House Cleaning Tips > Odor Removal > Cleaning and Deodorizing a Smelly Washing Machine

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How to Clean and Deodorize a Smelly Washing Machine

That terrible smell was making me crazy. Where was it coming from?

A smelly washer does not make any sense at all. I wash laundry in our washing machine. (I know, duh!) I use soap, hot water, bleach and other cleaning solutions. Our clothes are clean. They smell clean, too.

I thought my washing machine was broken. I didn't see anything disgusting, so maybe the gaskets were failing or something had crawled inside the machine and (Gasp, I can hardly say it) died...? It didn't make any sense because the entire machine on the inside and outside seemed to be sparkling clean.

Until I looked more closely.... I put my glasses on - and using my trusty flashlight - peered into the dark recesses along the sides of the basket. Yes, there was definitely a residue. Little bits of dirt and grime were adhering to the inside of the tub and agitator.

Okay. Now that I could see the problem, I could come up with a solution to clean and deodorize it.

It's an easy 3-step process:

  1. Wipe build up, gunk and goo from the gaskets and seals.
  2. Sanitize to remove bacteria.
  3. Deodorize.

Follow along with me and we'll clean and deodorize your smelly washing machine fast!

What Causes the Bad Smell to Start With?

Soap BubblesConsidering all that goes into the wash in our washing machines, its no wonder they start to smell bad.

Mold, mildew and bacteria grow in washing machines in the same way they grow in any dark, damp area where there's moisture, heat and food for growth.

What food are they munching on in your (supposedly clean) washing machine? Soap scum.

What exactly is soap scum?

It's soap residue combined with the skin and body oils that were on your clothing. It's a fact, but it's not a pretty thought (or odor) at all.

At some point or another, most of us are guilty of using too much laundry detergent or fabric softener. I'll admit I'm guilty of pouring it straight in the wash load.

When we use too much laundry soap, it's harder for the washing machine to completely rinse and remove all of the soap. Some residue remains at the end of the wash cycle along the tub walls, on the agitator and in the gaskets and seals. Eventually the residue builds up, and the bacterial and fungal count increases so an unpleasant odor is produced.

You now have a dirty, gunky and (eventually) stinky washing machine.

Cleaning the Outside of the Machine:

I know we are focused on the smelly inside, but if you are cleaning the inside completely you might as well clean the outside, too. It won't take long, and the outside of the machine usually cleans up easily because there isn't much staining.

  1. First, pull off the knobs and rinse or soak them if needed
  2. Wipe down the outside, top, front and sides with a damp rag.
  3. If you're ambitious, get your vacuum out and use the crevasse tool to remove lint and dust that collects on the sides and under the machine.

A rag slightly dampened with water should be all you need to clean the outside, although, you can use glass cleaner if you want extra cleaning power and a nice, streak-free shine.

Dried spots of spilled soap or fabric softener on the top of the washing machine can be easily removed if you toss a damp rag on top of the stain and let it sit for 30 minutes. (What a great idea and easy fix!)

Or, you can use a dirty cotton t-shirt that's waiting to be washed - the shirt might even appreciate the extra soap pretreatment! The water will penetrate and loosen the soap residue so it can easily be wiped off.

Some people recommend using a cleaning solution of 1 cup of plain white vinegar to 3 cups of water. You can do that if you want, but it's not necessary and I don't recommend it. If you have scratches on the paint, the vinegar will corrode the metal. That means you'll have a rust spot eventually.

At the very least if you use vinegar, go over it again with a clean damp cloth to remove all traces of it from the exterior.

QUICK TIP: You can help protect the paint, metal and add extra shine to the exterior of your machine if you use some liquid car wax on the paint. Just buff as per the manufacturer's directions.

Cleaning Seals, Gaskets, Dispensers:

The seals and gaskets are often the major source of odor causing bacteria. I was amazingly disgusted when I went to clean the rubber seal around the door. Awful gray clumps of hair, grease and who knows what else was caked and embedded in the gasket. If you have a front loader, there's a lot of build up right in the cracks and crevasses, under the dispensers- even if your washing machine doesn't stink. You can clean these tight spaces using a Q-tip or old tooth brush.

  1. Unplug the washer. (We are going to be sticking our heading and arms inside the drum, so don't take chances)
  2. Remove the soap, bleach or laundry softener dispensers and wash in the sink with warm water. If the dispensers don't come out, then clean them by hand.
  3. Make a cleaning solution of 50/50 vinegar and hot water OR a bleach solution of 1 cup warm water to 1 Tbs. bleach.
  4. Use Q-Tips or an old toothbrush to get in corners and crevices of the containers as well as in the machine opening.
  5. Clean around the door seal with your preferred cleaning solution if your machine is a front loader. Be sure to get under the lip of the seal where hair, debris and build up can occur. (There will probably be a bunch!)
  6. Wipe with a clean damp cloth a second time to completely remove any remaining trace of your vinegar or bleach cleaner. It will also remove any last traces of gunk.

The gaskets and seals on a washer are heavy duty- they can withstand bleach, which is a very corrosive substance- above and beyond anything vinegar can do.

Even though the rubber seals and gaskets are built to withstand various cleaning solutions, I still wouldn't leave any of them on the rubber materials that are not rinsed off completely when you launder. After all, why would you give the rubber components any additional chemical stress when they already have an important job of keeping the water inside the washer to start with?

Sanitizing, Sterilizing and Removing Bacteria, Mold and Mildew:

I usually try to avoid using chlorine bleach- its corrosive to the skin, not appropriate for many fabrics, ineffective for many stains and will damage your clothes. Also, mixed with certain chemicals, chlorine bleach can react and release a toxic gas. I could go on here too, folks.. I'm not exaggerating. But, regardless of all of this, it's the absolute best thing to use for this job.

