How to Clean a Smelly Washing Machine

A nasty odor emanating from your washing machine poses a peculiar question: how are your clothes and laundry loads supposed to get clean if the machine itself isn't clean? Whether your washing machine is a front-loading or top-loading model, a nasty odor means that areas exposed to water, soap and laundry are not as clean as they could be. Natural deodorizers such as vinegar and a classic laundry staple -- bleach -- come to the rescue, cleaning the machine so it doesn't smell worse than a load of dirty laundry.

Washing machine
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Inspect gaskets and the inside of the machine for grimy, dirty buildup.

Causes of Odors

Any number of things may cause that foul odor in the washing machine -- in many cases, several substances are to blame. Soapy residue that doesn't completely rinse or drain out of the machine can stick to its innards, along with residues and oils from dirty clothing. These substances provide a buffet for feeding bacteria, contributing to a funky smell in the washer. Similar types of grime stuck to gaskets around the door -- especially on a front-loading washer -- also emit odors, and may even contain mold or mildew. An overlooked wet load of clothes left in for days or moisture in a machine in a humid area, kept with the lid closed, may also create an unpleasant, musty smell.

Muck in the Machine

Inspect the washing machine, looking for lint, soapy or dirty residues on the agitator or dispensers, or buildup on gaskets near the door opening. Use a flashlight to get a better view if it is too dark to see well. Remove loose debris with your fingers or a damp paper towel. Mix equal parts white vinegar and warm water in a bowl, then wipe down any grimy or dirty areas you notice. Dip a sponge into the solution to wipe down large areas, or use cotton swabs to remove goop and grime from gaskets, seals and anywhere else you notice a buildup. Wipe down the gaskets with a damp sponge afterwards to remove the vinegar. If the soap or fabric softener dispenser is dirty, remove it and soak it in the vinegar solution after cleaning, then wash with dish soap and water before replacing the item. Many dispensers snap out easily, but if unsure how to remove yours, consult your machine's operating manual, as instructions vary by model and brand.

Sanitizing Solution

Hot water and bleach help sanitize both front-loading and top-loading washing machines. Select the hottest water cycle, such as the "whites" setting, and a large load size. Add 4 cups of bleach to a top-loading machine or 2 cups to a front-loading model. Do not add laundry detergent or any other substance to the machine -- just water and bleach. Allow the machine to begin the agitation or washing cycle, then pause it or set it to soak for 30 to 60 minutes. Afterwards, allow it to continue the wash cycle, running on through the rinse and final spin cycles. Leave the door or lid open to air the machine out afterwards.

Self-Cleaning Front-Loaders

Many front-load washing machines include a special cycle for washing the unit itself. Typically these require adding chlorine bleach to the bleach compartment in the detergent drawer and simply running the machine on the special cycle setting. During the cycle you'll see how the washer's drum is cleansed with cascading water as the the drum spins. Follow the manufacturer's directions for running the cleaning cycle as well as other cleaning procedures, such as removing and cleaning the detergent drawer and wiping down the rubber door boot.

Vinegar Treatment

White vinegar helps remove stubborn mineral deposits and grease as it deodorizes and disinfects the machine. Select the hottest setting for whites and a large load size. Once the machine starts to fill, add 4 cups white vinegar -- 2 cups for a front-loading model -- and wait until the machine starts the agitation or washing process. After a minute or so, pause the machine for an hour or so, so the vinegar has a chance to do its job. Finish the wash cycle, and run the usual rinse and spin cycles afterwards. Leave the door or lid open afterwards -- and after every load of laundry -- to allow the inside of the machine to air dry, which helps prevent new odors.