How to Clean a Smelly Dishwasher

Female hand loading a dishwasher with white plates

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One of the definitions of clean is the absence of odor. So, when you open your dishwasher after running a wash cycle, there should be no odor. But what if the dishes look clean but there is still an unpleasant odor coming from the dishwasher? That's a signal that you need to clean your smelly dishwasher.

When you handwash dishes in lots of hot, soapy water, there's still a film that clings to the kitchen sink. The same thing can happen in a dishwasher. Even though the dishwasher detergent is more powerful and the water spray is more forceful, residue can build-up on the interior walls, in the filters, and drain lines of the dishwasher and cause odors. Unfortunately, the build-up can become so thick that some of the residue can redeposit on the dishes.

Cleaning a dishwasher is not difficult and you probably have most of the needed cleaners in your pantry. Just a quick cleaning monthly will help keep it smelling fresh and working at its best.

What You Need to Clean a Smelly Dishwasher

  • Baking soda
  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Soft-bristled scrubbing brush
  • Old toothbrush
  • Flexible wire (paper clip)
  • Sponge
  • 01 of 05

    Clean the Drainage Strainer and Spray Arms

    The most likely culprit of smelly odors is food particles trapped in the drainage strainer or filter located in the bottom of the dishwasher. Refer to the appliance manual or access the manufacturer's site online to locate the strainer. Most can be easily removed for cleaning after you remove the bottom dish rack.

    Dip a small nylon-bristled brush or old toothbrush in distilled white vinegar and scrub away any bits of food and small pieces of paper labels that may be clinging to the filter. If you can remove it completely, rinse it well under hot running water and reinstall the filter.

    Remove the top dish rack and carefully inspect the upper and lower spray arms in the dishwasher for any clogs. This can be food particles or mineral build-up from water. Use a flexible wire (a straightened paper clip works well), to gently prod out any obstructions. Replace the dish racks.

  • 02 of 05

    Run a Cleaning Wash Cycle

    With the dishwasher empty of dirty dishes, fill a small bowl with one cup of distilled white vinegar and place it on the top dish rack. (If you haven't ever cleaned your dishwasher, use two cups of vinegar to cut through exceptionally heavy build-up). Run a regular wash cycle but skip the drying cycle. Do not add dishwashing detergent. The distilled white vinegar will help strip away any greasy residue coating the interior of the dishwasher and break down small mineral deposits that occur from hard water.

    Tip

    If you don't have any distilled white vinegar, you can use apple cider vinegar, bottled or strained fresh lemon juice, or citric acid powder to clean the interior of the dishwasher. If using citric acid powder, sprinkle one-fourth cup of the powder in the bottom of the dishwasher before running a wash cycle.

  • 03 of 05

    Run an Additional Rinse Cycle

    After the wash cycle is complete, open the door and sprinkle one cup of dry baking soda onto the floor of the dishwasher. Run a hot water rinse cycle (no drying cycle). When the cycle is finished, open the door so you can complete the cleaning process while the interior is damp.

    Warning

    While baking soda and distilled white vinegar are both eco-friendly, non-toxic ingredients, they do cause quite a reaction when combined—picture a spewing, foaming science project volcano. So, do not try to save time and combine them when cleaning the dishwasher.

    Check the detergent dispenser and utensil holder for any trapped particles and give them a quick cleaning, if needed, with a small brush dipped in distilled white vinegar. Wipe down the door seals with a sponge dipped in vinegar.

    Leave the dishwasher door open for an hour or so and allow the interior to air-dry and then the dishwasher is ready to use.

  • 04 of 05

    Don't Forget the Exterior

    While a dirty exterior seldom causes odors, it is unsightly and bacteria can grow on the control panel. Dip a small brush in distilled vinegar and scrub around dials and buttons. Wipe away any residue with a sponge. Clean the front panel with an appropriate stainless steel or appliance cleaner to remove drips and fingerprints.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Tips to Help Keep Your Dishwasher Smelling Fresh

    • Always scrape excess food from the dishes before you load them into the dishwasher.
    • Clean your dishwasher monthly to prevent odors.
    • Add a reminder to your calendar monthly to clean the dishwasher.