Do You Need to Clean Your Washing Machine and Dishwasher?

They're already getting the soap and water treatment, so do you need to go above and beyond?

woman closing dishwasher in kitchen
Photo: Kate Sears

Dishwashers and washing machines are the two appliances that do the lion's share of the work in your house, and though they already get the soap-and-water treatment regularly, they do need the occasional manual cleaning, too. Bacteria, mold, and odors can all build up over time—which makes sense when you take into consideration all of the dirty stuff we regularly put into these appliances. To help you keep yours in the best-possible shape, we asked Melissa Lush, the co-founder of cleaning company Force of Nature, and Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, to weigh in on the cleaning of these mighty machines. Ahead, how, when, and why you need to clean your dishwasher and washing machine, according to the pros.

Abide the manufacturer's recommendations.

The most important part of cleaning your appliances is finding out exactly what your manufacturer recommends. "These appliances can vary widely across manufacturers and models, so the user manual for each will likely include the instructions specific to that appliance," Lush says. That means reading your instruction booklets and making sure you're using the right products and settings for each specific make and model is so important. Otherwise, you run the risk of doing damage to your machines or voiding your warranty.

Buildup, mold, and mildew are your biggest concerns.

Although these appliances are known for their cleaning prowess, they can get dirty themselves. "Laundry detergent and softeners can leave residues that build up, and mold and mildew can grow in the crevices where stagnant water sits, particularly in the rubber gaskets," Lush says. "That mold and mildew can cause [a] smell that won't go away, and sometimes it can get bad enough that you even smell it on your freshly washed clothes." Your dishwasher can have similar problems: "Particles of food can clog up a few key parts of dishwasher that need to be free from residue in order to function," Lush explains.

Your washing machine needs tending after every use.

That means you'll want to do some maintenance after each cycle, says Lush. Start by wiping your washing machine dry, and then spray the inside with a disinfectant that kills mold and mildew. "Try to get it into all the crevices," she says. Depending on the kind of disinfectant cleaner you use—bleach for example—you may need to rinse it off after you're done and dry your machine again. If you have a front loader, Lush suggests leaving the door open between cycles; this allows for better drying of all those parts that are more likely to get moldy, she says.

Create a cleaning schedule for your dishwasher.

To get your dishwasher clean, put yourself on daily, weekly, and monthly schedule—and be sure to stick to it. "If you don't give it some regular TLC, you can end up with dishes that are still dirty, as well as some pretty foul odors," warns Notini. Here's your game plan: After each use (and after you've unloading the dishes) pull out the lower rack and remove any odor-causing food particles on the bottom with a paper towel. As for your filter? Tackle that weekly. Most new models have one at the very bottom; it usually consists of several connecting parts, including a center cylinder that you can unscrew by hand. To access it, slide out the lower rack. Remove and disassemble it (if this is your first time, steel yourself—you may find some serious gunk in there), and wash all the parts with dish soap, scrubbing off any calcification or residue inside with a soft brush. Reassemble and replace it. Then mix a cup each of white vinegar and warm water, dip in a soft cloth or sponge, and go over the rubber gasket around the door edge. Wipe the exterior with a clean cloth and warm, soapy water, or, for a stainless-steel model, a cleaner designed for that surface.

On a monthly basis, tend to the spray arm, which can get clogged with food bits. Your machine may have just one on the bottom, or a second above the top rack. Give each a gentle tug to remove it, rinse it under warm running water, pry buildup out of the holes with a toothpick, and replace it. To nix odors and discoloration throughout the appliance (the latter is a common problem if you have hard water), fill a bowl with one to two cups of vinegar, put it on the top rack, and run a normal cycle without detergent. Still smell something funky? Escalate to a tougher, store-bought dishwasher cleaner, such as Affresh ($11.99,, which contains surfactants that can dissolve more stubborn residue.

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