(Why Your Washing Machine Smells – Photo by Well-Designed Interiors)
Back when the front load washers were just first coming out on the market, I was so thrilled to be getting a new set. I had dreamed of the day when I no longer needed to make a trip to the laundry mat or to use the cleaners for my larger items. Then, the day came and I gladly handed over the cash for my two new beauties. Little did I know, at the time, that I was about to embark upon one of the most challenging household problems that I had yet to encounter – the dreaded front loader stink!
As you can imagine, being a first-time owner of these new-to-the-market machines, I had no way of knowing the pitfalls of failing to maintain my machine properly. As a result, I ended up with a sorry mess that I was shocked to discover. Yes, the nightmare that is mildew. Of course, by the time I was aware of the issue, it had really set in and taken hold. Well, I met that challenge and am glad to say that I conquered it and the dreaded washing machine smells. I will share with you how to do a deep cleaning on your machine, and also how to maintain those results and prevent new issues from arising.
Why Your Washing Machine Smells…
So first, let’s just quickly run through how your machine has come to have that odor. (I know most of you are probably already educated on this topic, but for those experiencing the problem for the first time, you really need this info)
As you know, mold and mildew can only grow where conditions are conducive – i.e. wet, warm, and dark. So yes, water is the first culprit. But did you know that the so-called high-efficiency detergent that they tell you to use is contributing to this problem even more? Think about it. What does the bottom of your soap dish look like after a few months of holding a soap bar? A serious soap scum problem, right? Well, that detergent can and will build up throughout your machine in the same fashion. And fabric softeners are even worse. Because they have a degree of wax in them, they coat and cling to more than just your clothes.
Eventually, all of that water and soap scum begins to develop mold. And once it gets started, it is like the annoying family member that keeps showing up and refuses to go home. But, let’s move on to dealing with the problem once it arises. Later we will get to the issue of detergents.
Why Your Washing Machine Smells – Cleaning the Gunk…
So, back to getting your machine back in working order. You should follow these steps on a monthly basis to keep your machine odor-free. These are the steps that I take now for maintenance (and also what I did with that first machine way back when will be included in instructions for a professional cleaning below).
What You’ll Need…
- Bucket or container to mix the solution
- Oxy Clean
- 20 Mule Team Borax
- Bleach (for deep cleaning)
- Spray Bottle
- washcloth or paper towels
- Screwdriver and pliers (for professional cleaning)
Monthly Cleaning Process…
To start the cleaning process, let’s first remove the soap dispensing drawer. You do this by pressing down on the release tab, located at the back of the drawer, and pulling forward.
This is an up-close image of my machine’s drawer. FYI: this is from an LG front loader. Each machine will be slightly different, but shouldn’t vary enough to affect the instructions.
The entire drawer needs to be placed in hot water with a mold killing solution. I usually use my kitchen sink and a bleach bath for this purpose. However, I know that many of you are opposed to using bleach. In this case, I would suggest a vinegar bath.
Before placing the drawer into the bath solution, you will need to remove all of the inserts. Notice that most will have tabs located on the back. You should NOT pull straight up but instead, pull up and back towards these tabs. Otherwise, you run the risk of breaking them. (Also, you can see that there is already some mildew beginning to develop along the bottom of my drawer. I have skipped a few months of cleaning so that I could do this demonstration. Normally, I do this before signs appear).
Any holes or crevices that require extra work can be cleaned out with q-tips and bleach. Pay special attention to the compartments that hold soap or fabric softener. You can see from this image that all of the mildew/mold spots that are beginning to appear are located on the fabric softener compartment (small side). While the bleach compartment (larger side) is spotless. If you look closely at the previous image, you can see that this holds true for the underside of the compartments as well. So in my mind, this is just more proof that the fabric softener “assists” the production of mold.
Now, let’s take a look inside the drawer opening. My machine, as you can see, is still wet from a previous wash. But, this is one of the more prevalent locations for problems. I have some spots appearing at the back and the edges. That whole in the back is where the soap, fabric softener, and bleach enters the dispenser hose.
