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This is why your washing machine smells—here's how to clean it

Keep mildew at bay in the dishwasher

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If you have a front-load washer and dryer, congratulations: You’re saving water and energy, and treating your clothes more gently all while getting a superior clean.

But, one day, you may open the door to your front loader and get hit with a terrible odor. Say hello to mildew. This smell is coming from the rubber gasket at the front of the washer, where the mildew is growing. What’s worse is that this stink can transfer from the gasket to your clothes.

How did this happen? You neglected to clean it.

It makes sense to assume your washing machine cleans itself with all the detergent and water that runs through it. Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works. To make a parallel, it’s like assuming you never need to clean your shower, because it gets exposed to soap.

A front-load washer needs to be cleaned regularly, especially to prevent odors. More traditional, top-load washing machines can smell, too, but these smells often come from leftover soap or standing water, which can be cleared out by a rinse and spin cycle.

Top-load washers have issues of their own, but, unlike front-loaders, they don’t use a gasket to keep water in the machine during a cycle.

If you’re the owner of a front-loader, you have to step up and tackle the mildew. It’s easy to wash your washer, and now that you know it, you have to make sure you do it.

Here's why your washing machine smells bad

We took an in-depth look at the relative performance of front- and top-load washers, and found that front-loaders are superior in virtually every way. This comes as no surprise since front-loaders are designed not only to be more efficient, but also to be gentler on clothes while cleaning them better.

It’s the efficiency part that can cause some headaches when it comes to smell. High-efficiency front-loaders use a lot less water than their top-load counterparts, since they fill just the bottom of the washtub with water. The drum rotates on a horizontal axis, and your clothes tumble through the water, eliminating the need to fill the tub up all the way.

That’s all fine and dandy if you use high-efficiency detergent, but when you douse your laundry with the wrong kind of soap and softener, the smaller amount of water can’t fully rinse them away.

In turn, the drum ends up getting coated with a layer of soap scum, which is itself peppered with debris and dirt from your clothing.

In the heat and dampness of your washer, this scum makes a happy home for mildew, bacteria, and mold.

The stinky situation is compounded by the fact that front-load washers use a rubber door gasket to keep water from leaking out. Dirt, soap, and bits of fabric can get trapped under the gasket, creating yet another breeding ground for nasty smells.

I've heard about Affresh washing machine cleaner. Can I use it?

Affresh tablets are a detergent designed to clean the interiors of dishwashers and washing machines. Our experience with it is that it’s designed for places with hard water.

If you constantly find mineral stains on the inside of your washer or on your laundry, Affresh can help keep the deposits to a minimum.

Our one concern is that Affresh contains boric acid—which is a known skin irritant. However, it is one of the best-selling washing machine cleaners.

Now that your washer is finally free of nasty odors, you want to keep it that way

If you own a front-loader, you should always use detergents made for high-efficiency machines. Normal detergents simply produce more suds than your front loader can handle; fewer suds means less scum for stinky lifeforms to cling to.

If you’re accustomed to old detergents, you’ll be shocked at how little the amount of HE detergent is recommended per load. Read the directions carefully, and don’t use more than you should.

Liquid fabric softener is also off-limits for front-loading washing machines, so do yourself a favor and ditch it.

Once you’ve got the soap situation under control, it’s time to make sure the drum doesn’t stay damp for long periods of time. Always remove your laundry promptly after the cycle ends, and be sure to leave the door open when it’s not in use, so the moisture can escape.

You can also run a fan in the room where your washer lives to improve airflow and consider investing in a dehumidifier.

Even with the correct detergent and anti-humidity efforts, there’s no guarantee your washer drum won’t develop some mold buildup.

The rubber seal around the door is especially problematic, so you should regularly remove any debris you see trapped in the gasket and wipe it down with a cleaning solution made of one part white vinegar and one part water.

Finally, be sure to dispose of any lint that may have accumulated in your machine’s drain trap filter. Once a week should do the trick. The best washing machine cleaner is prevention.

How to clean your front-load washing machine

A jug of vinegar, a box of baking soda, and a sponge on a washing machine
Credit: Reviewed / Jonathan Chan

All you need to keep your washing machine fresh are vinegar, baking soda, and a sponge.

Before your front loader adds funk to your laundry, try these eco-friendly steps to set it right again. Here’s how to clean your washing machine.

Supplies needed:

Prep Time: 10 minutes | Total Time: 1 hour | Difficulty: Easy

Step 1: Mix baking soda and water

Mix ¼ cup of baking soda with ¼ cup of water. Add this solution to your machine’s detergent container.

Step 2: Add vinegar

Pour 2 cups of white vinegar into the drum and run a normal load at high heat.

Step 3: Scrub with a sponge

Scrub any remaining dirty spots to remove soap scum with the rough side of a sponge dipped in a solution of one part vinegar, one part water.

Step 4: Keep it fresh with every load

To maintain freshness moving forward, use detergents made for high-efficiency machines, keep the drum dry between cycles, and clean the gasket as needed.

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