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How to clean your washing machine: 6 easy steps for fresh laundry every time

Keeping your washing machine sparkling clean needn’t be a chore. Follow our simple steps and tried-and-trusted cleaning tips from Mumsnet users to eliminate build-up and foul smells.

By Victoria David | Last updated Feb 16, 2024

A picture of a washing machine between shelving with clothes washing inside.

Learning how to clean your washing machine thoroughly and correctly is well worth the effort. After all, they are truly the workhorse of the family household, and whilst cleaning it might not be top of your to-do list, we’re here to explain (with the expert help of our Mumsnet users) why it should be. Like all home appliances, from the best dehumidifier to the top tumble dryer, your washing machine needs regular TLC, even though it might appear clean from the outside.

If you’ve ever opened the door following a wash to a gust of musty, sour-smelling steam and a collection of gunk in your gasket’s seal, you’ll recognise the first signs that your washing machine is in desperate need of some care and attention. Through a combination of laundry detergent build-up, fabric softener residue, bacteria and mould, the inner workings can become a breeding ground that reduces the efficiency and effectiveness of your machine. Ultimately, this can not only make your clothes smelly and cause black stains but can also significantly reduce the lifespan of your machine, resulting in expensive repair costs or replacements.

If that sounds hellish to you, you needn’t fret because we’ve consulted the experienced parents on our Mumsnet forums, gathered their best cleaning tips and consolidated them into these six simple steps. Whether you've got a typical washing machine that is front loading or a rarer top-loading model, we’ve got the best methods for both types, so you can guarantee that your family will have an empty laundry basket and fresh, clean clothes every time.

How to clean your washing machine

Woman carrying pile of washing

1. Check the owner’s manual

Before doing anything to your washing machine, check the owner’s manual. Yes, we know this is boring, and yes, this is time-consuming. However, the risks of not doing so far outweigh the inconvenience as you may cause damage internally and incur expensive repairs for your washing machine if you don’t.

In your owner’s manual, you will find critical instructions from the manufacturer on what products are safe to use on your machine, diagrams of compartments and other valuable maintenance information. Whether you have a freestanding model, an integrated washing machine or a washer-dryer, it'll likely have appliance-specific advice you won’t want to miss. Trust us, save yourself the hours of frustration and the money on a replacement. Although, if you can’t remember where you stashed it, look for the manual online, as many manufacturers provide a PDF copy.

What Mumsnet users say

“My filter is behind a little square panel on the front. You had to remove the bottom front panel on my old machine to get to its filter. Check the manual to see where yours is.” dementedpixie

2. Start with the detergent dispenser drawer

Whether your washing machine is top-loading or front-loading, your detergent drawer can be out of sight and out of mind, meaning people often forget to clean it. Believe us when we say the first time you remove it, it will shock you how much residue and mould can come from your best laundry detergent for babies or your favourite fabric softener.

To clean it:

  • Remove the dispenser draw by locating its release lever or button (usually, there is an indicating symbol, but if not, see step one).

  • In the sink, take the drawer apart and rinse it with hot water.

  • Using an anti-bacterial spray, scrub the drawer using an old toothbrush before rinsing it again in hot water.

  • Remember to clean out the drawer’s compartment too, using hot water and an anti-bacterial spray.

  • To finish, spray the drawer and compartment with the best mould remover to prevent further growth. Make sure you follow the remover's instructions carefully.

If you can’t remove your detergent drawer, fill it with your cleaning product of choice and allow it to soak whilst you clean other parts of your washing machine. Mumsnet users particularly recommend white vinegar, bleach, Zoflora or soda crystals.

What Mumsnet users say

“I take the dispenser drawer out and give it a good clean with an old toothbrush, then clean inside where the drawer goes. Replace and pour some bleach in, then put a wash on for 90 degrees. I have to do this every couple of months because I wash the pets’ blankets and toys often.” PearlandRubies194

“I also clean the drawer and the bit above when you take the drawer out with a mould and mildew spray and put it on a 90 wash with a WM cleaner or bio powder.” Jango

3. Clean the filter

Another hidden compartment in your washing machine is the filter - where all the forgotten pennies, lost hair grips, tissue shreds, and pet hair collect. We’re not going to lie, this part is pretty grim. You can find the filter inside the vertical agitator on a top-loading machine and behind a door along the bottom on a front-loading machine. However, not all have this feature, so here's another reminder to check your owner’s manual to save you hours of frustration whilst furiously muttering under your breath.

