How to Clean a Washing Machine for Fresh Clothes and Linens

Eliminate grimy buildup and musty smells with these simple steps.

The dirt that disappears from your clothes, towels, and sheets has to go somewhere, which means grime can build up inside your washing machine over time. Without regular cleaning, the appliance might also harbor leftover detergent, hard-water deposits, and mold or mildew around the lid. This can leave a residue on laundry or cause items to emerge from the wash with a funky smell. To ensure your freshly washed clothes and linens are as clean as possible, follow these steps on how to clean a washing machine once a month. These instructions work for cleaning front-loading and top-loading washing machines, but there are a few special considerations for both types.

laundry room with front load washer and dryer
Reed Davis

How to Clean a Washing Machine

If your washing machine has a self-clean function, choose that cycle and follow the manufacturer's instructions to clean the inside of the machine. Otherwise, you can use this simple, three-step process to eliminate buildup in washing machine hoses and pipes and ensure your clothes stay fresh and clean.

Step 1: Run a Hot Cycle with Vinegar

Run an empty, regular cycle on hot, using two cups of white vinegar instead of detergent. Add the vinegar to the detergent dispenser. (Don't worry about harming your machine, as white vinegar will not damage clothes.) The hot water-vinegar combo removes and prevents bacteria growth. Vinegar can also act as a deodorizer and cut through mildew odors.

Step 2: Scrub the Inside and Outside of the Washing Machine

In a bucket or nearby sink, mix about 1/4 cup vinegar with a quart of warm water. Use this mixture, plus a sponge and dedicated toothbrush, to clean the inside of the machine. Pay special attention to dispensers for fabric softener or soap, the inside of the door, and around the door opening. If your soap dispenser is removable, soak it in the vinegar water before scrubbing. Give the machine's exterior a wipedown, too.

Step 3: Run a Second Hot Cycle

Run one more empty, regular cycle on hot, without detergent or vinegar. If desired, add 1/2 cup baking soda to the drum to help clear away buildup loosened from the first cycle. After the cycle is complete, wipe out the inside of the drum with a microfiber cloth to remove any remaining residue.

How to Clean a Top-Loading Washing Machine

Use these tips for cleaning a top-loading washing machine with hard-to-reach spots.

Step 1: Pause and Soak

To clean a top-loading washer, consider pausing the machine during the first hot-water cycle outlined above. Allow the tub to fill and agitate for about one minute, then pause the cycle for an hour to let the vinegar soak.

Step 2: Clean Hard-to-Reach Spots

Use a toothbrush to scrub hard-to-reach spots around the lid and under the rim of the tub.

Step 3: Dust and Clean the Exterior

Top-loading washing machines also tend to collect more dust than front-loaders. To remove dust or detergent splatters, wipe the top of the machine and the dials using a microfiber cloth dipped in white vinegar.

How to Clean a Front-Loading Washing Machine

When it comes to cleaning front-loading washing machines, the gasket, or rubber seal around the door, is usually the culprit behind musty-smelling laundry. Moisture and leftover detergent can create a breeding ground for mold and mildew, so it's important to clean this area regularly.

Step 1: Clean the Gasket

To remove grime, spray the area around the door with distilled white vinegar and let it sit with the door open for at least one minute before wiping clean with a microfiber cloth.

Step 2: Prevent Mold and Mildew

For a deeper clean, you can also wipe the area with a diluted bleach solution. To prevent mold or mildew growth, leave the door open for a few hours after each wash to let the moisture dry out.

Best Products for Cleaning a Washing Machine

New to the market, washing machine cleaning tablets like Affresh ($11.99 for a 6-pack, Home Depot) and liquid cleaners like Clorox Washing Machine Cleaner offer an alternative solution to use for monthly cleaning. However, steps should still be taken to clean the gasket and exterior, and often vinegar is a more affordable option.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can vinegar damage a washing machine?

    Vinegar is safe to use in the washing machine but only in moderation. Extensive use of vinegar can damage rubber seals, gaskets, and hoses—particularly in front-loading machines. So, don’t make a regular practice of cleaning your machine with vinegar (or using vinegar in your laundry cycle). If you do use it, be sure you are using distilled white vinegar (as opposed to regular white vinegar) as it has a lower concentration of acetic acid. 

  • What makes a washing machine smelly?

    Funky smells can build up in both top and front-loading machines when dirt, soap scum, and debris collect in your machine's seals, nooks, and crannies causing mildew, bacteria, and mold to form. This is especially true of front-loading machines where the door gasket becomes a breeding ground for icky smells. To combat the stink, be sure you are using the proper detergent for your machine, and don’t add more than the recommended amount. Excess soap will leave a residue that can attract more dirt and amplify bacteria growth. It’s also a good idea to leave the machine door open for a few hours after each load to allow excess moisture to evaporate.

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