Here is an up-close view of mine. I see some hard water staining, but not much more. However, that hose that connects to this opening can be a terrible source for mold. If you go through all of these cleaning steps and still have a bad odor, then this is one of the issues. I can promise you that if your machine has gotten out of control, you will need to do a professional cleaning. (more on that later).
In order to get the drawer opening clean, you will need something that can spray bleach all the way to the back wall. I use this Lowe’s spray bottle filled with 50/50 bleach water. Saturate every nook and cranny. Allow it to dry out. Then, saturate it again. Tip – leave the drawer out for 24 hours while the bleach works and to allow the interior to become completely dry.
Next, we need to really make sure that the door seal is spotless. Not just the top that you see when you open the door. Pull back the seal and check the inside, as this is where the mold likes to hide. You should wipe this out at least 1 time per week with an anti-mold cleaning solution. I use vinegar for my weekly cleanings, and bleach for my monthly. As you can see, mine is already very clean. (I wasn’t willing to wait for mold to develop on the seal just for this demonstration). 😉
What I want to point out are a few very important facts. 1) If you can see a lot of mold, or the mold has reached beyond the 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock positions, you really will need to remove the seal in order to get to the hidden mold. (more on that below). I know that isn’t what you want to hear, but once the machine is allowed to develop issues beyond a certain point, it takes a professional cleaning. (which is what I call a deep, deep, DIY clean).
2) I also want to draw your attention to those three notches located at the bottom of the seal. These are prime spots for gunk. Pull the seal away from the edge of the drum and look behind these notches. Using bleach (or vinegar) wipe out beneath and along the notches. In addition, check beneath the rim of the seal (where the seal and the drum meet). Wipe along that area as well.
Part of your regular weekly maintenance should be wiping down the door. You are unlikely to see mold on the door, but it will start to develop a film from detergent/fabric softener build-up.
Located at the bottom (for most machines) is a door that covers your filter and emergency drain line. You should access that at this point.
Inside you will find the drain line and a twist knob. You may not know it, but your machine does not get rid of all of the water at the end of a cycle. Because the interior drain line runs along the bottom of the machine and then up and out the back, some of that water falls back to the bottom of the line. There it sits just stagnating, waiting for you to run a fresh cycle.
To drain all of that nasty water, place a container on the floor and twist the plug from the end of the drain line. Allow the tubing to rest so that gravity works in your favor. Once it has stopped draining, replace the plug and store the tubing back inside the machine.
Next, twist out the filter by turning the knob counterclockwise. Here is my filter after just two months of neglect. Ewww! All that gray stuff located at both ends is detergent and fabric softener build-up. As gross as it looks, it still surprisingly smelled like Downy. So, let’s clean out the filter real well. You may even find a few coins down there.
Before replacing the filter, I like to wipe out the opening. You can see that there is just a bit of the gray sludge hanging around, as well as some leftover nasty water.
Now, let’s move on to the drum. For my monthly cleaning, I like to take a dish tub full of the hot water and mix in 1/2 cup of Borax + 1/4 cup of Oxy Clean + 2 Cups of Vinegar. (FYI: If I ever see or smell mold/mildew, I break out the big guns and use 1 quart of bleach + hot water). Set the machine to the hottest wash (that may be your tub clean cycle or it may not). Let the machine begin to fill with water, then hit the pause and dump the solution into to machine. (my machine has a load sensor, so I have to wait for it to start filling up before adding the extra water. Otherwise, it gets confused and drains)
If you want to use a manufactured product specifically for cleaning, Affresh is pretty good. However, it is mostly just Oxy and Borax anyway. But, if you want to purchase a cleaner specifically for this purpose, you can find these at Amazon. (Clicking the image will take you to my Amazon affiliate link to purchase).
