How to Remove the Smell from Your Washing Machine

Updated on December 29, 2021 by Joseph D. Nielson

Table of Contents

Woman looking into washing machine with clothes inside and making a face of despair

As far as we’re concerned, the washing machine has one job to do: make our clothes feel and smell fresh again. It’s the entire reason you invested in a washing machine in the first place. If you wanted a process that would make your clothes smell even worse, you could have simply left the clothes in the hamper!

That’s what is so frustrating about a smelly washing machine. No one wants to go to the laundry room after a hard day of doing chores to find a load of laundry that’s musty, grimy or – even worse – smells like sewage.

For starters, a smelly washing machine can disrupt your chore schedule – many people feel forced to run the load a second time, or make a lengthy trip to the local laundromat. Second, it can potentially compromise clothing that you need to be fresh – like work clothing or formal wear. And finally, even if the odor of the washing machine doesn’t transfer to the clothing, it’s still an unpleasant blemish on an otherwise clean and smell-free home.

If you’re dealing with a musty washing machine or a washing machine that smells like sewage, we have the right guide for you. In this article, we will explore the root causes of smelly washing machines, and offer a few tips for knowing when to give it a clean. Finally, we’ll get to the main event: how to clean your washing machine in a few easy steps.  

What Causes Laundry Machine Odor?

Before we dive into cleaning your washing machine, we figured it would be best to explore the underlying causes. Understanding the mechanisms behind musty home smells and common home issues allows us to tackle them more effectively. That said, if you want the “straight dope” on how to get rid of those smells now, you can feel free to skip ahead to the “How to Deodorize Your Washing Machine” section. We won’t be offended!

Essentially, the same qualities that make a washing machine effective at cleaning also make it a particularly favorable environment for bacterial and fungal growth – namely, wetness and warmth. Bacteria, mold spores and mildew spores love a wet, warm environment, as they require humidity to grow and reproduce.  

Moreover, your washing machine sees a lot of grime pass through it: hair, natural oils, dirt, dead skin, soap scum and more. Ideally, all of that grime flows neatly out of the drain hose, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, grime builds up in the gaskets, seals, filters, drain plugs, dispensers and more.

The mixture of a hospitable bacterial and fungal environment with built-up grime can quickly turn a fresh washing machine into a real stinker.  

When Should You Clean Your Washing Machine?

The short answer to the question above is: Whenever you notice a foul odor. You should always trust your senses when undertaking cleaning and maintenance projects. A good rule of thumb is that if you think something’s off, it’s probably off!

Nevertheless, we think it’s helpful to offer concrete signs. Especially if you keep multiple cleaning appliances and tools in a single room, it can be challenging to tell the difference, for instance, between vacuum cleaner smells, dryer odors and washing machine smells. Here are a few common signs that your washing machine needs a cleaning:

  • You notice an “eggy” smell: A sulfurous smell emanating from the washing machine indicates an excess of bacterial growth. Research shows that most people are hyper-sensitive to sulfur smells, so they should be easy to detect.
  • Your washing machine smells like sewage: It’s normal for your sump pump or septic tank to smell like sewage, but not your washing machine. Get your nose close to the gaskets and seals around the washing machine drum; if they smell at all like sewage, it’s time to break out the cleaning supplies!
  • You detect a damp, mildewy smell: This might indicate that water isn’t effectively airing out between cycles, causing mildew to form in parts of the machine.
  • Your clothes don’t smell fresh after a wash: If you notice a transfer of any of the above odors (sulfur, sewage or mildew) onto your clothing, it’s definitely time to clean.
  • There’s a burning smell coming from the machine: This is more of a mechanical issue than a microorganism problem, but requires action nonetheless. If you notice a smoky, “burning” smell from the washing machine, have the machine serviced by a professional.

As unpleasant as it sounds, get your nose into the drum of the machine and smell for any of the above issues. Your sense of smell is your biggest asset here!

How to Deodorize Your Washing Machine

It’s time to get down to brass tacks and tackle this smelly washing machine once and for all! Here, we take a four-pronged approach:

  • Scrubbing the removable parts
  • Running a Cleaning Cycle
  • Running a Secondary Cleaning Cycle
  • Cleaning the Pipes

You might be able to get away with partially following these steps. For instance, if you notice appreciable improvements to the odour after step two or three, you will not need to clean the pipes.

