If you haven't cleaned your washing machine in a while, you'll most likely notice that it's picked up an unpleasant odor. Often the smell comes from mold and mildew growth in the lid or door and within the rubber gasket around front-load washers, but that odor can also come from detergent buildup, hard-water minerals and laundry soils that remain inside over time.
At the very least, these smells can be off-putting when you are standing in front of your washer, and even worse, scents can pass into your laundry loads, making for laundry that's not so fresh or clean. The simple solution is to make a plan to clean your washing machine on a regular basis.
Becky Rapinchuk, a writer for the website Clean Mama and author of "Simply Clean: The Proven Method for Keeping Your Home Organized, Clean, and Beautiful in Just 10 Minutes a Day," says, "I clean mine weekly after I wash cleaning rags, but aim for monthly at the least."
The cleaning process for a washing machine can be as simple as using your machine's self-cleaning setting, which will clean it efficiently with steam. If your washing machine doesn't have a self-clean setting, you may need to take some extra (but easy) steps.
For a top-loading washer, set it to the highest capacity and hottest setting. Add four cups of white vinegar to the wash cycle. After the wash cycle starts, shut off the machine and allow the vinegar/water solution to sit in the machine for an hour. During this time, you can wipe down the outside of the washer with a microfiber cloth dipped in the hot water/vinegar mixture and clean out the dispensers with the microfiber rag and an old toothbrush to remove buildup. Continue the wash cycle to completion. Then run another wash cycle with hot water; add a cup of baking soda for extra cleaning power.
For a front-load washer, pay special attention to the rubber gasket circling the door of the washer, especially in high-efficiency washers. Because of the shape of the gasket, it's easy for hair, mildew, soap scum and water to remain in the folds of the rubber after a load is complete, creating unpleasant smells and germs. Washer-machine repairmen caution that small items, such as socks, can get caught in the gasket spaces, breaking down and threatening the lifespan of your washing machine. So a careful look and wipe-down of the gasket areas between loads is essential. Spray the gasket with white vinegar, and wipe it down with a damp cloth.
With the gasket clean, set a front-load washer to the highest capacity and hottest setting, then add 2 cups of white cleaning vinegar (6 percent acid) to the detergent dispenser, and run a full cycle. Then run another hot setting cycle with water. You can add a half-cup of baking soda to this second wash if odors persist. When the cycle is done, wipe down the inside drum of the washing machine with a damp microfiber cloth.
Rapinchuk says, "You can clean a top-loading or front-loading machine with white vinegar or bleach. My preference is to use either white vinegar or nonchlorinated bleach because they are safe, all-natural solutions, but some washing-machine manufacturers recommend only using chlorinated bleach. Most importantly, follow the instructions for your specific machine." Rapinchuk warns against the biggest mistake in washing-machine cleaning: "Never put bleach and vinegar in the machine at the same time. Use one or the other."
You may find, as you're looking closely at the inside of your washing machine, that your detergent, bleach and fabric softener compartments contain buildup. Rapinchuk says, "Remove the compartments; soak in warm, soapy water; and scrub with a small brush if necessary. Dry thoroughly and return to the machine."
You can help prevent washing-machine odors by removing wet clothes from the drum right away -- never leaving them for hours or overnight -- and putting them in the dryer or hanging them up to dry. Then, Rapinchuk says, "leave the washing-machine door open after each load to allow it to dry. This will keep it from smelling."