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How to Clean a Smelly Dishwasher

Once considered a luxury, a dishwasher is now standard in most homes—and sometimes even a potential buyer’s deal breaker when missing. This appliance makes cleanup in the kitchen so much easier. But every now and then, dishwashers harbor a rather unpleasant odor, and getting rid of that smell isn’t always as easy as it seems it should be. If your dishwasher’s funky smell is causing embarrassment or even making you think twice about cleaning your dishes with an appliance that smells so bad, read on. Our cleaning experts at Merry Maids® have some tips for banishing icky odors and keeping your dishwasher smelling fresh and clean.

What Causes a Smelly Dishwasher?

It may seem counterintuitive that an appliance designed to keep your dishes sparkling clean would ever get dirty. After all, you run hot soapy water through it every time you run a cleaning cycle. However, consider your bathroom tub or shower: Just because you’re getting clean doesn’t mean dirt, hair, and soap scum aren’t left behind. In the same way, bits of food and particles of oil and grease washed off your dishes sometimes stick around after the cleaning cycle has finished, and this accumulated debris can start to stink.

Food particles build up and cause trouble in a few different places in the dishwasher:

  • The filter or screen

  • Sprayer arm ports

  • The bottom lip inside the door

Depending on how often you run the dishwasher and how heavily soiled your dishes are, these areas should be cleaned every so often to prevent unpleasant smells.

How to Clean the Drain Filter, Spray Arm, and Door Lip

If the smell in your dishwasher has persisted for some time and you’ve never cleaned the drain screen or filter, the sprayer arm ports, or inside the door lip before, beware: It may not be pretty. In fact, it might be kind of gross. But once you know what needs to be done and how to do it, regular cleaning can prevent food particles from building up and keep odors at bay.

Step 1: Clean the Drain Filter

Some dishwashers have self-cleaning filters—sometimes called hard-food disposers—that act as a kind of garbage disposal for food particles. You shouldn’t need to worry about buildup with these. However, manual filters are more common and do require cleaning. If you’re not sure which you have, either check the owner’s manual (hint: you can also search online for the make and model if you no longer have the manual) or take a look at the machine itself. Remove the lower rack and locate the drain on the bottom of the dishwasher toward the back. Manual filters are usually cylindrical and have arrows to indicate how to remove them.

To clean a manual filter:

  • Remove the cylindrical filter and, if applicable, the flat filter under it

  • Wash the filter(s) in warm soapy water, using a bottle brush or old toothbrush to get inside crevices where particles may hide

  • Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry

  • Use a damp cloth or sponge to clear any food or debris from under or around the dishwasher drain before replacing the filter

  • Return the filter(s), making sure to lock it in place

This step is often enough to eliminate the source of bad smells. If this solves the issue, your dishwasher is ready to get back to work.

Step 2: Clean the Spray Arm Ports

Food and other gunk can also become lodged in the small holes of the spray arm. Not only can this cause odors, it may also prevent your dishwasher from cleaning your dishes properly. Remove and inspect the lower spray arm and, if applicable, the upper spray arm for any debris.

To clean the spray arms, remove them from the dishwasher and simply wash with warm soapy water. Check the ports where the water jets out for any blockage, removing food particles or other bits with a toothpick, tweezers, or other small pointy object. Replace the spray arm(s) and continue to Step 3, or simply resume normal operation.

Step 3: Clean the Bottom Lip behind the Door

One last place food may collect—and be overlooked—is the bottom lip where the dishwasher door meets the bottom basin. Open the door all the way and, with a damp microfiber cloth or soapy sponge, scrub away any accumulated sludge, grime, or food particles trapped on the lip between the door and the wash basin. Pro tip: Give the bottom edge of the door a good wipe-down while it’s open!

Using Vinegar and Baking Soda to Eliminate Stubborn Odors

Once you’ve cleaned away any food debris from the filter, spray arm, and bottom door lip and run a normal cleaning cycle, your smelly dishwasher should be smelling a lot better. However, even in a clean dishwasher, stubborn odors may linger. This is especially true when cleaning dishes used to cook particularly pungent foods, like fish or garlic. To neutralize these smells, try this vinegar and baking soda method—just don’t put them in at the same time or you’ll have a science fair volcano erupting from your dishwasher.(Click here to read our tips for getting rid of these cooking smells outside of your dishwasher!)

Follow these steps to neutralize unpleasant odors in your dishwasher:

  • Fill a dishwasher-safe bowl or glass with distilled white vinegar (approximately 1 cup)

  • Place it on the top rack in an otherwise empty dishwasher

  • Without adding detergent, run a high-heat wash cycle

  • Once the cycle is complete, remove the bowl or glass

  • Sprinkle 1 cup of baking soda in the bottom basin

  • Run a second high-heat wash cycle without adding detergent

That’s it! Bonus: This combo also cuts through any greasy or oily film lining the inner walls of your dishwasher and removes mineral deposits caused by hard water.

A Word of Caution about Vinegar and Bleach

Vinegar and chlorine bleach are two popular household cleaners. However, when combined they create dangerous chlorine gas, which can be fatal at high levels. Before using vinegar to clean your dishwasher, check the ingredients of your dishwasher detergent to make sure it doesn’t contain chlorine. If it does, thoroughly wipe out the detergent tray with a damp cloth or even run a rinse cycle to avoid mixing the residue with vinegar.

How to Avoid a Stinky Dishwasher Going Forward

Banish the smelly dishwasher problem for good by keeping up with regular cleaning. If you use your dishwasher daily or several times a week, the filter should be cleaned once a month, while the spray arms and door lip should be checked every couple months. Use the vinegar and baking soda method for a quick fix or to nix occasional pungent smells.

House cleaning services from our Merry Maids® team are just as convenient and timesaving as your dishwasher! Reach out today for a free estimate and give yourself the gift of time.