How to clean a garbage disposal – and the viral hack that's may actually damage yours

These expert tips reveal exactly how to clean a garbage disposal for a fresh-smelling sink

Spitalfields kitchen
(Image credit: Plain English)

If you've noticed an unpleasant smell coming from your kitchen, it's likely you'll need to learn how to clean your garbage disposal to bring a fresh scent back to your cooking space.

The chamber inside a garbage disposal is reasonably good at self cleaning, but smells and food waste can build up in the areas the chamber doesn't scrub. To keep foul smells from building up, try to find a consistent cleaning schedule that works best for your lifestyle and volume of dishes; once a week is a good idea.

It's also important to avoid putting certain foods down the garbage disposal, including pasta, potatoes, rice, beans, fibrous foods like celery, and bones, which can all block the disposal and cause bad smells. If those are the culprit, you will also need to know how to unclog a garbage disposal.

How to clean a garbage disposal

brass sink

(Image credit: deVOL)

When you are cleaning your kitchen sink, and before a deep clean may be needed, try cleaning the garbage disposal's splash guard, which is often where bad smells originate due to a buildup of food particles.

If that doesn't work, or a deeper clean is needed, baking soda, lemons, vinegar and ice are all ideal for cleaning the garbage disposal without harsh chemicals. Find out more below.

1. How to clean a garbage disposal splash guard

The splash guard (rubber flanges around the drain that prevent food particles coming back up) is often the culprit for bad smells, and is a great place to start when cleaning your garbage disposal.

'Odors are usually due to a buildup of food particles on the underside of the black, rubber splash guard,' explains Vera Peterson, President of Molly Maid (opens in new tab)

'Disconnect the power to the unit, don a pair of rubber gloves, and spray a paper towel with an all-purpose cleaner. 

'Continue to wipe and replace with a clean towel until all debris is removed. This easily accessible area is typically the culprit with a disposal that smells or is attracting fruit flies.'

2. How to clean a garbage disposal with ice, salt and lemon

'If your garbage disposal is starting to give off an unpleasant smell, we've got a quick fix,' says Vera. Yes, you can clean a garbage disposal with ice and give it a better odor with lemon juice.

'Take a cup of ice cubes, some fresh lemon juice, and turn the disposal on for 30 seconds to dice everything up. 

'For this next part, turn the disposal off. Put on rubber gloves and reach inside with some paper towels or disposable rags. Wipe the area inside near the top where splashes occur from the grinding process. That’s where a lot of the odor originates. 

'For the squeamish, you may want to look away from what you wipe up and dispose of quickly in the trash.

'To prevent the garbage disposal from bad odors, make sure you run the disposal each time for at least 30 seconds and keep warm or cold (not hot) water running while it’s on.'

You can also add a sprinkle of coarse rock salt to the ice cube and lemon mix to further help scrub the blades clean.

3. How to clean a garbage disposal with baking soda and vinegar

Cleaning with vinegar and baking soda (which acts as a deodorizer and scourer) is almost always likely to offer a satisfying result. 

To clean your garbage disposal with baking soda and vinegar, simply pour half a cup of baking soda into the disposal before a cup of vinegar. Leave it to fizz and bubble for around 10 minutes before turning on the water and the disposal to rinse. You should have a refreshed garbage disposal without too much effort.

4. How to clean the garbage disposal trap

The disposal trap (the pipe that connects to the disposal under the sink), can become clogged with food waste. If it's not draining properly or slowly, it's time to unclog your garbage disposal.

This will involve removing the S-trap and using soapy water and a brush to rinse and clean.

5. How to clean and deodorize a garbage disposal

Cleaning and deodorizing a garbage disposal will involve a mixture of grime removal and a citrus fruit like lemon for adding a fresh scent.

Try filling the disposal with a cup of ice cubes, coarse salt, lemon juice or a few lemon wedges, before running cold water through the disposal until the ice has cleared.

Or, if you prefer to use baking soda and vinegar, you can also add a splash of lemon juice to the process to further freshen up the kitchen sink

The viral garbage disposal cleaning hack that could actually damage it

Small, cozy kitchen with dark green cabinets by Devol

(Image credit: Devol)

While cleaning a garbage disposal with ice is certainly an effective solution, a popular kitchen cleaning hack that combines ice cubes with a hot water rinse should be avoided.

Professionals suggest using cold water instead of hot water, as hot water can actually break down any fats or oils potentially stuck in the drain, creating a clog problem. Cold water keeps them solid, meaning they can pass more easily through the drain.

What's more, while ice will work to remove food scraps and help sharpen blades, it won't necessarily get rid of bad smells on its own. It's always a good idea to add a deodorizer like lemon to guarantee a fresher finish.

Another important point to note is that you should never use bleach or harsh chemicals to clean a garbage disposal as they can actually cause damage to the pipes and blades over time.

Contributing Editor

Ruth Doherty is an experienced digital writer and editor specializing in interiors, travel and lifestyle. With 20 years of writing for national sites under her belt, she’s worked for the likes of Livingetc.com, Standard, Ideal Home, Stylist and Marie Claire as well as Homes & Gardens.