To clean it:

  • Prep the area by laying down old towels with some paper towels to hand. Removing the filter will release stinking, stagnant water (this should only last a few seconds), and the last thing you want is to be left kneeling in it.

  • Remove the filter, and rinse it in hot water to wash away any gunk and re-discovered objects from pockets.

  • Use a toothbrush and your preferred cleaning spray to scrub it clean.

  • Remember to clean its compartment, too.

  • Finish by treating both the filter and its compartment with mould remover if needed.

What Mumsnet users say

“I've found that cleaning the filter and draining the washing machine manually to get rid of the standing water solves the problem.”Jango

“Check the filter as if that's clogged, it can cause problems - my machine was very smelly recently, and I discovered the filter was completely blocked with hair grips, tissue, money etc.” Nowisthemonthofmaying

Woman using washing machine

4. Don't neglect the gasket seal

The seal around your washing machine’s gasket is the perfect place for mould, mildew and bacteria to hide. Ideally, you should wipe down this space after every wash. However, we’re all busy people and know this isn’t always feasible.

To clean it:

  • Use a microfibre cloth, warm soapy water and your all-purpose cleaner to wipe down the seal, ensuring you clean the inside of the door.

  • Then, once this is dried, spray it with a mould and mildew remover spray and wipe it down again to prevent regrowth.

What Mumsnet users say

“Give the bits you've shown here a good scrub with an old toothbrush, and then rinse with a sports bottle (so you can squeeze it and get a jet of water which rinses it down). Next, have a wipe around the rubber door seal, so you can throw it away - it might well be grotty! After that, stick it on the hottest wash that your machine does and empty it. You will probably notice a difference. If, after that, you don't think much has changed, use a washing machine cleaner.” mineofuselessinformation

5. Scrub the drum and interior

Cleaning the drum of your washing machine is arguably one of the most important parts of the process, as this is where your laundry sits, soaks and rinses, transferring any stink and residue onto your clothes. However, the process is pretty similar and straightforward for all types of washing machines.

To clean it:

  • Using a brush and your preferred cleaning product, give the drum a good scrub to loosen any dirt, mould and build-up.

  • Then, using the best washing machine cleaner of your choice, set your machine on a hot cycle (60 degrees+) or its self-cleaning programme and let it run while empty.

  • On a top-loading washing machine, you can pause the cycle once filled and let it soak to really loosen up any hard-to-reach spaces.

  • Afterwards, set another rinse and spin to ensure that any chemical traces are thoroughly washed away before you pop in your next wash load.

What Mumsnet users say

“I use half a cup of bleach on a hot wash. I've tried all sorts of things, but this is the only thing that I find works.” Needcoffeeimmediatley

“Get some good old-fashioned washing soda, cheap as chips it is. Fling a few handfuls into the drum. Set the otherwise empty machine to do a 90° wash. Behold! A sparkling clean washing machine.” DramaAlpaca

“Washing machines we've had in the past few years have had cleaning cycles. Basically, as stated above, a 90° wash cleans out the crap that does clog up the internals and eliminates smells.” Dangleclack

6. Last step! Clean the outside

Your final step is to clean the exterior of your washing machine, and whilst this might seem purely cosmetic, it can go a long way to keeping its displays and controls in good working order.

To clean it:

  • Remove the control knobs and wash them in the sink if you can. If you can’t, use a toothpick covered with a piece of paper towel to clean hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.

  • Wipe down the outside of the washing machine using a cloth and some anti-bacterial spray or all-purpose cleaner.

  • Optional: With some help (and if possible!), move your washing machine out of its space so you can clean behind, underneath and the sides of your washing machine. While there, it is worth checking for any damage or wear and tear on your water supply hose to avoid disastrous leaks and water damage.

What Mumsnet users say

“My lovely old cleaner used to use a toothpick with a kitchen towel and a wipe on the end…" Petronellas

Top tips for cleaning your washing machine

  • Check whether you live in a hard water area: Limescale can damage all laundry appliances, from your steam iron to your clothes steamer. In your washing machine, limescale wreaks havoc, coating components and clogging up pipes, leaving your laundry stiff and itchy. In the long term, this can reduce your appliances' lifespan. We recommend checking if you live in a hard water area; if you do, you should install the best water softener to combat it.

