How to clean a washing machine – easy ways to banish mold and odors

An effective step by step guide on how to clean a washing machine drum, detergent drawer, and door seal to ensure fresher laundry

how to clean a washing machine
(Image credit: Hoover)

Knowing how to clean a washing machine effectively is important for both the longevity of your machine and the freshness of your laundry.

Despite being a cleaning appliance, washing machines can be a breeding ground for bacteria and, over time, our beloved washing machines can start to smell thanks to the dampness of clothes and build-up of laundry detergent.

As with the maintenance and cleaning of dishwashers, washing machines need regular care too, and so if you're cleaning your kitchen or putting together a cleaning checklist, ensure you add your white goods to the list too.

In order for your machine to continue to do its job well, it needs to be as clean as possible. That means cleaning all the components of the washing machine – drum, filter, and door seal included. Here are the basic steps you need to take to ensure you give your washing machine a thorough, deep clean.

How to clean a washing machine in 3 simple steps

The best way to clean a washing machine will vary from household to household and depend on what machine you have, as many newer models have their own in-built washing cleaning cycle. 

What you use to clean a washing machine will also depend on personal choice, your machine and what level of maintenance it needs. For a routine clean, many supermarkets sell cleaners you can simply pop in the appliance and set to work themselves. However for a deeper clean, a clean that tackles specific issues like mould or if you'd prefer to try a tested organic, natural cleaning method, we've also included the best ways to freshen up your washing machine in those ways below, too. 

1. Run an empty cycle

Get into a habit of doing a high temperature, 60°C cycle without a washing load inside. It doesn't have to be a long cycle, but the higher temperature is key because this heat will help to kill off lurking bacteria and mould. 

When you run this cycle you can use a number of cleaning products including bleach and vinegar (scroll down for an in-depth guide as to how to do this).

You can also just run the empty washing machine with some detergent, but if you do, remember to put the cycle on with at least 50% less detergent than you'd use to wash clothes. If you use the full amount you can cause an excess amount of lather because there are no clothes to absorb the excess water and suds. 

Ideally you'd run this cycle without detergent and use a washing machine cleaning product instead.

We recommend Ecozone’s Washing Machine & Dishwasher Cleaner as a great ecological way to clean. The added bonus of a specialist product means it also helps to get rid of the limescale that has built up in the drum and pipework over time, which is sometimes needed to prevent long-term damage. You can afford to do this every few months, adopting the free methods at more frequent intervals. 

2. Clean the outer shell

Although the front is less likely to harbor bacteria and germs, it is the part of the washing machine that is seen most, so it still needs to look clean and hygienic – especially if situated in a kitchen. 

"Always keep the outer shell of the washing machine clean. This operation does not take much time: simply dust with a damp cloth," advises explains Ben Peach, Laundry Product Manager at Hoover (opens in new tab). "Same thing applies to the glass on the door - clean it regularly with a damp cloth and it will shine like a new-brand one."

3. Wipe the rubber door seal

Don't forget the door seal when cleaning, as this is where hidden germs are lurking. Think about the excess moisture that is brushed past the seal with every load, leaving the potential for dampness and bacteria to build up. 

"Clean around the inside rubber door seal, as this is an area that will see a build-up of bacteria and bad odors" advises Ben.

Simply use a damp soapy cloth to gently trace the rubber seal to remove excess residue from the last laundry wash. Just ensure you don't pull the seal away from the door, as this can damage the watertight seal when the door is closed. 

How to clean a washing machine with vinegar

As with all cleaning chores, there are lots of natural, organic remedies and cleaning hacks that have been tried and tested as an alternative to chemical cleaners like bleach. 

White vinegar is the go-to product for many homemade household cleaners and can be used for everything from cleaning hardwood floors to cleaning a BBQ, because of its natural acidic qualities. You can make an effective washing machine cleaning solution by mixing white vinegar with bicarbonate of soda. 

Not only is this DIY cleaning method an eco-friendly sustainable living option, but it is also a cost-effective option, with many of the ingredients commonly found in kitchen cupboards.

What you will need: 

  • Two cups of white distilled vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/4 cup of water
  • A sponge scourer

Directions: 

  1. Start by mixing together the bicarbonate of soda and water in a small bowl. This will make a mixture that resembles the detergent for cleaning the washing machine. Pour the white vinegar into a measuring cup.
  2. Add the bicarbonate of soda mixture to the detergent container of your machine and pour the vinegar into the machine’s drum. Set your washer to normal load at the hottest water setting. Close the door and start the machine, letting it do all the hard work for you. The baking soda and vinegar naturally break up mineral deposits and any mold growth while cleaning and refreshing your washing machine.
  3. Use a clean scouring sponge to rub around the opening of the washing machine, removing stubborn mold or residue. Wipe clean with fresh water.
  4. Once the process has finished, the result should be a sparkling clean washing machine that smells good. Just be sure to give it a clean once a month to keep your clothes smelling fresh and your machine working in perfect condition.
  5. Remember to continue to keep the mold at bay: all you have to do is keep the washing machine door open after the wash is complete, as many domestic machines are so well sealed they don’t get as much air as top-loading machines. The door doesn’t need to be left wide open, just kept off the latch to give it enough airflow to keep the mold from coming back. Easy! 

