Washing machines are pretty simple devices.  They take water in, take soap and laundry in, soak and wash clothes, and then discharge the water.  But a washing machine that has just a few problem spots can really stink.

If you are using your washing machine, and it smells like something died in it, you have a problem brewing. I had the same problem, and it was getting worse and worse over a few months. It was doubly bad because my cat’s litterbox is in the laundry room. I don’t really like things smelling like a barn, especially in a small house. Consequently, I needed to get rid of the stench in my washing machine.

Even newer washing machines will get a stinky smell after enough washes — it is just a factor of having a piece of equipment whose job is to house water, combined with seals whose job it is to trap water.  Water creates smells, and washing machines have many little spots where water or moisture can accumulate.  If you have a smelly washing machine, there are some steps you can take (a couple easy ones, and one more difficult ones) that can take care of the problem.

Top-loading vs. High Efficiency Front Loading Washing Machines

I personally have a Top-loading machine, though a lot of the advice here carries over. The biggest thing that both have in common (and something you should get in the habit of doing) is leaving the door open after you’ve done a load of laundry. That allows things to air out, and the bits of liquid left will dry out prior to bacteria growth for the most part.

Top-loaders have fewer rubber seals on them, because the water is at less risk of coming out if there is a leak in the door. Front-loaders, while they are considered more efficient, require more of a sealing system. After all, if that door springs a leak, your floor is ruined along with any rooms underneath it. Because of that, front-loaders have a few extra spots where water can sit and fester. While the seals are vitally important, they are common culprits for causing a smell.

Best Steps to Get Rid of a Stinky Washing Machine

First, make sure you’ve got a brush, some cleaner of some sort (something that’s anti-bacterial), and some time.

These are necessary tools because you’ll be scrubbing certain parts of the machine, mainly where you put the soap. This is something I didn’t really need to do, since I use powdered detergent. I’m also a bachelor so things like “fabric softener” or “bleach” or “timed release cleaners” confuse me. Large load, cold water/rinse, and a tablespoon of detergent and I was good to go. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have to brush out these spots on your machine. Loosening up the crap will help with removal.

Having a plastic bucket and some rubber gloves on hand isn’t a terrible idea too, although not mission-critical.

Fortunately, these supplies don’t cost much.  You might have them on hand, and if you don’t, a $10 trip to the hardware store will get you setup.  We are not talking about high-end tools here.  If you prefer ordering on Amazon, a medium-stiffness utility brush, like this, works fine.

Next, Take out the softener dispenser (mine was on the center top of the agitator), and scrub it out.

Check the spot where it goes in too, that way you’ve cleaned it out appropriately just in case you’ve got some mold a-growin’. Give it a good scrub with cleaner. Sometimes you may have to let things soak a bit, or let the spray sit…that’s fine.  In fact, letting it sit in hot, soapy water for a while is a pretty good idea.  It will make begin to break any mold or gunk up, and make it easier to scrub.

Give it a good scrub at the appropriate time. Put the dispensers back in.

Then, next step will depend on High Efficiency Front Loading or Top loading machines.

For High Efficiency Front Loading machines, put in about a half cup of bleach (liquid) into the detergent dispenser, and then run on a normal cycle with hot water. When that’s done, wipe down the inside of the machine, looking for any mold growth around the rubber gaskets (those can be cleaned like the dispenser, you just won’t take them out). For top loading machines, I put in about a half quart of bleach into the drum, then filled it with hot water. I let it sit that way for about an hour (either leave the lid open, or pull the dial out (or on mine, push it in)), then ran through the rest of the cycle.

On a Front Loader, Wash the door Seal

A critical important step if you are using a front-loader is to thoroughly clean the door seal.  Front-loading washers present a unique issue, in that their door seal is ideal for harboring mold.  This is the rubber-ish seal that presses up against the door when it is closed.

Wash this seal frequently, and inspect it for mold growth.  You can do this while dry or wet, but it involves taking a rag (probably one that you don’t care about) and getting in between all of the creases and folds, and rubbing really well.  You can use a cleaner, but not one that is so harsh it will harden or weaken the rubber.  A seal that becomes dry or brittle could stop doing its job, which is a much bigger problem than a little smell.  You will want to really unfold the seal and get every little crevasse.  That way, you know it is as good as new.

