How to Freshen Up a Smelly Washing Machine

For both top loader and front loader washing machines, the best ways to freshen up most any clothes washer, are about the same in terms of effectiveness, because initially, they all completely remove dank odors from inside the washer quite well.

Although the bleach and the commercial products discussed below, may offer more lasting freshness protection between applications, the baking soda and white vinegar technique may be less hard on the machine’s water-handling components. Indeed, some washing machine manufacturers advise against using chlorine bleach in their machines. Bleach may also damage the clothes in subsequent washings if not thoroughly rinsed from the washer interior.  So, deodorize with bleach at your own risk.

However, there’s a plethora of commercially available products to get rid of that moldy, musty, damp mildew smell out of a stinky washer, and these are designed and tested to specifically address the causes of these smells, while at the same time, being gentle on machine components and clothes as well.  So, we recommend first going with the commercial solutions such as Gain, Tide, or Affresh washing machine cleaners.  If you’re hard pressed for money, try the bacon soda and vinegar method.  And as a last resort, try deodorizing the washer with bleach.

We discuss several of the most popular methods for freshening up your laundry machine below.  The commercial products and bleach work very well to disinfect the washing machine, while the white vinegar and baking soda concoction is very cheap and safe to apply.

Remove All Clothes from Washer

Always make sure that the washer drum is empty before you start cleaning.  Any of these techniques might damage or discolor clothes accidently left in the machine.

Clean that Filter!

With so equipped washing machines, check the water filter each time you freshen your washer, to be sure that no lint, threads, small cloth pieces, or other clothing materials are clogging the filter.  These cloth fragments trap moisture, and can remain soaking wet for days after the washer’s last use.  Thus, a chronically wet filter can generate quite a damp, musty smell, and it also shortens the amount of time that your washing machine will smell fresh after deodorizing.  So to get the most bang for your washer-cleaning buck, be sure to   clean that filter often!

Deodorizing with Baking Soda and White Vinegar

Picture of a 2 pound box of Arm & Hammer pure baking soda, front view.
Arm & Hammer pure baking soda, 2 pound box, front view.

Wipe visibly dirty surfaces clean.  For stubborn odors or visible accumulation of smelly dirt and growths around the seals, gaskets, mating surfaces, and inside the drum, wipe said surfaces down with a white vinegar and water solution (half and half), one pouch in each of three consecutive cleaning cycles to loosen and remove mold and mildew buildup. Then use once per month (maintenance mode).

Add the vinegar and baking soda.  To clean, mix a half-cup of baking soda with a half-cup of water, and fill the soap dispenser with this.  Then, pour two cups of white vinegar directly into the washer tub.

Run the washer on regular cycle, hottest water.  Close / latch the door and run on REGULAR wash cycle, using HOT water. Do not here, use the SANITIZE, CLEAN, or AFFRESH cleaning cycles; just REGULAR.

After the cycle completes, your washer has now been deodorized.  The vinegar has likely killed most odor causing germs, and the baking soda has eliminated the musty odors.

Try Using Bleach to Vanquish that Moldy Smell

Picture of a bottle of Great Value brand bleach, front view.
A bottle of Great Value brand bleach, front view.

Sterilizing your washing machine with bleach is a highly effective, economical way to deodorize it.  However, too much bleach can damage some machine components.  Plus, spilling it can damage floors and clothes as well as irritate the skin.  Further the smell of chlorine can become overbearing during the cycle.  So bleach is a last resort for us in keeping our machine sparkling clean and odor free.  But some folks like the strong bleach smell during cleaning, and don’t mind the risks.  For them, we suggest reading the instruction manual for the particular washing machine, to find out if laundering with bleach is okay.  If not, then DO NOT use bleach, which could result in expensive repair bills.

Use more bleach for dirtier washers.  For stubborn odors or visible accumulation of smelly dirt and growths, use a half-cup of bleach to loosen and remove mold and mildew buildup.

Add the bleach.  To clean, drop one quarter cup directly into washer tub. Do not put in the soap dispenser.  We also suggest that immediately upon bleach application, that you start the washer a going.  You don’t want concentrated bleach sitting the washtub for any longer than necessary.

Run a regular wash cycle, on highest heat.  Close / latch the door and run the washer on the REGULAR wash cycle, using HOT water. We suggest not using the CLEAN cycle in the bleach case, because heated bleach can smell quite strong and take long periods of time to disperse.

Afterwards, rinse!  After the regular wash cycle finishes, run it again through a regular cleaning cycle with hot water.  But this time, add no cleaner.  This assures that any last drops of bleach inside are rinsed away, and will thus, not discolor or otherwise damage your clothing in subsequent washings.

Sanitize and Deodorize Washer with These Products

We’ve successfully deodorized our clothes washers with the products shown next, and this is our preferred method of eliminating odors in the washer.  See our posts about each one for more details by following the picture links.

Picture of a 10.58 ounce box of Gain® Washing Machine Cleaner, four pouch, top view.
Gain® Washing Machine Cleaner, four pouch box, top view.
Picture of the top of a box of Tide Washing Machine Cleaner, 5 Pouch Package.
Tide Washing Machine Cleaner, 5 Pouch Package, Top View.
Picture of Affresh® Washer Cleaner 7 ounce box, top view.
Affresh® Washer Cleaner 7 ounce box, top view.

We follow the procedure below when using these commercially available washing machine cleaning products.

Heed all cautions and warnings.  Follow the manufacturer’s directions first, printed on the box of the product you’re using.  But if you find that they don’t work as well as you’d hoped, then try the following steps.

Use your washer’s SANITIZE cycle  if it has one, and it’s not forbidden by your choice of machine cleaner.  This cycle is particularly effective, because typical washers heat the water to greater than 160 degrees F while cleaning themselves, which is much hotter than the hot water from your tap, and presumably the most effective at killing those odor-causing germs inside the washer.

Remove all clothes from washer.  Never run your machine through a cleaning cycle with clothes in the tub.  The garments might be damaged by the machine cleaning agents, and the cleaning might not work fully.

Add the cleaner.  To clean, drop ONE tablet, or empty one pouch, directly into washer tub. Do not place in the soap dispenser.  Putting the cleaner directly into the laundry tub prevents the concentrated harsh chemicals in the cleaner from potentially damaging the dispenser.

Start the cleaning cycle.  Close / latch the door and run on the SANITIZE, CLEAN, or AFFRESH cleaning cycle. High efficiency washers usually offer this specialized cleaning cycle.  Bear in mind though, that some cleaners want you to run them through the REGULAR cycle instead of SANITIZE.  If that’s true of your cleaner, then do as they say.

Open hatch and allow washer to dry.

You’re done!

Keep that Fresh Smell Going

Always air out your washer.  To avoid frequent odor return, as mentioned, let door stand open between washer uses when practical, to allow complete and fastest drying of the tub, seals, hoses, hinges, pumps, and related components.

Wash bleach loads last.  If you wash bleach loads, make them the last loads you do in a particular washing session, since the bleach will kill many odor-producing bacteria and germs, and help prolong the washer’s odor-free status.

Use the right detergent.  High efficiency washing machines demand laundry detergent that is specifically formulated for them.  These laundry soaps sport the HE symbol somewhere on the front label.  HE soaps also minimize detergent residues that accumulate faster with high sudsing detergents.  HE detergents produce very low soapsuds, and thus, much less residue buildup in the washer over time.

Repeat once a month at least.  Disinfect your washing machine at least once per month.  However, more frequent deodorizing may be required if you do laundry every day, or so often that the machine never has a chance to completely dry out between loads.

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Revision History

  • 2017-01-30: Originally published.