  • Use the right detergent: If you have a high-efficiency washing machine, only use HE-approved detergent to prevent damage.

  • Wipe down the seal: Keep an old tea towel nearby and wipe down the seal after every wash to absorb any excess water, as this can lay stagnant in the seal.

  • Don’t close the door: Leave your washing machine door and detergent drawer open after use to allow air to circulate and dry out any remaining moisture after every wash.

  • Keep old toothbrushes: Perfect for cleaning hard-to-reach places, repurpose old toothbrushes for use around your home.

  • Measure your detergents: Whilst free pouring detergent might seem like it is saving you precious seconds, in the long run, it is adding minutes to cleaning your washing machine. To prevent excessive build-up, measure the correct amount of detergent and softener using a measuring cup or jug.

  • Clean the debris trap once a week: If you frequently forget to check pockets before you bung them in the drum, you’ll need to empty your filter at least once a week to stop it from clogging up.

  • Use a sports bottle to rinse down compartments: One Mumsnet user recommended squeezing a sports bottle inside for rinsing narrow, small compartments.

What Mumsnet users say

“Give the bits you've shown here a good scrub with an old toothbrush, and then rinse with a sports bottle (so you can squeeze it and get a jet of water which rinses it down).” mineofuselessinformation

“I leave the drawer and door open every night so it dries out. Wipe the draw and inside after I've used it and do a 90-degree rinse once a week.” CileyMayRhinovirus

Read next: Learn how to dry your laundry thoroughly, using our guides to the best heated clothes airer for indoor use, and the best rotary washing line and clothes pegs for outdoor drying.

How do I know if my washing machine needs cleaning?

The signs your washing machine is in desperate need of some TLC are:

  • Nasty smells and odours: An unpleasant odour caused by a build of bacteria and mould. Aside from smelling awful, mould can cause respiratory problems and trigger allergies.

  • Residue: Around the door seal and inside the drum will be a black, slimy residue formed by laundry detergent and fabric softener that hasn’t rinsed away.

  • Black marks: Due to the residue, mould and even limescale, your clothes may have black spots.

What makes a washing machine smelly?

The smells emitting from your washing machine are caused by the bacteria, mould and rotting debris accumulating inside the machine's interior. From the detergent drawer to the gasket seal, the nooks and crannies become a breeding ground for microorganisms.

How often should I clean my washing machine?

You should properly clean your washing machine once every three months, or more if you know it is used heavily (hello, parents of newborns and toddlers!), but regular maintenance including using a cleaning cycle about once a week is also important to help keep the grime away.

What is the best washing machine cleaner? 

According to Mumsnet users, the best washing machine cleaner is the HG Deep Clean and Service. It's the highly-effective re-release of their original product, the HG Service Engineer.

"HG Service Engineer for washing machines and dishwashers is the absolute best stuff; you'll find it on Amazon and other places." Laska3Meryl

Is bleach or vinegar better for cleaning a washing machine?

Whilst many Mumsnet users and experts swear by the cleaning power of white vinegar (and baking soda), it's ultimately not as thorough as a specific washing machine cleaner or bleach when it comes to bacteria and mould. That is not to say you can’t still use them, but you should also use a stronger product as part of the cleaning regime. Just make sure you follow the instructions carefully and take appropriate safety precautions with chemicals.

Can you use dishwasher tablets to clean your washing machine?

Across the internet and our forums, a popular suggestion is to use dishwasher tablets to clean your washing machine. Whilst many claim it has left their appliance sparkling clean, we advise against this method for two reasons.

  1. Some manufacturers warn against using them and it can void your warranty if you do.

  2. The chemicals may not be safe for prolonged use on your washing machine, leading to costly repairs.

For now, we’d suggest sticking to traditional cleaners and remedies to avoid unnecessary expenses in the future.

Can vinegar damage a washing machine?

Vinegar is safe to use in your washing machine as long as you don’t use excessive amounts, as this can lead to damage to the rubber seals and hoses, which can later cause leaking and water damage.