How To Clean A Smelly Dishwasher In 5 Easy Steps

Eliminate that mystery dishwasher odor - and avoid future stink with these simple tips.

It’s sort of a peculiar riddle when that which cleans needs to be cleaned itself. It just goes to show that no matter how much we automate jobs, old fashioned elbow grease is still the most honest technique. So if your dishwasher starts to omit an unsavory odor, that’s your cue to pitch in and give your magic chore robot a good scrub behind the ears.

That’s right, even your dishwasher needs a good clean now and again. Don't worry—it’s not as hard as it sounds. We’ve broken it down to 5 easy steps (and we’ve even explained why you need to do all of this).

Why does my dishwasher smell?

Smelly dishwashers can usually be blamed on these common culprits:

  • Loitering food scraps trapped in filters and crevices
  • Grease and oil build-up that could lead to bacteria growth
  • Mildew or mold caused by standing water due to clogged parts or general neglect

How to clean the dishwasher in 5 easy steps

Check out our suggestions for tracking down that strange dishwasher stench and how to most effectively banish odors forever. (Or, at least for now!) Think of it like you’re brushing your dishwasher’s teeth. If you use the best toothpaste and mouthwash, it’ll have fresher breath in no time.

1. Check your dishwasher’s drain filter

First things first – learn how to clean your dishwasher filter. This is often located on the bottom of the machine, so be sure to pull out the bottom rack to best access it. You should be able to pull out the filter and handwash it in the sink with hot, hot water and dish soap. One of the most common causes of stinky dishwashers is all the food particles that get trapped in here and then continue to hang out, wearing out their welcome. Cleaning out the dishwasher’s drain filter will eliminate those nasty food scraps, along with any grease or oil that’s become trapped in there and has begun to grow bacteria and get stinky.

(You know that age-old argument of whether or not it matters to scrape the dishes thoroughly before throwing them in the dishwasher? Well, the better you scrape, the less food waste gunk there is to clog the drain filter. Feel free to use that fun fact as a platform next time you’re having that debate.)

2. Unclog + wipe down interior parts

Next, examine the dishwasher’s spray arm and drain hose to be sure neither of them is clogged with more food particles. Clogging of these essential dishwasher parts could also contribute to unwanted odors because it could mean they’re not functioning properly. If the spray arm(s) or drain hose are clogged, use that scrub brush or even a toothpick to clear the passageways.

Another thing to check is your garbage disposal. You may want to disconnect its hose (dishwashers and garbage disposals often share the same central hose) and clean that out as well. It’s pretty simple, but depending on how often you’ve cleaned it, be fair warned: it could be dirty business.

Then, wipe down the inside of your dishwasher’s walls with a soapy rag to be sure no mildew is building up from food scraps. Be absolutely certain to wipe down the interior of the door, and especially the door lip (that in-between area where the door hinge lives, best accessed when the door is fully opened) and gasket (that handy magnetic strip that prevents water from leaking out of the dishwasher), where sneaky food bits and crud may linger unnoticed. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

3. Drain standing water

If you haven’t used your dishwasher in a while or have been out of town for an extended period of time, standing water in your dishwasher could be a culprit and may produce a nasty smell or cause mold growth. Make sure to get rid of that. Note: Standing water can also be caused by a clogged drain hose, which could need a simple cleaning or a little more TLC from someone who knows business.

4. Run it!

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the intimate, inner ongoings of your dishwasher, it’s time to go full spa mode with natural odor neutralizing agents. If the dishwasher stink is really prominent, you may want to run two separate cycles (sans dishes, of course): First, with white vinegar in lieu of detergent and then again with baking soda, which you can sprinkle liberally on the bottom of the dishwasher before running on a short cycle. Honestly, either one or the other would suffice for mild odors. Do not use both vinegar and baking soda at the same time (because science!). Be sure to run each cycle with hot water. If you’re feeling crazy, you can run a cycle with a cup full of lemon peels that ought to leave your dishwasher smelling ultra-fresh, but make sure the peels don’t end up clogging the drain.

If you hate the smell of vinegar, you can add a couple drops of essential oil into the mix during the first cleaning cycle. We recommend citrus or peppermint, but don’t go overboard. A couple drops will do the trick.

Another quick and easy option is to squeeze some Cascade Dishwasher Cleaner straight into your dishwasher’s detergent receptacle and run it empty. We recommend regularly using this product once a month to reduce limescale and grease buildup and help break down major food particles, which will ultimately eliminate any creepy smells that may be haunting your kitchen.

And whatever you do, we discourage the use of bleach inside your dishwasher, no matter how bad it smells! Bleach is highly corrosive and will erode your precious appliance’s stainless steel.

5. Let it air dry.

Even dishwashers need to breathe a little. Your dishwasher contains a really solid seal. Think about it: It’s an upright box sloshing around steam and water relentlessly for, like, an hour and a half each use. If the seal wasn’t top notch, your kitchen would be a kiddie pool. Because the seal is so strong, residual water can become trapped inside of your dishwasher, never getting the opportunity to even think about drying. So when you’re done running the cleaning cycle, open the dishwasher door and let it air dry completely overnight. You can even give the interior of the door a gentle wipe with a clean, dry rag or towel to kickstart the air-drying process, being sure to get around the edges and the seal.

Create healthy dishwasher habits for your future self

To avoid subsequent mystery odors and regain that “new dishwasher smell,” you can try the following tips:

  • Try using Cascade Platinum Action Pacs to regularly wash your dishes. It’s formulated to prevent hard water filming and keep the inside of your dishwasher looking fresh and clean.
  • Be sure to scrape and rinse dishes carefully before loading them into the dishwasher.
  • Run your dishwasher monthly with Cascade Dishwasher Cleaner, which goes a long way in the dishwasher stink prevention business.
  • Try to avoid running other hot water appliances while using your dishwasher, so that its hot cycles are actually as piping hot as possible, which should kill pesky bacteria and discourage mold growth.
  • Be sure you’re properly loading your dishwasher for the best results, including scraping them off pretty thoroughly and pre rinsing if they’re especially gunky.
  • Dishwashers should be cleaned quarterly (translation: every 3-4 months each year).

A little routine dishwasher maintenance goes a long way — just be sure to refer to your dishwasher manufacturer’s manual or guidelines when you clean, to keep your dishwasher in tip-top shape. You’ll forget your hard work is even paying off (and it will be!) because of the lack of any weird dishwasher smell. Your dishes (and your roommates) will thank you.

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