Inside: Sick and tired of your clothes coming out of the washer dirtier than they went in? Learn how to clean a washing machine naturally even when it stinks, is slimy, and is full of mildew.

“Why do my clothes stink?!?”

Is the thought that always came to mind when I would switch my laundry from the washer to the dryer. The clothes smelled like they had been sitting in the washing machine for a week straight.

I just always assumed that washing machines were making our clothes cleaner. That’s their job, after all.

But, instead of being greeted by freshly-washed clothes that smell like you walked straight out of a flower shop, the clothes smelled more like they had spent an afternoon in a lion’s den at the local zoo.

Instead of doing something about it, I would fold the clothes and put them into the closet with a clothes-freshener to try and mask the smell.

(Okay, fine. Maybe the clothes sat in the dryer for 3 days being picked through until I needed the dryer again for another load of laundry… but they eventually got put away.)

It wasn’t until my husband and I moved into a basement suite with a washing machine that looked like it was straight out of the ’60s and about as clean as a pig taking a mud bath that I realized something –

Maybe our clothes weren’t the problem. Maybe it was the washing machine.

(Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner.)

Your washing machine is the problem

Your washing machine gets used day in and day out to clean clothes, linens, sheets, dirty rags, and more.

We expect washing machines to clean, clean, clean.

But when was the last time your washing machine got cleaned? (For me, it was never.)

In my defense, I just assumed that as the washing machine was cleaning my clothes, it was also cleaning itself. The thought that the machine was actually getting moldy and dirty never crossed my mind.

I didn’t know that mold grew in washing machines that got used regularly. I didn’t know that bad smells would build up and leech into my clothes.

As time went on, our beloved washer was getting moldy, mildew-y, stinky, and simply dirty. And so were our clothes.

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Do I need to clean my washing machine?

The answer to this question is simple – when’s the last time your washing machine got cleaned?

Never. Or, over a year ago.

Clean it now.

Think about it this way – the clothes that get put into your washing machine are filled with dirt, food, grime, hair, bad odors, and just about anything else. All that stuff gets washed off our clothes and goes… where?

Where does the dirt go in a washing machine?

I just assumed that everything got washed off the clothes and went straight out the drain with the water and laundry detergent.

But that’s not always true.

Some of the dirt gets washed out the drain, but a lot of the dirt and grime gets left behind in the crevices of the washing machine. And that is when bacteria, mold, and mildew start to grow in the washer.

So yes – even if your washing machine isn’t making your clothes smell bad, if you can’t remember the last time it was cleaned, it’s probably time to clean it.

Not only does taking time to clean your washing machine help your clothes become cleaner (which is really important), but it will also help your machine have a longer life, since it won’t have to be working so hard each time it washes.

Still not conviced? Here are some quick reasons why you need to wash your washing machine…

How to clean a top loading washing machine

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(This post is a step-by-step guide for how to clean a top loading washing machine. The steps vary slightly for front-loading machines. You can learn how to clean a front loading washing machine here.)

Why should you clean your washing machine?

  • Washing machines hold moisture. Even when washers aren’t in use, they are damp, which means they are ideal grounds for quick bacteria growth.
  • Unpleasant odors. The damp nature of washing machines encourages bacteria growth, mold, and mildew. All these things work together to cause bad odors.
  • Unclean clothes. Everything that’s growing inside your washing machine gets washed around in the water when it’s washing a load of laundry – which means this bacteria will likely end up on your clothes, even though you can’t see it. And the bad odors can also get transferred to your clothes, which would be why your laundry doesn’t come out with that fresh laundry smell that we all love so much.
  • Dirt gets left behind. If you’re washing particularly dirty clothes, some of that dirt is going to get left behind in the different crevices of the washing machine and come out to play next time you throw a load of laundry in.
  • Build-up can cause damage. The build up of not only dirt, but also hard water deposits from your water and build up from your laundry detergent can cause your machine to wear out faster by having to work harder. (The build up may occur in visible places, as well as less-visible places like the pipes.)

How to clean a washing machine

See, it took my husband and I moving into a place where the washing machine was filled with slime, dust bunnies, dirt, detergent buildup, and unknown substances before I finally realized that “hey, maybe washing machines DO need to be cleaned,”.

Learn from me – don’t let your washer get that bad before you clean it. If it hasn’t been cleaned in a year or more, clean it now, even if it doesn’t look like it needs it. (It needs it. I promise.)

Before we dive into the 10-step process of cleaning a washing machine the RIGHT way, there are a few things we need to go over, mainly, we need to address the issue of using bleach to clean your washing machine (because there are so many people who recommend doing this, but there is one big reason why you don’t want to do this).

