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How to clean your washing machine in 5 easy steps — because yes, you definitely need to

Quick question: Is your washing machine starting to smell worse than the sweaty leggings you throw in there? If the answer is yes, it's high time to add cleaning it to your "new year, new you" resolutions. Grimy residue, detergent and water can build up inside your washer. In fact, the Center for Disease Controls (CDC) says that your washing machine must be properly maintained and cleaned so it can do the actual job of cleaning everything else in your life.

Woman’s hand loading dirty laundry in a white washing machine
Be honest: Have you ever thought about cleaning your washing machine before? (Getty)

You probably already know that bacteria and fungi are huge causes of unpleasant odors, which is why you wash smelly clothes in the first place. However, according to a 2021 study published by the American Society for Microbiology, this bacteria can also come from your washing machine. In fact, washing machines are thought to be a significant source of odor-producing bacteria.

And it's not just bacteria. According to the experts at Lowe's, things like residue from your detergent can build up in the drum and trap bacteria. Plus, the dirt that the machine removes from your clothes can also linger in its nooks and crannies, potentially developing mold and mildew. Fun, right?

Think about it. Your washing machine works hard to clean everything from sweaty workout clothes to dirty rags and dog beds. Even though you're (hopefully) using detergent while doing the wash, it can still lead to a less-than-clean washing machine over time.

Independent research by Consumer Reports found that front-loading washing machines are over five times as likely to develop mold than top-loading machines because of the special rubber seal needed to keep water in the tank. However, this doesn't mean your top-loading machine is immune to developing mold: Any place with standing water, moistness or dampness has the potential to harbor bacteria. And because washers are perpetually damp due to all of the, well, washing, it makes sense that they can become a stinky breeding ground.

How often should you clean your washing machine?

There's some conflicting research on how often you should be cleaning your washer. Experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute recommend cleaning your washing machine about once a month. Maytag, the washing machine manufacturer, recommends every 30 loads. However, there's no time like the present — and luckily, it's a pretty quick job. You also may already have the tools you need in your cleaning arsenal.

How to clean your washing machine

Step 1: Check the manual and cycle settings

First, grab your owner's manual to see if there are explicit cleaning instructions, including a designated maintenance cycle. Follow these instructions carefully, as some manufacturers caution that certain products aren't suitable for your specific machine. We want a clean washing machine, not a broken one.

Step 2: Wipe down the inside and outside of your washing machine

Grab a damp rag and wipe the outside of your washing machine. Your go-to multipurpose cleaner or wipes will help get rid of any detergent spills and general gunk. Don't forget buttons, knobs and door handles. Then, do the same with the inside drum of your washing machine.

Step 3: De-gunk the drawers and dispensers

Remove your washer's drawers and dispensers and give yourself a second to gawk at the detergent buildup. (Remember, laundry detergent residue does not mean the drawers are clean.) Then soak them in hot water to soften the buildup.  

When they're done soaking, gently scrub the drawers to remove any stains or surface-level mildew. Make sure they're thoroughly rinsed and dry before putting them back in the machine.

Step 4: Clean the door gasket

You know that large rubber ring around the door of your front-loading washer? That's called a gasket, and it's a gold mine when it comes to bacteria, mold, residue and buildup. Spray it with your preferred multi-purpose cleaner and wipe away any visible residue.

For a more in-depth clean, take a soft bristle brush (a toothbrush works great) and scrub inside the gasket's folds.

Step 5: Run a (very) hot empty cycle

First, make sure your washing machine is completely empty — that means no lost socks or random receipts that were hidden in your pants pocket. Then, run the machine using the hottest wash cycle there is with your preferred washing machine cleaner.

There are a few options when it comes to selecting a washing machine cleaner, and we'll cover them below. Whatever you choose, remember to check the owner's manual to make sure the machine can handle the cleaner before pressing "start" on that cycle.

Bleach: When it comes to properly disinfecting, the CDC reports that bleach "assures an extra margin of safety" when it comes to getting rid of bacteria, mold and pathogens —and it's super easy to use. Per the bleach experts at Clorox, pour bleach into the detergent dispenser up to the maximum fill line. Make sure the hottest cycle is selected and hit start.

This formula is made with sodium hypochlorite bleach, cleaning agents and corrosion inhibitors, making it an obvious choice for an easy, effective cleaning cycle. 

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Once the cycle is done, restart the washer using the same settings, this time sans bleach. This ensures no bleach remains in the washer the next time you plunk in your clothing.

Vinegar and baking soda: According to the Center for Environmental Health, this powerful cleaning combo is an environmentally friendly alternative to harsh cleaning agents. Vinegar is a strong acid that can dissolve mineral deposits, dirt and grime, while baking soda is known for deodorizing.

First, fill the washer using the highest load size and hottest water setting. Home Depot then suggests opening the lid and adding 3 or 4 cups of white vinegar. Close the lid, allowing the water to agitate for about a minute or so before stopping the cycle and letting it sit. Now, add half a cup of baking soda to the water and turn on the agitator again for a minute. Stop the cycle and let it soak for up to an hour. Once the hour's up, run the washing machine through the end of the cycle.

Make sure you use distilled white vinegar, like this one. (While balsamic vinegar is like nectar from the gods and tasty on a salad, it won't clean your washing machine.)

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If you didn't already know, baking soda has about a zillion and one different functions. Yes, it can make your baked goods fluffy and deodorize your refrigerator, but it can also clean your washing machine.

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It's important to note that while this combo is a great cleaning agent, the Environmental Protection Agency has not recognized it as a disinfecting product. If you want to fully disinfect your washing machine, you must use a stronger bleach solution.

Washing Machine Cleaner Tablet: Yes, specific washing machine cleaning solutions exist, and they're easy to use. While you should read the instructions on your product carefully, the idea is the same: Place the tablet in the drum and run the machine using (you guessed it) the hottest cycle. Just make sure the manufacturer says the tablets are okay to use first.

Amazon offers plenty of affordable washing machine cleaner tablets. Check out some of the most popular ones below.

More than 200,000 Amazon shoppers have given this washing machine cleaner an impressive rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars. One Amazon shopper shares that their washing machine "smells fresher" and that they've noticed a "significant reduction in mildew and musty odors." 

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Active says its popular washing machine tablets are compatible with GE, LG, Samsung, Whirlpool, Maytag and Electrolux models. "Lime deposits and other buildup disappeared after the first use of this product," mentions one Amazon shopper. They also called out just how shiny everything looked when the cleaning process was done. 

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Technically, this Tide washing machine cleaner is a powder, not a tablet. However, the process — and the end result of a shiny, clean washing machine — is still the same. Reviewers note that it does leave a strong scent, which some people love. 

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The reviews quoted above reflect the most recent versions at the time of publication.

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