02 Sep 2023

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Have you ever taken your laundry out of the washing machine and noticed it doesn’t smell quite as fresh as it should? Has it been a while since you cleaned your washing machine? If so, this is probably why your laundry smells.
We spoke with two experts—a bioengineer and a mechanical engineer—to give you the best guide to cleaning your washer so you can shake those funky smells for good.
It will take 30 to 45 minutes of active cleaning, plus the length of your machine’s sanitizing or hot-water wash cycle.
We get it; cleaning your washing machine seems counterintuitive. Why would you clean a machine that runs hot soap and water regularly? Remember, this is the same machine that’s removing dirt and odor from your laundry, which means that some of it is left behind in the drum of the machine. This can cause a buildup of bacteria and make your machine smell.
According to bioengineer Chris Callewaert, who specializes in the skin’s microbiome, smell has become a bigger issue with machines following a transition in the 1990s to washing machines that operate at lower temperatures. This coincided with the transition to using enzyme-based detergents instead of phosphate-based. “Those lower temperatures and those conditions are perfect environments for bacteria to grow,” Callewaert said.
The case for cleaning is not limited to managing odor. Cleaning also helps ensure that your machine runs properly. A clogged pump filter can block the machine from being drained and cause a host of issues. The easiest way to prevent this is periodic cleaning.
For a biannual deep clean, you need to unplug your washing machine then locate the filter. In a front-loading machine, it’s located on the bottom corner.
Place a shallow basin on the floor underneath the filter door. Open the door where the filter is located and wipe down the inside. Then, very slowly unscrew the filter. Slowly unscrewing is critical, because water will begin to pour out. You may need to empty the shallow basin more than once. Be sure to keep a microfiber cloth nearby in case of spills.
After the water has finished draining, remove the filter from the machine. Place it on a microfiber towel and then empty the basin.
Check the filter for hair and debris, and pull it out if necessary. With a small brush dipped in vinegar, scrub and clean the ridges of the filter.
Then, place the filter in a container and fill it with hot water. Soak the filter for fifteen minutes.
While the filter soaks, you can do what should be your typical monthly clean of the machine. Wipe down the exterior and interior of the machine with a microfiber cloth and white vinegar. Remove the detergent drawer, washing any caked-up, dry detergent with hot water in your sink. Then, dry it with a microfiber cloth.
When you open the washing machine door to wipe down the drum, be sure to check the rubber seal. Not only do bacteria hang out and grow here, but hair and other small things can also get caught—I once found a baby sock. After removing any debris, wipe the seal with hot water.
This step is important, particularly if you don’t leave your washer door open after you run a cycle. If you can, try to leave the door open after a wash for a bit. This helps the machine dry faster and prevents mold and mildew buildup.
After the filter has soaked, dry it with a microfiber cloth and screw it back into the machine. Then, plug the machine back in.
For the final step, run your washing machine either on its sanitizing cycle, or, if the machine doesn’t have one, the hottest and longest possible cycle. There’s a great debate on the internet over whether to use baking soda and vinegar, vinegar by itself, bleach, boric acid, or a washing machine cleaner.
Experts had a variety of opinions, but Sangjin Jung, a mechanical engineering professor formerly of LG’s washing machine division, said to avoid baking soda. Jung said, “The mixing ratio of the soda is important, so usually the manufacturing companies do not recommend using non-washer safe products.” When in doubt, reference your manual.
In Wirecutter’s washing machine guide, we recommend using washing machine detergent, such as Affresh (we used it for this guide). If you prefer to use bleach or OxiClean directly in the drum of the machine, you can, but we did not try it.
Place the tab in the machine, close the door, and select the sanitizing cycle before turning it on.
After the cycle is complete, leave your washing machine door open until the machine dries. If you cannot do that because of space constraints, be sure to at least wipe down excess moisture with a microfiber cloth so you don’t undo the day’s efforts.
This article was edited by Brittney Ho, Amy Koplin, and Sofia Sokolove.
Chris Callewaert, bioengineer, Zoom interview, October 25, 2022
Sangjin Jung, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Southern Illinois University, Zoom interview, October 27, 2022
Andrea Barnes
Andrea Barnes is a staff writer reporting on large cleaning appliances for Wirecutter. She previously worked as a research analyst. A number of avoidable appliance mishaps have led her to a passion for proper appliance care.
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