How to Determine If Your Washing Machine Is Actually Getting Your Clothes Clean

Monitor this appliance closely to ensure it is doing its job.

A washing machine that isn't doing its job results in musty, odor-ridden clothes at the end of a cycle. Its decline, however, isn't always obvious straight away—but it's important to watch for the early signs, since running garments through a faulty machine can lead to permanently discolored or damaged items down the road. Ahead, how to monitor this appliance to ensure it gets your clothes clean every time.

clothes spinning around in washer machine
Getty / Werayuth Tessrimuang / EyeEm

Give laundry a sniff.

If you notice a mildew scent or oily residue on your laundry post-wash, it was not effectively cleaned. "Musty smells indicate that mold is growing, and therefore, laundry was not properly washed," explains Lauren Simonelli, a cleaning expert and the co-founder of ThreeMain. "Residues may also suggest the detergent has not properly been rinsed through, which means your garments may not have received the full benefits of the soap."

Make sure you aren't the problem.

If your items are coming out of the wash smelly, stained (either with pre-existing or new marks), or covered in soap, clearly something went wrong—but it isn't necessarily the machine. "This might indicate a user error—too little detergent, too much detergent, or too many items in the load," Simonelli explains. And if you are certain everything was handled properly? These are signs that your appliance needs to be cleaned or, worst case scenario, replaced.

Try a few troubleshooting methods.

Before you jump to said worst case scenario, give your machine a once-over. "First, check the seal of your washing machine to ensure there is no detergent buildup, residue, or mold or mildew," Simonelli continues. "If there is, spray the area with a surface cleaner or coat it with a mix of baking soda, vinegar, and water and scrub away." Then, run a cycle (sans clothes!) with vinegar and hot water. "This should help to remove any blockage or buildup keeping your clothes from getting clean," she notes.

According to Simonelli, most washing machines operate effectively for one decade, though they can exceed this timeline when they are cared for properly: "When this appliance is on its way out, you will typically hear it making unusual noises, leaking, or find clothes coming out still dirty or laced with an odor." If you notice any of these signs in conjunction with dirty laundry, it may be time to start shopping for a new machine.

Consider external factors.

While you might think that your washing machine is doing the heavy lifting during the laundry process, Sammy Wang, a cleaning expert at 9 Elements and a Tide Senior Scientist, says there are actually many elements that inform a load's cleanliness. "Factors like water hardness, water temperature, and laundry detergent can all impact how clean your clothes get," she says. Checking in with your home's water expert and plumber, then, might be a worthwhile step before jumping straight to replacement, as is reading your detergent's label to ensure it is compatible with your machine.

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