How to clean a washing machine: the definitive guide

A washing machine cleaning routine is a must – to extend its life and to keep it, and your clothes, fresh

Laundry: how to clean a washing machine
(Image credit: Dan Gold/Unsplash)

It's around about the autumn and winter that knowing how to clean a washing machine becomes particularly useful. However frequently you use it to clean your clothes, you may notice that your washing machine is starting to smell – and these bad odors, caused by bacteria and mould, can pervade beyond the machine to your laundry room, basement, utility space and kitchen. 

Cleaning a washing machine is about regular maintenance – and should be approached just like cleaning an oven or dishwasher. Doing so regularly will keep your clothes – and rooms – smelling fresh, and will also keep your appliance healthy.

Read on to discover H&G's definitive, step-by-step guide to cleaning a washing machine.

1. Run your machine on the hottest cycle

Many of us default to using the eco- or quick-wash, ignoring the hot wash, which will do much of the hard work of cleaning the washing machine drum for us. 

Getting into the habit every couple of weeks or so of running the machine – without detergent which can cause a foamy build-up – on empty on a hot wash (60ºC/140ºF) will keep the drum fresh – but you can be more efficient going forwards by ensuring you always wash bedding, for example, on a hot wash, assuming it can take the heat. 

The aim of the hot wash is to kill germs – something we've all become more aware of since the pandemic – and these are causing the odors. 

See: Cleaning tips – our essential guide to keeping your home spotless

2. How to clean a washing machine drum

It is likely that this is where washing machine smells are coming from. If the hot wash hasn't improved the odors emanating from your washing machine, try again, this time pouring around 500ml of soda crystals into the drum before running on an empty cycle. 

This will not only kill germs and therefore nullify odors, but will also tackle the build up of limescale and soap residues that build up within the machine, often unseen.

Finally, to keep the drum bacteria-free after each wash, it is more than worth leaving the washing machine door open so that the drum can dry out. After a couple of hours you can shut the door again until the next use.

3. How to clean a washing machine seal

Once you have cleaned the washing machine drum, turn to the seal – the malleable rubber part, just inside the washing machine door. This is where anything you have mistakenly put in your washing machine – coins, hair clips, debris – gathers, along with lint, fluff, washing detergent debris and water. And of course, over time, these can become mouldy – and smelly.

Ideally, you ought to check the lower part of the seal after every wash to remove any sharp objects that could damage your washing machine. And, it is a wise move to run a soft, absorbent cloth around and inside the seal, too – this ensuring that, as you drag washing from the machine, it doesn't pick up the dirt within the seal.

Once done, turn to wash and wipe the inside of the washing machine door, too.

4. How to clean a washing machine detergent drawer

This is often the spot where washing powder residue builds up and, because the area remains damp, mould will begin to grow there, too. 

The best course of action is to carefully remove the detergent drawer and soak it in hot, soapy water. If, when you rinse, the residue hasn't come lose, use a scrubbing brush or old toothbrush to remove it before rinsing again. 

While it's drying, inspect the drawer cavity – it's likely there will be washing power residue and mould lurking there, too. 

As you did with the drum door, leave the detergent drawer open to air as you empty the washing machine, closing it once it's dry. 

Cut down on detergent, too – you can check how much you need per wash in your washing machine manual and it's often listed on washing detergent packaging. This will help cut down on residue build-up both in the drawer and the drum. 

5. How to clean a washing machine filter

Ever wondered where your spare change went? It's probably been sent down to the debris filter of your washing machine, where it is gathering with lint, fluff, forgotten tissues and gunky residue. 

The filter is in your washing machine to protect the pump – a job it can only do efficiently if it is cleaned regularly. However, if neglected, it can also suffer from germ build-up, which, of course, results in nasty smells. 

Use your user manual to find out how to remove the filter and clean it – it would be disastrous to damage it. Have a shallow bowl and towel ready on the floor beneath the filter door – it's likely, when you open it, that there will be a healthy dribble of water. 

Again, while the filter is drying, wipe out the cavity to catch any residues inside. 

6. Check the washing machine drain outside

Ensure any drains outside that your washing machine pump feeds are clean and clear of debris – it may be that a back-up from outside of your home is what you can smell indoors. 

How do I deep clean my washing machine?

Ideally a washing machine should be cleaned every other week – but with an efficient deep clean and good habits – such as leaving the door to the drum open between washes – does mean that you can clean it less regularly. 

As we advised above, a washing machine deep clean is best done with an empty washing machine and a hot cycle. Add soda crystals or a couple of cups of baking soda directly into the drum to remove residue, combat limescale and tackle odors – then run a second hot wash to rinse out the washing machine. 

How do you clean a smelly washing machine?

If the soda crystals haven't tackled the bad odors, a smelly washing machine can be cleaned with washing machine cleaners that you can pick up at the supermarket. Plant-based, concentrated cleaners are often the strongest and most effective.

If you prefer a natural option, you can use vinegar – but do check your washing machine's warranty to check this won't invalidate it as some manufacturers do not recommend it. Either way, we wouldn't recommend doing this too often as the vinegar will, if used regularly over time, damage the rubber seals.

If you are happy to go ahead as a one-off, tip two cups of white vinegar into the washing machine drum, then run a hot cycle with an empty machine. 

If this doesn't work, try again, this time adding baking soda to the vinegar. 

Can you clean a washing machine with household bleach?

You can clean a washing machine with bleach – although, again, do check your warranty. However, sodium percarbonate – 'laundry bleach' or 'oxygen bleach' – is a safer choice than household bleach – but stronger than using baking soda alone.

The best way to tackle washing machine smells with bleach is to put half a cup into the drum and half a cup into your machine's detergent drawer. 

Run on a hot wash – empty, of course – and, if you are able to, pause the cycle when the drum is full of water, then leave for at least an hour to soak. Unpause the cycle and, when it's finished, run an empty hot wash again to ensure the bleach is removed. 

Finally, wipe the seals and drawer carefully to remove any traces of bleach and – to be on the safe side, only wash whites for the next couple of washes (bedlinen is ideal) to ensure no bleach residue damages darker items.  

Lucy Searle
Lucy Searle

My first job was writing a DIY column for a magazine for the over 50s (which seemed a long way off back then). I then moved to a DIY magazine as deputy ed, then freelanced my way around the homes departments of most women's magazines on the market before working on Your Home and Family Circle magazines as homes editor. From there, I went to Ideal Home magazine as associate editor, then launched 4Homes magazine for Channel 4, then the Channel 4 4Homes website before going back to freelancing and running a social media business (you can see where I had kids from the freelancing gaps!). I was tempted back to the world of big business by the chance to work with the great team at Realhomes.com, where I was Global Editor-in-Chief for two and a half years, taking it from a small website to a global entity. I've now handed the reins of the website to our American managing editor, while I take on a new challenge as Editor-in-Chief of Homes & Gardens.