How to Clean a Washing Machine

The idea of cleaning the washing machine is a funny one, isn’t it? I mean, it only has soapy water running through it all the time…wouldn’t it be logical that the machine is already clean?

Unfortunately, like most things in a household, the washing machine needs to be cleaned from time to time. Not only can laundry detergents and other fabric products contribute to residue that builds up over time, but germs from our dirty clothing and things like mold and mildew can grow in the warm and moist environment inside the machine.

Learn just how important cleaning your washing machine can be, and the methods you can use to maintain a fresh-smelling, functioning machine that keeps your clothes clean and in good condition.

front-loading washer and dryer inside a laundry room.

Why do you need to clean the washing machine?

Even though a washing machine routinely has warm, soapy water sloshing around inside its drum, it doesn’t mean that it’s automatically clean.

Just think: we put our dirty clothes inside the machine, which carry icky things like sweat, bacteria, bits of food and actual dirt on them. Then we add detergents and fabric softeners to the machine, which can stick to the inside of the drum over time, just like soap scum in the shower.

In addition to soap scum, there can often be some yucky germs like E. coli lurking in our washing machines. How does it get there? Mostly from washing your family’s underwear.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, because many washing machines have a lot of plastic inside, they are perfect environments for biofilms to grow. (If you’ve never heard of a biofilm before, think of them as “cities for microbes.”)

Last, but not least, because the inside of the machine is warm and damp from a cycle of washing clothing, it’s the perfect environment for mold and mildew to grow, especially if the lid is closed shortly after the wash is finished.

So yeah, we definitely need to make sure that we clean the washing machine from time to time. But exactly how often do we need to do it?

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How often should you clean your washing machine?

For the average household, the washing machine should be cleaned about once a month.

If you detect any funny odors, which can indicate that mold is starting to grow inside the small openings of the washing drum, you might want to clean your machine more often.

Related: How to Clean a House

Best washing machine cleaners

When cleaning your washing machine, you need to take two different things into consideration: ridding the machine of bacteria and other things like mold and mildew, and eliminating that soapy build-up on the drum’s walls.

Home cleaning expert Jill Nystul recommends that you use two different cleaners when tackling the washing machine: plain white vinegar, and regular household bleach. Hydrogen Peroxide can be substituted in place of chlorine bleach.

Why use two cleaning products? Because they do two different jobs.

Vinegar

Vinegar helps to get rid of mold and mildew inside the machine, but it mostly used to break up any soap scum left from detergents and fabric softeners. It is also useful for ridding the machine of mineral deposits, especially if you have hard water.

Unfortunately, vinegar doesn’t do enough to fully clean your machine, according the the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab, so it’s best to use something in addition to vinegar.

Bleach or Hydrogen Peroxide

Getting rid of icky bacteria leftover from washing underwear is a job best left to chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide.

Mold and mildew are also best eliminated with the use of chlorine bleach.

All-in-one washing machine cleaners

If you don’t want to take the trouble of running different cycles of multiple cleaners, you can always use a store-bought washing machine cleaner, such as Affresh or Tide Washing Machine Cleaner.

These all-in-one cleaners are simple to use; you just put the tablet or powder into an empty drum, and run a wash cycle, according to the package directions.

Maintaining a clean washing machine

To clean your machine with vinegar and chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide, you will need to run several wash cycles.

First, add the vinegar to the machine. The recommended amount to use varies among experts, but depending on how big your machine is, I would probably try 2 full cups of vinegar.

Next, turn on your machine and select a regular wash cycle, making sure to use hot water.

After that cycle is complete, repeat using bleach or hydrogen peroxide. Again, the recommended amount varies, but I would try 2 cups in a regular cycle of hot water.

Lastly, run a third cycle of a hot water wash, to fully rinse out any remnants of bleach (you don’t want to accidentally ruin any clothing if some spots of bleach happen to remain inside the washer).

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Your washing machine may also have its own cleaning cycle…sort of like a self-cleaning setting on your oven…that you can use to clean it without anything but hot water. Check your owner’s manual to see how to use that cycle.

Be sure to also wipe down the detergent trays, as well as the seal around the washing machine door. The trays can become caked with dried soap and fabric softener over time; you can often remove them for easier cleaning in the sink with a toothbrush and some dish soap.

Everyday care for your washing machine

In between scheduled cleaning, there are a few things that you can do to keep the inside of your washing machine clean.

After every use, leave the door to the machine open to let moisture out. Trapping it inside a warm drum can cause a musty smell over time…often a result of mold or mildew starting to grow.

Wash your clothing in the hottest water that the fabrics will allow. This will help kill any bacteria on your clothing and prevent it from transferring to later loads of laundry. You can also use a detergent that contains hydrogen peroxide to kill germs. My favorite is Tide Ultra Oxi…not only is it great at removing grass stains from my son’s pants, but it keeps bacteria at bay.

With regular cleaning and care, not only will your washing machine do a better job at cleaning your clothes, but it will last longer, ultimately saving your household a good deal of money.

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