Bleach and your septic system

How to clean a washing machine with bleach… or if you even should.

Just do any Google search of “how to clean a washing machine” and one of the first “solutions” is to clean your washing machine using bleach.

Before you do that – STOP. Wait, and finish reading this section to learn why you shouldn’t use bleach to clean and what you can do instead (that works just as well).

The main purpose of bleach is to kill bacteria. Which can be great and is the exact reason why bleach is such a popular cleaning product. However, bleach can set you on a fast-track to septic system problems.

Your septic system relies on bacteria to break down the solids in the tank, and without the bacteria to break it down, you could experience septic failures and backups. (Which are both something you want to avoid.)

Small amounts of bleach every once in a while shouldn’t be enough to kill all the bacteria and harm your septic system.

But, to keep things on the safe side, I’ve decided to stay away from using bleach to clean and I found a different solution that works just as well and doesn’t cause harm to my septic system.

“Why shouldn’t you use bleach to clean your washing machine?”

Because all the water and cleaners that you use to clean your washing machine need to go somewhere – and unless you’re going to scoop everything out of the machine and dump it in the yard (which would cause damage to your lawn), everything you use to clean your washing machine is going straight down the drain. Straight into your septic system.

I have personally chosen to stay away from bleach and use more natural products for cleaning.

If you aren’t worried and prefer to clean with bleach, you can go back and search for a different article that covers cleaning with bleach. No hard feelings. 🙂 If you decide to stay…

Here you’re going to learn how to clean your washing machine with baking soda and vinegar, not bleach.

“WAIT! I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to use bleach and I’ve already sent cups of it down the drain. What do I do now?!?”

If you’ve already used bleach to clean your washing machine or you’ve sent bleach down the drain cleaning other things, one thing you can do to try and encourage bacteria re-growth in your septic tank is to flush a quarter cup of dry baking yeast down the toilet to help rebuild and grow the bacteria your septic tank needs to operate smoothly.

Using bleach every once in a while probably won’t be enough to cause any harm to your septic system.

However, if you’re worried and want to play it safe, this is the dry baking yeast you can use to help bacteria start growing again.

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How to Clean a Washing Machine with Vinegar

Supplies you need to clean a washing machine naturally

  • Cleaning grade white vinegar. This stuff is an all-natural disinfectant, deodorizer, and degreaser. Which is exactly why it makes such an awesome natural alternative to regular cleaning products.
  • Baking soda. (Not to be confused with washing soda, which is used for laundry.) Baking soda eliminates odors – instead of just masking them like air fresheners do – it fights stains, and breaks down dirt and grime, which is exactly why it’s such an important component for cleaning a washing machine the natural way.
  • Microfiber cleaning cloth. Be sure you have at least two of these on hand. You may need more depending on how dirty your machine is. Any old cleaning rag would work, however, I choose to use these microfiber cleaning cloths since they actually pick up dirt and grim (instead of just pushing it around like normal rags) and they leave behind a bacteria-free surface.
  • Cleaning bucket. Use any old cleaning bucket (I use an old ice cream pail). Make sure it’s not a good bucket that you use for anything other than cleaning, because it’s going to get pretty grime-y. 
  • Sponge. You’ll want one of these sponges, with a heavy-duty abrasive side and a soft side.
  • An old toothbrush. You’re not going to want to get this toothbrush confused with your other toothbrushes by the time you’re done with it. (You may just want to throw it out.)
  • Rubber gloves. This supply is optional, especially since you’ll be working with a homemade all-natural cleaner. However, some washing machines can be pretty gross, which is when you may want to wear gloves.

On to the steps…

STEP 1

Ensure your washing machine is empty.

STEP 2

Set your washer to run the largest load with the hottest water, for the longest cycle. Do NOT add any clothes or detergents to this cycle.

How to clean a washing machine - how to clean a top load washing machine. Hot wash, long wash, high water.

STEP 3

Add 3 to 4 cups of white vinegar straight into the washing barrel and press start. Allow the vinegar and water to mix in the machine for a minute while you prepare the next step.

how to clean a top loading washing machine. Add 3 to 4 cups white vinegar
Get your supplies:

STEP 4

Open the lid to stop the machine and add 1/2 cup baking soda into the vinegar water in the machine. Close the lid and allow the machine to work for another 1 to 2 minutes to mix everything together.

How to clean a top loading washing machine. Add 1/2 cup baking soda

STEP 5

Open the lid again to stop the machine and let everything sit for an hour, without the machine running.

