It's easy to forget that the appliances you use to clean clothes can also get dirty and need to be cleaned themselves. You need to know how to clean a top-loading washing machine because washers left dirty for too long can leave your clothes less clean and may even develop residues that can cause them to break down.
Cleaning a top-loading washer is a little different than cleaning a front-loading machine. Front-loaders have a big rubber door boot that needs frequent cleaning, and most have a handy "tub clean" cycle that cleans most of the internal parts for you. Top-loaders often don't have a tub cleaning cycle (its easy to do using a regular wash cycle), and they have more nooks and crannies that collect grime and soap residue and must be cleaned by hand. Most older top-loaders also have agitators that get dirty at the top as well as underneath; you can remove the agitator for a truly deep cleaning, but you this might do this only once in a few years.
How Often Should You Clean a Top-Loading Washer?
You should do a routine cleaning of a top-loading washing machine once a month, or more frequently if you use it often or notice any unpleasant odors, Hugo Guerrero, a certified house cleaning technician, carpet repair and reinstallation technician, and consultant at Mattressive, tells Hunker. Failing to clean your washing machine often enough leads to buildup of detergent gunk, hard water deposits, and potentially mold and mildew, any of which will reduce its effectiveness and may prevent your clothes from getting as clean as possible.
And neglecting your washer affects more than your clothing. "Buildup of minerals can clog the water inlet filters, which can reduce the efficiency of the washing machine and increase the amount of time it takes to complete a load," warns Guerrero. Excessive buildup of mineral deposits and detergent grime could even damage your machine over time, necessitating costly repairs or destroying the washer altogether.
Things You'll Need
How to Clean a Top-Loading Washer
1. Run an Empty Load
Running a wash cycle with a cleaning agent but no laundry cleans the washer tub — which is actually two tubs: a perforated basket surrounded by a solid drum. Some newer machines make this process very easy by offering a self-clean cycle, which doesn't require any cleaning products at all. If your model lacks this feature, you'll need to use a washing machine cleaning tab, bleach, or vinegar.
For tablets, simply place a tablet in the bottom of the tub. To clean a washer with bleach, add 1/2 cup to the detergent or bleach cup and 1/2 cup to the tub. When cleaning with vinegar, add 2 cups directly into the tub. Run a load on the highest water level with the hottest water setting. After the cycle has ended, set the washer on the rinse cycle and allow it to rinse and spin a second time to remove any detergent residue.
2. Wash the Outside of the Machine
While the washer is running, clean the outside. Use a damp cloth to wipe down the machine's exterior, including the control panel. Start by using only water, but if any messes prove to be challenging to remove, try a cleaning solution of 1 quart of hot water and 1/4 cup of vinegar.
3. Clean the Agitator
Most of the body or tower of the agitator usually gets cleaned during normal laundering as well as during the tub cleaning cycle, but if you see any grime or detergent residue on it, wipe it off with a damp cloth and a water-vinegar solution.
If the top of the agitator has a cup for liquid fabric softener, it probably needs a cleaning. Remove the cap by gently pulling or twisting it off. Not all agitators have removable parts (some machines don't even have an agitator), so if you feel any resistance, leave it alone and skip this step. If you can't easily find out how to remove your agitator cap but you're sure it's removable, check your owner's manual. Once you get the agitator cap off, wipe down the inside gently with a sponge and a water-vinegar solution (you also may find a lint filter in there; see Step 4, below). For stuck-on gunk that is hard to remove, spray the surface with a bleach spray and scrub it clean with a toothbrush.
Clean inside the agitator if it needs it, using a damp cloth. Reinstall the cap by twisting or popping it back into place.
4. Find and Clean the Lint Filter
Most people know dryers have a lint filter, but it's less common knowledge that washing machines also have these — and it's essential to clean the lint filter regularly for the health of your washer. Because lint filters can be located in various places within a washing machine, check your owner's manual to learn the location for your specific washer model.
Some machines have a lint filter inside the agitator tower, underneath the cap. Other top-loaders have one somewhere along the top of the tub. There also may be a lint filter on the end of the washer's drain hose.
Filters that cannot be removed can be cleaned with a toothbrush. If your lint filter is removable, it may or may not be disposable. Disposable filters need to be thrown away and replaced. Reusable, removable filters can be cleaned by soaking them in hot water to loosen any trapped residue.
5. Wipe the Tub Ring
Use a microfiber cloth and a vinegar-water solution to wipe along the top of the tub basket — there's usually a rubber seal or plastic ring here that collects a lot of gunk. There also might be a band of residue around the top portion of the tub basket. This area is above the waterline and doesn't get cleaned during laundering.
Be careful when wiping under the washer lid and any other area that you can't see clearly. The thin metal can have some sharp edges, especially where there's no ceramic coating.
