting ready for laundry day, and open the washing machine to be hit with a reeaaaal funky smell, you should probably put your clothes back in the hamper and focus on cleaning your washing machine instead.

Between the smell and feeling like your laundry is coming out of the machine dirtier than it went in, a stinky washing machine is not an ideal situation. But WTF is causing that smell, and how do you get rid of it? 

We've broken down five of the most common causes of washing machine smell, and the quick ways to combat and prevent them from stinking up your clothes. But before you start investigating, here are the essentials you need to have on hand.

5 reasons your washing machine might smell

1. A dirty filter

Confession: I didn't even know my washing machine had a filter, let alone that it needed cleaning. I'm pretty on top of cleaning my dryer's filter and removing any lint but didn't know the washing machine had one, too.

You can tell when your filter might need cleaning or replacing when your laundry is coming out less than clean, or with streaks of detergent still on it. The main struggle in figuring out how to clean a washing machine filter is finding out where it is. Once you've done that, it's just a matter of soaking in a dish soap solution and scrubbing the filter down before popping it back into its place.

2. Old detergent buildup

A capful of pink laundry detergent in front of a washing machine set to delicate

(Image credit: Future)

I know for a fact I'm guilty of this one, and it's one of the easiest fixes ever. 

There are some amazing laundry detergent scents out there (like my favorite Method detergent from Walmart), but the funky smell coming from your machine could actually be caused by your detergent building up over time. If you're like me and you're using too much of a good thing because you're obsessed with that fresh laundry smell, it's time to take a step back. 

To prevent buildup and pleasant smells turning nasty, make sure you're using the amount of detergent directed on the bottle, and not anymore. 

3. Trapped water

Another super-common washing machine smell issue is caused by trapped water. In a small space, it's pretty much a reflex to close your machine door as soon as you're finished doing the laundry. However, this can cause water to sit and get stinky instead of evaporating, leaving your home and clothes with some not-so-fun odors.

An easy way to keep this from happening is to leave your washing machine open after use, at least until you know the inside is dry. This way, any leftover water can evaporate right away instead of sitting in a dark and humid space and getting smelly. 

4. Too much work

Let's be honest. Between sweaty gym clothes, smelly sneakers, sheets, towels, and everything else that goes into the laundry, our washing machines are by far some of the hardest-working appliances in our homes. Rather than any specific cause or mistake, it could just be that your machine has just been accumulating the typical amount of hair, dirt, and grime, and needs a little bit of love.

It seems wild that we have to wash our washing machines, but running a cycle of baking soda and vinegar or bleach as part of your cleaning routine once a month could be all you need to do to keep unwanted smells and gross buildup from coming anywhere near your favorite outfits.

Washing machine with its door open and laundry spilling out

(Image credit: Getty)

5. Mold or mildew

If these words make you as nervous as they make me, don't worry. We're in this together. Unfortunately, the dark and damp inside of a washing machine is pretty much prime territory for mold and mildew (yikes). These are caused by pretty much all of the other issues we've run through so far, and can also be found in the rubber seal area of your machine. 

Prevent these as best as you can by regularly wiping down your machine's seal, interior, and exterior with disinfectant wipes. If you do find a mold or musty smell is still coming out, run a cycle using bleach and spot-treat and scrub with a small amount of special mold-removing spray — a bottle of RMR-86 from Amazon will take it out.

Nishaa Sharma
Freelance social media editor

Hi! I’m the former social editor at Real Homes and a freelance social media expert bringing you the latest and greatest in home trends, interiors aesthetics, and celebrity finds. When I’m not scrolling or filming the best home decor for your small space, you can find me exploring the cutest villages and brunch spots, or snuggled up on the sofa with a new recipe, my husband, and our puppy, Ebble.