How to Clean a Dishwasher to Remove Buildup and Soap Scum

Yes, the thing that washes your dishes needs its own cleaning from time to time.

It might seem strange to worry about how to clean your dishwasher. After all, it's an appliance with a job of washing dishes. But these handy machines need routine cleaning just like your other kitchen appliances. That's because the door attracts fingerprints every time you load it with dirty dishes, and the interior (especially the corners and crevices) accumulates residue comprised of food particles, grease, and soap scum. Not only do these deposits look bad, they eventually begin to make your dishwasher stink because of bacteria that thrives in warm, moist, and dark places.

gray and white kitchen with glass cabinet fronts
Edmund Barr

How to Clean a Dishwasher

Cleaning your smelly dishwasher doesn't take much and doesn't need to be done very often. In fact, monthly cleaning can keep your dishwasher looking like new and running well.

How to Clean a Dishwasher Door

What You Need

  • Warm, sudsy water
  • 1/4 cup baking soda (optional)
  • Soft cloth
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Small toothbrush
  • Sponge
  • Abrasive cleanser (optional)

Step 1: Clean the Dishwasher Exterior

Keep the dishwasher door fingerprint-free by wiping the outside with warm, sudsy water. Or use a homemade dishwasher cleaner. Mix 1/4 cup baking soda with 1 quart of water. Avoid harsh cleansers or too-tough scouring pads that might scratch the dishwasher's finish. When the door is clean, wipe it dry with a soft cloth. Wipe away tricky fingerprints and smudges with a little rubbing alcohol on a soft, dry cloth.

Step 2: Clean Inside the Dishwasher Door

Open the dishwasher door so you can get at its top and sides. Dip a small toothbrush in hot, soapy water, and scrub around the door. Make sure you dig into the grooves of the rubber seal and any other crevices, including the hinges. This step might require gentle scrubbing with abrasive cleanser if there is a lot of buildup. Wipe up the resulting grime with a household sponge dipped in hot soapy water. Wipe away any cleaning solution left behind with a clean, wet sponge.

How to Clean a Dishwasher Tub

Clean out your dishwasher's tub to remove the biggest culprits for odors.

What You Need

  • Vinegar
  • Paper towels
  • Clean, dry cloth

Step 1: Remove Debris

Use a handful of paper towels to grab any debris from the base of the dishwasher. You'll find most of the debris around the drain.

Step 2: Run the Dishwasher

Once the debris is removed, you'll want to run a cycle to clean the dishwasher. (It should be run empty.) You can use one of several DIY dishwasher cleaners. Here's how to clean a dishwasher with vinegar: simply set a dishwasher-safe cup of plain white vinegar on the top rack. Then run a full cycle, choosing the hottest water possible to disinfect the unit while it's being cleaned.

Step 3: Wipe Out the Inside

When the cycle is done, wipe out the inside of the dishwasher with paper towels or a clean, dry cloth.

In place of vinegar, you can put a packet of unsweetened lemonade mix in the soap cup. Learn how to clean your dishwasher with baking soda, too, by sprinkling a cup of it on the bottom of the tub. For either method, run a complete cycle using the hottest water possible. Each will help clean and freshen your dishwasher.

How to Clean Dishwasher Accessories and Parts

What You Need

  • Toothbrush
  • Soft brush (optional)

Clean the dishwasher accessories and parts. Take out the racks and utensil holders. Wipe off any stuck-on food particles or other debris. Scrub the spray arm with a soft brush or toothbrush to remove clogs.

How to Clean a Dishwasher Filter

What You Need

  • Hot running water
  • Damp cloth
  • Sponge (optional)
  • Toothbrush (optional)

Step 1: Remove and Clean the Filter

To access the dishwasher filter, pull the bottom rack all the way out. The filter is usually located in one of the bottom, back corners of the appliance. If your filter is removable, twist to remove it from the dishwasher and rinse under hot running water to remove food particles and other debris.

Step 2: Clean Under the Filter

Wipe out the area beneath the filter inside the dishwasher with a damp cloth, sponge, or toothbrush. Once clean, add the clean dishwasher filter back into place.

Note that filters vary greatly across appliances. Refer to your owner's manual for specific instructions on how to clean your dishwasher filter. (Don't have the manual? Many manufacturers have them available on their websites.)

How to Remove Dishwasher Rust Stains

Depending upon your water source and the state of your pipes, you might see mineral or rust stains inside your dishwasher.

What You Need

  • Rust-removing laundry detergent

Step 1: Run Empty Dishwasher

Check the laundry detergent section of your home center for products that remove rust stains from clothing or appliances. Place the product into the soap dispenser cup in your dishwasher and sprinkle some freely on the bottom. Run the empty dishwasher through a complete cleaning cycle.

Step 2: Remediate Rust Problems

Since the source of rust stains is systemic (e.g. your water comes from a private well or your home's pipes are rusty), you will likely need to repeat this process on a regular basis unless you take care of the problems at their source. You might also want to ask a plumbing contractor to install a filter that can help with rust control.

How to Eliminate Hard Water and Mineral Buildup in a Dishwasher

Depending on the type of water you have, your dishwasher may be susceptible to hard water deposits or mineral buildup.

What You Need

  • Lemon juice

Step 1: Run Dishwasher with Lemon Juice

Cleaning with lemon can work wonders. Place a cup of lemon juice in the top rack or basket of your dishwasher and run a normal cycle. The acidic lemon juice will work to remove hard water spots and iron buildup.

The best way to clean a dishwasher is by doing a thorough cleaning once a month and tackling smudges and splatters on the exterior as they happen.

Dark blue cabinets with dishwasher
Erik Johnson

How to Clean a Dishwasher with Natural Ingredients

You don't have to head to the store to pick up the ingredients you need for cleaning a dishwasher—they're likely already in your pantry! These natural dishwasher cleaners do the job well without harsh chemicals or odors.

  • White Vinegar: Use white vinegar to clean the tub of your dishwasher. Place a cup in the middle of the top rack and fill it with vinegar. Run a dishwasher cycle on high heat, and wipe dry when done. You can also try this with lemon juice to remove water spots.
  • Rubbing Alcohol: Rubbing alcohol can be used to clean the dishwasher exterior. Clean your dishwasher door and handle by adding rubbing alcohol to a clean microfiber cloth and wiping away fingerprints. If your dishwasher has plastic buttons, avoid scrubbing with acidic natural cleaners like vinegar as they can break down the material.
  • Baking Soda: Baking soda works wonders as a natural cleaning agent. Sprinkle a cup of baking soda on the bottom of the dishwasher tub before running a hot washing cycle.
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