But, back to how I do it… Take the cleaning solution and dump it in the machine. If you have a serious problem, you can allow it to sit for a while. Soaking will allow the solution to rest on the second layer of the drum (I guess we can call that the drum beneath the drum). Because, what you don’t see is what is underneath the stainless steel. That is where all the dirty water gets slung when the drum spins. But, letting the solution sit for a while (at least 30 minutes) will give the bleach time to kill the mold that is hidden. You can even rotate the drum by hand every 30 minutes to soak the entire drum.
And honestly, if you have a mildew odor, the best result will come from doing it this way. So, Add a lot of water/bleach solution (enough to have it covering as much of the drum as possible), then move the drum just a bit every half hour, until the entire drum has been treated. Follow by the hottest cycle that you have. On mine that would be the sanitize cycle, which runs longer and hotter than the Tub Clean cycle. (While you are at it, add some cleaning solution to all the compartments in the soap dispenser drawer. This will allow any mold that has developed inside the dispenser hose to receive treatment).
Professional Deep Cleaning…
(If you don’t need to do a professional cleaning, you can skip down to the “Keeping the Washing Machine Smells from Returning” section)
If, after doing a cleaning, your washing machine smells still, do it a few more times. Sometimes one cleaning cycle isn’t enough to cut through all the build-up. But, if you run 3 or 4 cycles back to back, you can usually get rid of the problem. However, if that still doesn’t work or if you have a lot of mold, you will need to do a professional cleaning. This requires removing parts of your machine. So, if you are not up to it, you should get a professional to do this for you.
Remember how I talked about the detergent/fabric softener build-up? Well, this little part above is the hose that transports all those products from the drawer to the tub. As you can see, it has a lot of baffles. And boy does mold love, love, love to hide in here. This is one of the parts that will need to be removed and cleaned for a deep cleaning. But prepare yourself, this thing will be gross.
The other part that causes a tremendous amount of problems with mold is the interior drain line – not the part that you hook into the wall, but the part that is inside the machine. I know, such a PITA to mess with. 🙁
Obviously, I am not going to disassemble my machine for demonstration purposes (too bad I didn’t document it back when I did this the first time). So anyway, I found a great video on youtube that shows how to remove the drain line and clean it. When you do this step, you will be able to easily remove and clean the soap dispenser hose, too.
FYI : This video is promoting a product for a washer fan. I do not have one, nor have I ever used one. I am simply providing this video because it is a great tutorial on disassembling your machine to clean out the drain line. The video also promotes a part’s store called repair clinic.com which I have used many times before. If you need to buy a new hose, I would also recommend this company.
To clean out the drain hose, I soak it in a tub of bleach water overnight. Then spray it out with a water hose. However, you can also use the car wash sprayer, as recommended in the video. The same thing applies to the soap dispenser hose. It really needs to be cleaned at this time as well. Since you already have the machine opened, it is as simple as removing the clamps on both ends of the hose and pulling it off.
For those With a Solid Front Panel (i.e. no separate lower panel)…
Some machines do not have a lower access panel (like my LG), but instead, have one solid front. If you need to remove a solid front, you will be required to detach the seal from the door. (Please look at youtube for videos on disassembling LG machines to get a good idea of what I mean).
In order to detach the seal, there is a cable with a tension spring that must be removed. If you look around on the web, most instructions will show a special tool for doing this. However, that tool cost $70+. I have found that it is much easy (and cheaper) to get the cable off and back on again using a simple screwdriver and zip ties.
So if you need to do this step, here is how to do it without buying that tool: 1) remove the cable by VERY CAREFULLY sliding a flat head screwdriver beneath the tension spring (should be at the bottom). Then, slide the screwdriver in a counter-clockwise motion beneath the cable. Easy Peasy.
Once you have the cable off, carefully pull the seal out of its front groove and tuck it into the machine. Be careful to not rip any of the sensors or hoses loose.
