How to clean a washing machine: a fresh machine means fresh laundry every time

Bacteria build up is a major cause of a dirty washing machine leading to smelly laundry and clothes that could be cleaner. Find out how to clean a washing machine for the best results every wash

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(Image credit: Smeg)

If you don't know how to clean a washing machine, you probably aren't cleaning your clothes effectively either. It goes without saying that because washing machines are dealing with dirty laundry day in day out, they can become a breeding ground for bacteria – some of which could be harmful if left uncleaned. The first sign will be a slightly stinky washer. The next sign is your clothes not smelling as fresh as they could, even after they have been washed.

So what can you do to keep your washing machine fresh, sanitized and free from mildew? Follow this simple step by step guide for weekly maintenance and deep cleans. Your clothes will be better for it and your nose will thank you.

If your washing machine is old, tired and past the point of no return, check out our guide to the best washing machines for an upgrade.

But first, let's give that washer a good clean. Read your washing machine’s manual for specific cleaning instructions; 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. Our guide uses a selection of everyday cleaning products and ingredients you might have in your pantry. If you want to try a specialist product, then see our guide to the best washing machine cleaner.

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 mold and mildew – and just gunk in general – can quickly build up, and with it, bacteria. Not a great place to start your laundry, 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 mold. Rinse thoroughly, and dry with a hand towel. Before you put it back, clean out the cavity – it's likely there's some hidden mold there, too.

Later: Leave the detergent drawer open in between loads of laundry to prevent mold from growing. Use only as much detergent as is necessary, following the guidelines on the packaging; overloading detergent will create a build up inside the machine.

If the detergent drawer is particularly bad, see our advice on how to get rid of mold and mildew, too.

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 140ºF) and pour 1C 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 detergent. 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.

Washing machine drawer

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. How to clean a washing machine with baking soda

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

Now: Add two tablespoons of baking soda into the detergent drawer at the same time you clean it with vinegar. The soda and vinegar work together to naturally break through dirt and remove mold 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 baking soda and/or vinegar for extra cleaning power.

Use our guide to cleaning with baking 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 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.  

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 do the laundry, ensure it's a load of whites which will benefit from any leftover bleach residue rather than be damaged by it.

natural accessories from SS20 collection in a kitchen and laundry room with stencil wall and open shelving- Dunelm

(Image credit: Dunelm)

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 mold 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 have dried out. This reduces the chance of mold 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 mold and mildew – but you'll likely 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 cycle according to the washing machine manufacturer’s instructions. Each time you do the laundry, as you empty the washing machine, check that nothing has been deposited into the crevices between the seals.

The best way to stop mold 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 laundry 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 mold 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 in place, 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 dish soap, 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.

Samsung washing machines in kitchen

(Image credit: Samsung)

9. Use your laundry detergent to clean your machine

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 Mrs. Meyer's Laundry Soap in Lavender. It's plant-derived, concentrated, contains no phthalates or parabens 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 recyclable packaging. 

10. Use sodium percarbonate (or washing soda) to deodorize your machine

Sodium percarbonate is also often labeled as 'washing soda,' 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-around pick for your weekly maintenance clean. It comes in powder form and should be used in exactly the same way as baking soda. 

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 prevent excess moisture from accumulating and mold from growing
  • Avoid using too much detergent: paradoxically, too much detergent causes bad smells because it builds up inside your washing machine. Use powder detergent on occasion, even if you prefer liquid detergent
  • Don't forget the hot wash: 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 minimize the build-up of lime scale.
  •  Washing machine cleaners will keep yours fresh – and keep your washing white, too.

laundry room ideas - a white washing machine in a white tiled laundry room - GettyImages-1188826574

(Image credit: Getty)

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 3/4 cup of ascorbic acid powder and 1/2 cup 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

White vinegar will once again work wonders for this job. Add a large cup to the detergent drawer and run a hot wash cycle. Keep your clothes out of the equation for this load, of course.

If your washing machine manufacturer discourages the use of vinegar in the machine, we've tried out the best washing machine cleaners and listed our favorites below. Our top pick is Affresh Washing Machine Cleaner

How often should you clean your washing machine?

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 you 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.

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

LG V7 F4V710WTSE Wifi Connected 10.5kg Washing Machine

(Image credit: LG)

Using a 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 soap scum-free. 

We've checked out the best washing machine cleaners around and 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 Affresh Washing Machine Cleaner. Here's a quick sum up of our top picks:

Affresh Washing Machine Cleaner 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.

Our second favorite washing machine cleaner is OxiClean Washing Machine Cleaner with Odor Blasters. 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.