Let’s get to work!

Hand with gloves using a cloth to scrub the washing machine

The Scrubbing Process

To start, let’s take out all the removable or semi-removable parts and apply some elbow grease.

Remove the detergent dispenser (you may have to slide the entire drawer out) and soak it in soapy water or a bleach solution for half an hour. After a preliminary soak, brush away any visible grime with a toothbrush or sponge. While you wait for the dispenser to soak, check out the empty area where the dispenser slides into the machine; if there is any visible grime, brush it away with the toothbrush or sponge. Re-insert the dispenser.

Next, clean your filters. Ideally, this is something you do every few months (or more), but we understand that busy homeowners don’t always have the time! Follow your manual to determine how best to clean the filter. If you can’t access the manual, a clean basin of hot, soapy water is usually a safe solution.

Finally, peel back the gaskets surrounding the drum entrance and use the same sponge or brush to tackle built-up grime around the seal. These folded areas are notorious for harboring grime, so don’t be surprised to see some black slime or mold!

Running a Cleaning Cycle and Secondary Cycle

With the visible grime out of the way, you can turn your attention to what we call the “holistic clean.” Here, the aim is to run a cleaning cycle intended to flush the machine of any bacteria, mold or mildew lurking in the drum and pipes. We’ll tackle how to clean washing machine top loader and how to clean a front loader too.

There are a couple ways to go about this. You can use a bleach solution or a vinegar/baking soda process. Both methods are effective at killing bacterial and fungal build-up; choose the one you feel most comfortable using.

If you prefer using bleach, grab a standard bottle of chlorine bleach. We need to stress that you should NEVER use chlorine bleach in combination with other cleaning products, so be sure that your machine is clear and free of any other washing machine cleaner.

Add two cups of bleach to a front-loading washing machine (or four cups of chlorine bleach for top-loading machines) and set your machine to the hottest, highest setting. Once the machine fills, pause the cycle and give the bleach fifteen minutes or so to act. Then, resume the cycle as normal. It’s best practice with bleach to run another “clean” cycle to flush out any lingering bleach.

If you prefer a more natural, “old school” approach, reach for the baking soda and vinegar. You’ll remember from our fridge deodorizer DIY article that we love baking soda for its deodorizing potential.  Add a half-and-half solution of baking soda and water (totalling a half cup) to the detergent dispenser. Add two cups of standard distilled white vinegar to the drum (save your fancy apple cider vinegar for salad dressings!). And then set the machine to the hottest, highest setting. There’s no need to run a secondary cycle here, since baking soda and vinegar create a natural non-irritant that poses no risk.

To be safe, let’s stress again: do not use both of these methods back-to-back. Mixing vinegar and bleach creates chlorine gas, which is extremely dangerous to humans.

Cleaning the Pipes

If you try the methods above to no avail, you may need to flush the pipes as well. Especially if your washing machine smells like sewage, the issue might be clogged pipes or p-traps.

Tackle the p-trap according to this handy video, which explains how to remove, flush and clean a p-trap the way an experienced plumber would. If this doesn’t remedy the issue, you may need to call a plumber to clear the drain pipe.

The Bottom-Line

Smelly washing machines are certainly a nuisance, affecting your clothes and making daily chores an unpleasant experience. You want to keep your house smelling good all the time – and that means giving your washing machine some much-needed TLC every once in a while.

Since washing machines harbor various forms of grime in a humid environment, they are susceptible to odor-causing bacterial and fungal growth. To clear your washing machine of foul odors, follow our thorough four-pronged approach.

Clean removable parts with a toothbrush or sponge. Run a cycle of bleach or baking soda-vinegar (but NOT both). Run an optional secondary cycle to flush any cleaning remnants. And, if all else fails, clean the p-trap and drain pipe with the help of a knowledgeable plumber.

You don’t have to suffer through smelly laundry rooms and musty clothes any more. Take charge the Fresh Home Guide way with this easy DIY process.

Joseph and Family
About Joseph D. Nielson

Former journalist and editor for various press groups, I now dedicate my time to reviewing products for the home and family life. When I get time to myself, I enjoy rock climbing, taking my dirt bike for a rip, and most importantly providing my family with the best home possible!