How to clean a washing machine

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to clean a washing machine with bleach

“Before using bleach to clean your washing machine you must double-check your machine’s manual to check you’re okay to use it and that it won’t cause damage to your appliance" advises Mark Greig, at Marks Electrical (opens in new tab). "Most of the time it is absolutely fine to clean your washing machine with bleach though and it’s the best way to give your machine an intensive clean."

“Once you’ve checked it’s safe to use bleach on your washing machine, you need to clean the filter and gasket. The filter traps all the large things that accidentally go into the machine, and if it becomes too full it can make your washing machine ineffective."

“Now your machine is ready for a deep clean, add half a cup of bleach directly into your washing machine's drum, and half into your detergent drawer. Run an empty hot wash. If you can pause your wash once the machine has filled with water, do so for a good hour. Then start the cycle again. Run an extra rinse cycle to ensure all the bleach has been removed. Once it's finished, wipe down the inside of the door and dry out the seals." 

Ensure you washing machine is clean and clear of all bleach-based products before adding any clothes to the drum and putting a wash on.

How to clean a washing machine drawer

The detergent drawer itself should never be overlooked when cleaning a washing machine, as it is the most common area where you will start to see a build-up of residue. Seeing the residue makes it the most likely part of the machine you will want to clean. 

"The detergent we pour in the dispenser for the laundry is not always used completely by the washing machine. The detergent that isn’t used remains encrusted in the drawer and transforms into mold," explains Ben. "To effectively clean it and get rid of the bacteria, you can easily remove the drawer, then soak it for half an hour in hot water. To remove the mold from hard-to-reach corners you can use a toothbrush."

To get the drawer sparkling clean, we suggest simply adding washing-up liquid in the cleaning steps above, for added cleanliness. Ensure the drawer is dry before placing back, to avoid any damp odors. 

Get into a habit of cleaning your washing machine drawer weekly or fortnightly because it will make cleaning it an easier task with less detergent to soak off. Because the detergent drawer doesn't have the added bonus of a water flow, like inside the drum, to aid with self-cleaning, it's all on you.

How to clean a washing machine filter

Cleaning a washing machine filter is a simple but necessary step to not only provide a better laundry clean but to prolong the life of your machine.  

The filter, often located in a door under the drum, is the element within the machine that collections stray clothes fibers, hair, fluff, and the odd coin to prevent these items from getting into the pump and wreaking havoc with the machine. To clean it, simply take it out, with caution of items and water spilling out into the kitchen floor, empty the filtered paraphernalia into the waste and wipe the filter with a damp cloth before replacing it. 

Check your manufactures manual to see how to remove and replace the filter efficiently. 

How to clean a washing machine to avoid mold and bad odors

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How often should you clean a washing machine?

If you want to keep your washing machine in tip-top shape, cleaning a washing machine shouldn't be a once-a-year spring clean job. 

So how often do the experts recommend cleaning a washing machine? "Once every two months, do an empty load wash at 60°C," advises Ben. Or follow one of our cleaning steps above, at the same 2 monthly cycles. 

A Dr. Beckmann spokesperson agrees that regularly cleaning your machine will make a difference: “It’s important to make sure your washing machine gets cleaned regularly, as bacteria can build up leading to unpleasant odors. We recommend washing your machine every 2 months, or every 30 washes to ensure the appliance stays clean and to reduce the risk of a build-up of limescale."

Mark Kershaw, Group Head of Sustainability at Crest Nicholson (opens in new tab) adds: "There are several quick fixes when it comes to increasing the productivity of appliances. Thereby ensuring they don’t have to work harder and/or longer to get the job done. For example, make sure you regularly clean your washing machine filters and do maintenance cycles to enable them to work their best. This will ultimately lower their running costs, too."

It can help to bear in mind a few top tips for maintaining its freshness between cleans too:

  • Every time your washing machine begins to get a bit smelly, you can add soda crystals to your detergent drawer and put it on a hot and empty wash. This will help to kill bacteria and remove any built-up grime. It’s best to do this often, to keep on top of your machine’s cleanliness.
  • Leave the washing machine's door and drawer open as often as you can to give it a good airing – and perhaps deploy one of the best air purifiers to really get rid of any excess moisture.
  • Once the washing is complete, remove the finished load immediately, transfer it to the dryer, or put it to dry. Leaving the laundry wet inside the washing machine can cause mold and mildew to fester.
Suzanne Baum
Suzanne Baum

Suzanne Baum is a well-known lifestyle journalist who has written across fitness, health, wellbeing, news and features for almost 20 years. Previously deputy editor of Fit&Well, Suzanne has regular columns in all the leading publications, including the ES and Glamour. As well as writing beauty columns for IndyBest, ES Best and the i paper, Suzanne is a celebrity interviewer, with her byline published almost daily. Suzanne is interested in all fitness and wellbeing-related products, as well as everything lifestyle.