The washer was built to withstand bleach and its corrosive effects, and there is nothing that comes close to the power of chlorine bleach to kill bacteria, mold, mildew and the smelly odors that they cause.

  1. Set the wash cycle to "white fabric" or "hot".
  2. Add 4 cups (1 quart) of chlorine bleach to a top loading washing machine or 2 cups of bleach to a front loader.
  3. Don’t add any other cleaning solutions to the hot water or VINEGAR.
  4. Let the tub fill and stop the wash cycle once the agitator has mixed and splashed the bleach and water solution around. The method to stop the machine will vary by washing machine. You can usually stop the cycle by pulling the knob out, or by hitting pause, or running the washer using the "soak" cycle.
  5. Let the hot water and bleach sit for 30 minutes or so.
  6. Start the load back up and make sure to set the wash for a second rinse to remove all traces of any bleach residue that may remain.

QUICK TIP: Toss in your plastic shower curtain to do "double duty" while the bleach is working. You'll remove mold and mildew from the shower curtain, too. If you've never tried it, you'll be very pleasantly surprised at how well this works.

Deodorizing any Remaining Smell:

Now that the alkaline bleach has worked its magic on the mold, mildew and bacteria, we need to add some extra deodorizing power by using a one-two punch from the acid side of the pH scale: plain white vinegar.

Vinegar is not just an excellent deodorizer, but because it's an acid, it will help to remove hard water deposits that build up if your water has a high mineral content. Hard water spots leave a white discoloration that no amount of scrubbing will remove (without help- that is). The vinegar will kill bacteria, mold and any other little one-celled hangers on after using bleach.

  1. Set the wash cycle to "white fabric" or "hot".
  2. Add 4 cups (1 quart) of plain white vinegar to a top loading washing machine or 2 cups of vinegar to a front loader.
  3. Don’t add laundry detergent or other cleaning solutions, NO BLEACH.
  4. Let the tub fill and stop the wash cycle as you did for the bleach cycle once the agitator has mixed and splashed the vinegar and water solution around.
  5. After 30 minutes, start the load back up and let the washer finish its cycle.

Cleaning the In-line Filter:

99.9% of your problem should be gone. But there's one last thing that can odor. There's a filter that can become plugged up and stop your washing machine from draining.

Washing machines have an in-line drain filter that all the waste water passes through. It traps large pieces of lint and debris before they can enter the sewer line. The buildup is not nearly as disgusting as what can be found on the gasket. It usually will hold things like Q-tips, hair, coins and other misc. debris.

Check your manual for exact location and instructions- But it's easy to access, located right behind the front "kick" panel. First, you need to remove 3 screws on that panel to have access to the underbelly of the washing machine. The filter is usually white plastic and looks like a cone or a cylinder with a large bar across it that you turn to open. In other words, the bar is a handle you use to unscrew the filter.

There's probably a little water in the line so be prepared and have a bucket under the filter and a couple spare towels to mop up any spills. Turn the cover counter-clockwise to open it.

Now you have access and can clean out all accumulated nastiness. The filter is large to catch only larger items, but trapped hair seems to start the whole process of plugged filters and then eventually a plugged drain or a washing machine that does not drain correctly.

Clean the filter out. Put the filter back on by turning it clockwise. Wipe up any spilled water. Close the front panel. Now you are done!

Extra Odor Removing Ideas:

If you still have odor remaining, here are some extra tips for deodorizing. But don't just pour all ingredients in the washer at once. Mixing some cleaning solutions together can "cancel each other out" such as in the case of using vinegar and baking soda together.

At worse, combining chlorine bleach with ammonia or other acids like vinegar can cause toxic gases to form that can very seriously harm you.

Try these deodorizers one at a time, and soaking with hot water like I went over above:

  • 2 cups of baking soda
  • 1 cup of washing soda 1 cup of bleach
  • 1 cup of Oxyclean and 1 cup of borax
  • 2 times the recommended laundry detergent and 1 cup of bleach
  • 1 cup of borax and 1 cup of bleach

If there's an odor problem after using all of these cleaners, there's some other problem going on. It is possible that something did crawl into the back of the washing machine. (It is nice and warm, you know.) Call a repair company and let them take a look at it from here.

Keeping Your Washing Machine Clean and Fresh:

  • Run the bleach or vinegar deodorizer every month or so as needed.
  • Keep the washer door open after a load to allow all remaining moisture to dissipate.
  • Wipe out the soap and fabric softener containers once every two weeks.
  • Use the right kind of laundry detergent for your machine.
  • Don't use more detergent than you need.
  • Use the proper water temperature specified for the laundry detergent.
  • Don't overload your washer.

Enjoy Your Fresh and Clean Washer:

A job well done! Your clothes and your laundry room will smell clean and fresh as a spring day after using all of my tried-and-true tips.

Now you have the secret to clean, deodorize, sanitize and stop that annoying washing machine smell. No more will your nose be offended and have to track down that offensive laundry room odor. Just don't let it come back!

CC Image Courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/photo/110179, http://www.sxc.hu/photo/319138.


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Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Mrs Clean (Corina Wilson) is not only the owner of the company, but a very busy mother of 3 children.

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Mrs Clean realized long ago, that a clean home is a necessity, not a luxury when we are struggling to find the time in our day to cover the very basic levels of work and/or family obligations. The battle seems to never end... (but that's why we're here to help!)

When Mrs Clean is not busy managing her house cleaning company or running her kids back and forth to their events, she enjoys experimenting with natural and non-toxic cleaners and learning new techniques to remove stains.

She thoroughly enjoys sharing her valuable information with the readers of her blogs and various social media sites.

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