Once you have cleaned 100% of the seal, let it air out with the door open until fully try.

Newer and higher-end washers also have a “clean” cycle that can help clean the seal, but we prefer to take care of matters the old fashioned way, by hand.

That should get rid of most of the mildew and mold and stale/rotten smells.

What you may want to do next is run a cycle of vinegar through the washing machine. NOTE: DO NOT COMBINE VINEGAR WITH BLEACH. I put in about a half quart of vinegar into the drum of my machine, filled it with hot water, and let it sit for an hour. Then finished the cycle.


What if my washer smells worse after I clean it?

Sometimes, you will notice that your washer actually smells a bit when you are running it post-cleaning.  This makes sense, because you have probably loosened up a bunch of gunk, mold, debris, and gas that needs to work its way out.  Kind of like when the dentist cleans your teeth, you need to have all the crud they got off your pearly whites get sucked up by the dental vaccum.

Give your washer a couple cycles to flush everything out, one with no load in it, and another with a low-risk load like socks.  After a couple cycles, it should smell better.

Don't forget about your dryer

People can often accuse their washer of stinking, when it is actually their dryer.  If your laundry room smells like a skunk or a dead animal, don’t overlook the dryer.  While it doesn’t have the same seals or tendency to trap water, it does have a very important lint filtration system which can get quite dirty and even moldy.

I will never forget the time my dryer smelled like a dead animal.  I unhooked the ventilation that discharges the used air to the outside, and low and behold I found…… a dead animal.  A chipmunk had gotten in and could not get out, and sadly died.  After clearing the critter out of the venting, the dryer smelled fine again.

Be Safe!

Many washers and dryers are powered by natural gas.  If yours is, only do basic maintenance before calling-in the pros.  Any time you are unhooking, reconnecting, or even getting close to your gas lines, it is a delicate situation best suited for a trained professional.

What happens if I’ve still got a stinky washing machine?

If you’ve still got a problem with smell, then you may want to start checking around your washing machine. It’s possible it may be leaking, and that’s what is causing the smell (check the floor around and under). It may be possible the drain is leaking somewhere, check under that (and in the crawlspace). I’ll tell you what happened to me, though: I didn’t have an s-trap.

My house was built in the late 1940’s, and apparently whoever plumbed it (may their children get warts) didn’t think the drain pipe going from the washing machine needed an s-trap. The S-trap is the S curved pipe that allows a little bit of water to remain in it to prevent sewer gas from flowing up and gagging you. They are not difficult to put in given some time, plumber’s glue, and some help from Ace Hardware or Home Depot, but if you’re still nervous you can hire a plumber. I put in my S trap with the help of my dad in about an hour (including the trip to Ace). It’s not difficult. You can even order s-traps from Amazon…just make sure your measurements are spot on.

If there are still some problems as far as a stinky washing machine, you may want to consider calling a repair shop to see what other ideas they may have. But these steps should take care of most of the problems.

Prevent the Stinky Washing Machine

Say you’ve gotten rid of the stench, and now you want to keep it that way. There are some ways you can keep your washing machine smelling clean.
The number one thing to prevent a stinky washing machine (high efficiency front loading or top loading) is to keep the lid open for a while after you’ve done laundry. This is the thing I still have problems with, but I’m getting better. Again, the air flow will help dry things out and prevent bacterial growth. Wiping down the High Efficiency front loading rubber gaskets around the door will also help with that.

Another thing you can do is to buy the washing machine cleansing tablets (from like Clorox) or powders (from others). These have suggestions to run once every month or so just to help clean gunk/kill bacteria. Sure they may work, but I used several of these to try get rid of the stench in my washing machine with limited results. I think a lot of the problem that I had personally is that they required running a cycle…none of the instructions mentioned soaking. So, use them for preventative measures…that’s why they weren’t mentioned in the steps above.

Lastly, you can always run the bleach THEN vinegar cycles. That’s what I plan to do. That’s cheaper than the cleaning tabs. You could likely run just vinegar through, but I don’t trust only that…maybe because I always associate clean with that bleach smell. If you still do want to give those cleaning tabs a go, Amazon has them from Affresh for a decent price.

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