Allowing the vinegar/baking soda mixture to sit in the machine will work loose all the dirt and grime that is stuck on, specifically in unreachable places like behind the washer barrel and in the tubes.

STEP 6

While the cleaning solution is sitting in the washer for the hour, take your anti-bacterial microfiber cloth and, dipping it in the cleaning solution in the washing machine, use it to wipe the exterior and top of the machine.

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Wipe the top and sides of the machine along with the lid, the knobs, and the interior ring (pictured), as well as any crevices.

How to clean a top loading washing machine photos. Open the lid to pause the wash and wipe down the exterior

PRO TIP:

This is where using your old cleaning toothbrush comes in handy, because it can fit in cracks and crevices that your fingers can’t.

How to clean a top loading washing machine. Scrub with an old toothbrush.

STEP 7

As you’re wiping down the machine, remove 2 cups of vinegar/baking soda/water from the washer barrel and place it into your cleaning bucket to use later.

how to clean a top loading washing machine - cleaning supplies. Remove 2 cups vinegar, baking soda, water cleaning solution
Supplies:

STEP 8

Once the hour has passed, close the lid and allow the machine to finish the wash cycle.

STEP 9

Now that the cycle is complete and all the water has drained out, take your cleaning cloth and sponge and, using the vinegar/baking soda/water cleaning solution you scooped out of the washing machine earlier, scrub the inside of the machine.

Be sure to scrub all the way from the bottom of the barrel to the top to remove hard water deposits and detergent rings.

How to clean a top loading washing machine. Scrub the washing barrel

STEP 10

Now that the machine has been scrubbed and wiped inside and out, run one last hot water short rinse cycle through the washer with no detergents or cleaning solutions. This rinse cycle will remove any grime that got loosened off with scrubbing.

BONUS:

Most washing machines have lint filters that can be easily pulled out and washed, too. Just be sure to clean the filter while the washing machine is off so it doesn’t get damaged by running without a filter.

To clean the filter simply locate it (most top loading washing machine filters are located near the agitator, though if you aren’t sure where yours is you can do a quick Google search with the brand of washer you have), pull it out, pick the lint and grime off of it and rinse it under hot water, rubbing away all the sediment.

Then, place it back into the washing machine. Don’t forget this part! Your washer could become damaged if you run it without the filter in place.

And now, you’re done!

Congratulations! You just successfully deep cleaned your washing machine. Now you’re ready to deep clean the rest of your house.

Your washer is now ready to be used and to really clean your clothes without transferring grime, dirt, bacteria, or bad odors onto them.

How to clean a washing machine before and after

How to keep your washing machine smelling fresh

Now that you’ve successfully learned how to clean a washing machine and how to get rid of smells from the washing machine, you’re going to want to learn how to keep it looking and smelling good so that you don’t have to go back and clean it again next week.

You can keep your washing machine smelling fresh for months to come by doing one simple thing:

Keeping the door open when it’s not in use.

Keeping the door open will allow your washing machine to dry out as much as possible in between uses and allow fresh air to enter in.

When the washing machine door/lid is closed when not in use, it traps moisture in and encourages the growth of bacteria and bad odors.

To eliminate your machine from becoming a breeding ground for bacteria, keep the door open as much as possible and keep the air around it as fresh as can be (open up windows near the washer if you have any to allow fresh air into the room).

Now that you’ve learned how to clean a washing machine… it’s time to get started. Just knowing that your washer isn’t actually cleaning your clothes right now should be enough encouragement to put cleaning your washing machine at the top of your to-do list.

If you didn’t know how to clean a washing machine…

If before this article you didn’t know how to clean a washing machine… or even that your washing machine needed to be cleaned, chances are you have friends and family members who are in the same boat.

Feel free to share this post with them so they can learn how to naturally clean their washing machines, too.

If you made it all the way through this post only to remember you have a front load washing machine, not top load, head here to learn how to clean a front loading washing machine.

And hey – did you notice that you didn’t have to go out and buy and specialty cleaners or detergents to deep clean your washing machine? In fact, you likely didn’t even have to spend a penny to get a pristine, clean washing machine.

Pretty neat, hey?

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How to clean a washing machine… the easy way

Now it’s your turn… do you have any washing machine cleaning tips hidden up your sleeve? Did you even know washing machines are supposed to be cleaned? Feel free to share your tips and thoughts with us in the comments below!

Related articles you may like:
How to Clean a Front Loading Washing Machine
4 Hacks That Will Make You a House Cleaning Genius