Why your washing machine smells—and how to clean it

Your washer stinks, but it doesn't have to.

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What You Need:

  • Baking soda
  • White vinegar
  • Sponge (optional)

Prep Time Needed:

10 minutes

Total Time Needed:

1 hour



How to clean your washing machine

If you have a front-load washer, congratulations: You're saving water and energy, and treating your clothes more gently. But one day, you may open the door to your front-loader and be confronted with a terrible smell. That's mildew, and it's coming from the rubber gasket at the front of the washer. What's worse is that the stink can transfer from the gasket to your clothes. What happened? You neglected to clean it.

You might assume that a washing machine cleans itself. That's not how it works. A front-loader needs you to clean it regularly. Top-load washers don't need you to do this. They may have issues of their own, but they don't use a gasket to keep water in the machine during a cycle. But because you have a front-loader, you have to step up. It's not hard to wash your washer. It's just that now that you know about it, you have to make sure you do it.

Lots of people aren't aware of that. In fact, enough people had no clue about how to prevent odors in their washer that it became the subject of a lawsuit in 2006. Unfortunately, the time to collect on your $50 settlement has passed.

If your front-load washer is already adding funk to your laundry, we have the steps to set it right again. We’re also going to explain what causes the odor, so you can prevent it.

Here's how to deal with the odor coming from your front loader:

Step 1: Mix baking soda and water

Mix ¼ a cup of baking soda with ¼ a 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 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.

Stop using so much detergent in your washer.
Credit: Getty

Most people use WAY too much detergent, and this is one of the main causes of dirty, smelly washing machines.

Why front-loader washers stink sometimes

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. That came 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.

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But it's that efficiency part that can cause some headaches when it comes to smell. See, high-efficiency front-loaders use a lot less water than their top-load counterparts, since they fill just the bottom of the wash tub with water. Since the drum rotates on a horizontal axis, 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 detergents, but when you douse your laundry with the wrong kinds of soap and softeners, the smaller amount of water can’t fully rinse them away. 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 damp 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.

How to prevent the smell from coming back

Keep the door propped open so the drum can dry after each load.

If you want clean clothes, you need a clean washing machine.

Your washer is finally free of nasty odors, and you want to keep it that way. But how?

1. Use a high efficiency (HE) detergent—and follow the dosing instructions

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; less suds means less scum for stinky lifeforms to cling to. If you're accustomed to old detergents you'll be shocked at how little 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.

2. Keep the drum dry

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. (See our guide to The Best Dehumidifiers.) Remember: You don't want bacteria or mold to feel at home here, and nothing invites bad smells quite like wet, stagnant heat.

3. Clean the gasket

Even with the correct detergent and anti-humidity efforts, there's no guarantee your washer drum won't develop some mold-friendly buildup. The rubber seal around the doors 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.

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