Now, getting it back on: (not as easy, but doable). Sorry that I don’t have pictures to show you this step, but the last time I did this my hands were pretty busy. Note- this step requires two people. 1) loop a zip tie at each end of the tension spring, so as to make handles for pulling. 2) One person should place the cable back in the groove with the left hand at the 12 o’clock and the right hand at the 3 o’clock position, being mindful to hold it in the groove. 3) Gradually, slide the left hand along the cable to the 9 o’clock position. 4) At this point, person number two should begin to pull on the zip ties, being mindful to keep the cable close to the machine (i.e. do not pull away from the machine). 5) as person two pulls apart the tension spring, person one continues sliding both hands down toward the 6 o’clock position. 6) once person two has nearly reached the 6 o’clock position, begin to release the pressure on the zip ties, slowly while maneuvering the tension spring back into its slot. Cut the zip ties off after it is back in place.
Keep Washing Machine Smells from Returning…
There are several different areas to be concerned with when it comes to preventing the mold/mildew/build-up from returning. Let’s address them now and see what options there are to solve these issues.
- The most important step that you can take (and this is really a must) is to reduce the amount of products that you place into your machine. Those high-efficiency detergent and fabric softeners do not really need to be at the concentration that it states. Try reducing your amounts to less than half of the recommended amount.
- You can do what a lot of people are now doing to prevent detergent build-up, and that is to stop using high-efficiency products. Many people are now switching over to using powdered products such as Borax or homemade detergents. They are also changing over to using vinegar in place of fabric softener. Those are both good options.
- You could just by-pass the dispenser drawer by using Pods and Fabric Softener Balls. However, this will only help eliminate the problems in the drawer dispenser.
- You could do what I do: Reduce the amounts to the bare minimum (I still love my Downy) and add back vinegar to each compartment. By pouring vinegar over the top of the detergent and softener, I am thinning it out. Also, the vinegar is a natural scum cutter, so it prevents build-up. (at least for as long as it takes to do my next cleaning). I also add 1/4 cup of Borox on top of the load.
- Don’t use cold water wash cycles. The detergent doesn’t dissolve as well, and this will lead to build-up.
Here, I am going to just tell you what I do that definitely works.
- Remove the drawer at least once each week and spray bleach solution into the opening. Leave the drawer out overnight to allow the solution to dry.
- Wipe down the door seal, inside and out.
- Wipe down the door.
- Follow the cleaning steps from above. (Note – I do not usually see any of the problems shown above when I follow my normal maintenance routine. The scum shown above was allowed to develop intentionally for the purpose of this article).
More Important TIps…
- Remember that moist areas need air circulation to prevent mold. Just as you pull back your shower curtain to let the shower dry, you need to leave the door open on your machine at the end of the day’s laundry cleaning.
- Most of us have small laundry rooms – no bigger than a bathroom. But, what we don’t typically have in our laundry room is an exhaust fan. So, leave the door to your laundry room open as well. This will really help to circulate the air better.
- Remember that your machine will hold a small amount of water in the internal drain line. If you only do laundry once per week, you can run a rinse cycle with bleach at the end of the day. This will leave a bleach-water solution resting in your drain line instead of just regular water. The chlorine will keep mold and mildew from growing.
- Likewise, if you are planning to be away from home for a week or more run a bleach/rinse cycle. Then, drain as much of the water as you can from the emergency drain line before leaving. Upon returning, run another rinse cycle to freshen things up.
- Get into the habit of removing the drawer after each day of washing laundry. Set it aside overnight and let the drawer and the opening get some much-needed air.
- For heavy loads or loads with a lot of body oils/skin cells/sweat, some machines could use an extra bucket of water to really give a good cleaning. If your machine is as stingy as mine is with the water, it can sometimes seem like the cloths barely even get wet. So, for pillows, comforter, bedding, etc. I add extra water to the tub. This insures that all those nasties get washed away.
I hope that this article has provided you with a little something that you haven’t already found elsewhere. If you have any other good tips, please share them with everyone!