The Right (And Wrong) Way To Clean Your Dishwasher With Vinegar

Yes, vinegar can actually damage your dishwasher if you don’t use it correctly.

Vinegar is awesome because it can be used to clean practically everything (and then your house smells like yummy chips for an hour afterward!). But there are a few surface types and materials where vinegar should be avoided entirely. Your dishwasher is a bit of a conundrum. You can responsibly clean it with vinegar, but it’s also got specific parts where vinegar should be avoided. It’s not that complicated, and we’ve broken it down for you. So before you go soaking your entire dishwasher in vinegar, read on to learn how to—and how NOT to—clean your dishwasher with vinegar (plus we’ve included some other super simple dishwasher cleaning options that avoid vinegar completely).

How + why NOT to use vinegar to clean your dishwasher

Vinegar’s hearty acidic properties break down grease and grime, but when you’re using it in your dishwasher you’ve got to be careful. Vinegar’s pH measures around 2.0, which isn’t too much higher than that of sulfuric acid, which is super corrosive and generally damages practically everything it touches.

Your dishwasher is an incredible (and expensive!) piece of technology. Think about it: it’s standing upright—filled with hot water, soap and steam—but somehow doesn’t leak a drop into your kitchen. That’s because of its sturdy rubber seals and gaskets. But if these essential rubber bits come in contact with acidic cleaning solutions (e.g., vinegar), it could cause them to break down over time. Vinegar could dry out the dishwasher’s rubber parts and cause them to crack and leak. Not only will this be an annoying and potentially costly repair, but you could end up with a kiddie pool for a kitchen.

Additionally, if the vinegar mixes with salt inside your dishwasher, it might cause a chemical reaction and discolor your metal items, such as flatware, mixing bowls and/or pans.

How + why to use vinegar to clean your dishwasher

You can use vinegar properly to clean your dishwasheryou just don’t want to do it by adding it into the soap dispenser and having it spraying throughout the machine all willy-nilly.

Furthermore, despite how much you might love vinegar, you don’t want to use it in lieu of dishwasher detergent to clean your dishes. Vinegar can wreak havoc on your dishes. Just stick to something safe and effective, like Cascade Platinum ActionPacs for regularly washing your dishes. It’s formulated to prevent hard water filming—and (bonus!) it keeps the inside of your dishwasher looking fresh and clean. (While we’re on the topic, Platinum ActionPacs + Dishwasher Cleaner Action is specifically formulated to clean the dishwasher while it cleans your dishes—so you can feel free to make it easier on yourself, and skip the vinegar entirely …).

So before you try out our vinegar trick to clean your dishwasher, there are a few preliminary dishwasher cleaning steps you should take.

Before you clean your dishwasher, check the filter!

Your dishwasher filter is located on the bottom of the machine, so pull out the bottom rack to access it. Pull out the filter, and hand wash it in the sink with hot, hot water and dish soap (remember: righty tighty, lefty loosey!). Weird dishwasher smells usually come from the food particles trapped in the dishwasher’s drain filter. Ancient food scraps, grease or oil that’s become trapped in there will grow bacteria and get stinky.

Unclog + wipe down interior parts

Peek at your dishwasher’s spray arm and drain hose to check for clogs. Use your scrub brush or a toothpick to clear the passageways so the water can flow properly. Use a soft damp cloth to wipe parts clean.

Run the garbage disposal

Did you know that dishwashers and garbage disposals share the same central hose? Surprise! They do. Quickly run the disposal (while running the faucet!) before running the dishwasher to be sure the hose is clean and clear. We’ve got some more tips for cleaning out your garbage disposal, if that’s also on today’s chore list. (It’s super easy.)

Now, without further delay ... Run your dishwasher with a cup of vinegar in the top rack!

Time to go full spa mode with the vinegar. Vinegar is a natural odor neutralizer, so not only will it help to loosen all of the grit, grime, buildup and grossness inside your dishwasher, but it’ll zap at lingering smells, too.

Here’s what to do:

  • Fill a cup, bowl or mug ⅔ full with white vinegar.
  • Nestle the bowl or cup securely in the top rack of the dishwasher, facing upright.
  • Run your dishwasher (empty!) on a hot cycle.
  • Let the vinegar work its magic. The trick here is to keep that vinegar in the cup—again, not allowing the vinegar to spray all through the machine.
  • If you hate the smell of vinegar, you can add a couple drops of essential oil into the cup or bowl to diffuse the smell. (We like citrus or peppermint!) Just a couple drops should do the trick.
  • Can doesn’t necessarily mean should. While you certainly can use vinegar to help clean out your dishwasher, we have to say—there are much easier (and safer) ways to go about it.

Extra credit tips for cleaning the dishwasher

Wipe the inside of your dishwasher with a soapy rag

If you really want to go the extra mile, give your dishwasher walls a good wipe with a wet rag soaked in your favorite dish soap (ours is Dawn Dish Soap). Wipe down the interior of the door, especially the lip (hint: it’s best accessed when the door is fully opened) and the gasket (that crucial strip that prevents leakage), where crud may build up unnoticed. Any mold or mildew that had made your dishwasher its home should be long gone by now.

Let your dishwasher air dry

Because the dishwasher’s seal is so strong, residual water can become trapped inside your dishwasher. So when you’re done running your cleaning cycle, open the dishwasher door, and let it air dry completely overnight. You might even give the interior of the door a gentle wipe with a clean, dry rag or towel to kickstart the air drying process. (But please don’t trip over the open dishwasher door when you stumble into the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night!)

Looking for an easier clean?

A simple, vinegar-free (and risk-free) solution is to just squirt some Cascade Dishwasher Cleaner straight into your dishwasher’s detergent receptacle and run it empty. We use this product once a month to reduce limescale and grease buildup. It helps to break down major food particles, ultimately ridding the dishwasher of any weird smells that might be lurking in there.

Alternatively, you can sprinkle ½ cup of baking soda all over the floor of the inside of your dishwasher, and run it (empty) on a quick, hot cycle. Skip the vinegar entirely. Baking soda has similar properties to vinegar and should also get the job done.

Pro tip

We definitely discourage the use of bleach inside your dishwasher, no matter how bad it smells! Bleach is highly corrosive and will erode your dishwasher’s stainless steel, plus the important rubber bits.

Clean dishwasher tips

  • Scrape and rinse substantial food chunks from dishes before loading them into the dishwasher. It’s okay to leave a bit of stuck-on food because some detergents use that grime to cling onto and activate their cleaning agents. Stuff like bones, skin, fibrous material, peels or fat should definitely not make it into the dishwasher. (They’ll clog the drain.)
  • We’ve got an entire guide about how to clean your dishwasher, but at a bare minimum, run your dishwasher once a month with Cascade Dishwasher Cleaner. Easy peasy.
  • Avoid running hot water appliances while using your dishwasher so that the hot cycles are as hot as possible. Hot water kills bacteria and discourages mold growth.
  • Load your dishwasher properly for the best results.
  • Dishwashers should be deep cleaned every 3–4 months.

Wasn’t that fun? Now you’ve got the cleanest dishwasher on the block. Mazel tov.

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