6. Clean the Door
Wipe the underside of the door (lid) and along the recess the door fits into. Clean around the door hinges and other hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, using a toothbrush to and a mixture of water and baking soda.
7. Clean the Detergent Dispenser Trays
If your detergent dispenser trays are removable, take them out, soak them in soapy water, and wipe them clean with a wet sponge. Rinse the trays well and then dry them thoroughly before putting them back in place.
Wipe down nonremovable detergent trays with a microfiber cloth and use a toothbrush to scrub away any remaining dirt and grime. Dry them with a towel before pushing the trays back in place.
7. Let It Dry
Leave the door open to allow the machine to air out and dry. It's also a good practice to do this after each wash.
What Are Washing Machine Water Inlet Filters?
The inlet filters are little metal screens inside the water hose connections on the back of the washing machine. Mineral deposits can clog the screens over time, restricting water flow to the washer. If you washer seems especially slow when filling, check the inlet screens:
- Turn off the water valve to each washer hose.
- Pull the machine away from the wall to access the hose connections.
- Place a rag or bucket under the hoses to catch water that will spill from the hoses.
- Loosen each hose connection with tongue-and-groove pliers, and unthread the hose completely.
- Carefully extract each screen from the hose inlet on the machine, using a small screwdriver or needlenose pliers.
- Clean the screen under running water, using an old toothbrush to loosen the minerals. If a screen is damaged, you can find a replacement at hardware stores and through online parts suppliers.
- Reinstall the screens, screw the hoses back on, and tighten the connections with the pliers (snug but not too tight).
- Push the washer back into place. Turn on the water valves, and make sure the connections aren't leaking (if so, tighten them a bit more).
Tips on Keeping Your Top-Loading Washer Clean
It can be just as important to learn how to properly care for your appliance between cleanings as it is to know how to clean a top-loading washing machine. These cleaning tips from Guerrero can help keep your washer running as efficiently as possible:
- Don't overload the washing machine because this "can cause clothes to become trapped in the drum, which can lead to mold and mildew growth."
- Use the right amount of laundry detergent, as too much soap can cause residue to buildup, but too little can promote the growth of mold and mildew. It's also important to only use high-efficiency detergent in high-efficiency machines, as failing to do so will cause soap scum to accumulate.
- Leave the door open after each wash so the machine can dry out.
- Wipe the dispensers after each use to prevent detergent and fabric softener buildup.
How Do You Clean a Smelly Top-Loader Washing Machine?
A washer with a musty smell probably doesn't dry out between washings, leading to mildewy areas inside. If the machine hasn't been cleaned in a long time, grime from soap residue and fabric softener also can produce a foul odor. Try cleaning the machine as described in the step above, and leave the door open to let the machine dry thoroughly. If the smell persists, you might need a deeper cleaning involving removing the agitator, the top of the washer cabinet, and any rings or covers over the tub. Cleaning out the gunk exposed under these parts should eliminate the odor.
How Do I Clean Sludge Out of My Top-Loader Washing Machine?
“Sludge buildup in a top-loading washing machine can be caused by a buildup of detergent, minerals, and other debris,” says Guerrero. Before cleaning, check and clean the water inlet filters using a toothbrush and a paste made with baking soda and water. Guerrero says cleaning the water inlet filters will “prevent clogging and ensure proper water flow.”
Clean as usual using a washing machine cleaner tab or 2 cups of vinegar. Washing machine cleansers are designed to break down detergent, minerals, and other sludge-causing deposits, and the acidity of vinegar can help strip away buildup in the drum. If any sludge remains, do a second load with 2 cups of baking soda, which is mildly abrasive and can help to remove any grimy buildup.
Clean the tub and cabinet as described above, paying careful attention to all the nooks and crannies, removing grime with a toothbrush or a small tool like a flathead screwdriver. Be sure to check for grime along the top of the tub and under the tub ring or gasket.
Is Bleach or Vinegar Better to Clean a Washing Machine?
Guerrero says that “both bleach and vinegar can be effective in cleaning a washing machine, but they have different uses and should be used differently.” He explains that vinegar is acid-based and effectively removes residue from detergent, minerals, and other debris. On the other hand, bleach is a strong alkaline cleaner and disinfectant that can efficiently sanitize washers by killing bacteria, mold, mildew, and other pathogens. Both products can kill odors, but never combine bleach and vinegar, as doing so will create toxic chlorine gas.
Unfortunately, both bleach and vinegar damage certain materials. Always check your owner’s manual before using either product to see what your manufacturer recommends. As an example, Maytag advises against using vinegar in its machines, as the acid may erode rubber parts. When in doubt, use a commercial washing machine cleaner, which will not harm your appliance.
Need to see the process visually? Check out PartSelect's video on how to clean a top-load washer: