How to Clean a Dishwasher: A Step-by-Step Guide
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Follow these simple steps for a cleaner-than-clean dishwasher.
It’d be easy to think that a dishwasher is self-cleaning. After all, its entire job revolves around filling with soapy suds and cleaning dirty items. But think about how frequently you use your dishwasher and how much gunk can accumulate and get stuck in between the spinners. Gross? Definitely. Preventable and fixable? Thankfully, yes. Knowing exactly how to clean a dishwasher will keep it smelling fresh and your dishes sparkling clean.
Equally important is knowing how to properly load your dishwasher to maximize space and minimize sticky food particles, plus the best way to care for its stainless steel exterior. While lack of care and maintenance will shorten a dishwasher’s lifespan, regular cleanings can help it last longer. We asked Clorox scientist and cleaning expert Mary Gagliardi how to clean a dishwasher. Read on for her tips and tricks—plus the steps you need to take to keep your dishwasher spinning and sanitizing.
How to clean your dishwasher
It can be tempting to scrub your dishwasher the same way you’d clean a refrigerator or microwave. But each kitchen appliance requires a different cleaning method, and not all household cleaners work on every surface of your kitchen.
How to clean a dishwasher varies from model to model, which is why your safest bet is to follow the instruction manual. “I always begin by recommending you get ahold of the Use and Care Guide that came with the dishwasher,” says Gagliardi. “People don’t always keep these when they buy an appliance, but they sure come in handy.”
But don’t fret if you can’t find your user’s guide. It’s usually easy to find a PDF of it on the brand’s website—you’ll just need to know the make and model of your dishwasher. Armed with that info, you can browse the guide to find out how to clean inside of your dishwasher.
After reading the user’s manual, follow these steps to give your dishwasher a thorough cleanse.
1. Remove the filter, utensil holder, and racks
First things first: Pull the removable parts out of the dishwasher. Remove the utensil holder, then pull out the dish racks. Finally, unlock and remove the filter. (It’s the thing beneath the spray arm.)
That may sound like a bother, but you need to clean every part of your dishwasher, including the utensil holder and racks. If they aren’t clean, your dishes won’t be either.
“Calcium deposits, also called limescale, can clog the holes in the sprayers, lowering the cleaning performance of the dishwasher,” explains Gagliardi. “Grease builds up in the filters, also lowering the cleaning performance because the dishwasher drains less effectively.”
Removing the detachable parts also allows you to really get in there for a deeper clean. Not only that, but it lets you inspect the interior for any offending bits of food, plastic, or glass (you’ll be shocked by what you find!) that are clogging the drain and filter and preventing the dishwasher from doing its job.
Place the parts to the side—we’ll get to those later.
2. Clean debris from the drain
Chances are, you’re in for a big surprise when you see the buildup from food residue, grease, and soap scum—more so if your dishwasher was beginning to smell less than fresh. Wipe away and remove all material from the drain with a sponge, cloth, or paper towel. Make sure you feel around to make sure you got every last bit. Remember that food is sticky and can be a very stubborn foe.
“If the problem is really bad, a toothpick can be used to carefully clear holes in the sprayer arms,” Gagliardi says. “This usually requires removing the arms, and the Use and Care Guide will show you how for your make and model.”
3. Cleanse the parts you removed
Use a disinfectant spray or wipe to give the utensil holder and racks a solid sanitizing. Here’s how to clean the dishwasher filter: Either wipe it with a disinfectant spray or wipe or, if it’s extra dirty, wash it in soapy water and brush it with a toothbrush or sponge.
Don’t worry if you haven’t gotten every single crevice—they will be cleansed again. After the wipe-down, place all three back into the dishwasher.
4. Sprinkle + run a spin cycle of vinegar and baking soda
Vinegar is every cleaning expert’s go-to product, and it’ll clean your dishwasher just as well as it cleans your coffee maker. White vinegar dissolves grime and hard water stains and loosens any stuck-on bits. And it’s all natural, so it does that without harsh chemicals.
Baking soda is another natural multi-use cleaning tool. It’s extremely effective at neutralizing offensive odors, making it a great option for anyone curious about how to clean a smelly dishwasher. Plus, it finishes off the removal of food particles and other stubborn residues and deposits.
The trick to clean a dishwasher with vinegar and baking soda? Start by generously sprinkling baking soda across the bottom of the dishwasher. Then simply take a large bowl, fill it with a cup of white vinegar, and place it on the top rack. Run a cycle on the hottest temperature, advises Gagliardi.
5. Wipe down the exterior
“Don’t forget to regularly clean the outside of the dishwasher too,” says Gagliardi. “The area just outside the door seal can build up soils from splatters as you load the dishwasher, which can harbor bacteria.”
And don’t forget to inspect the sides of the dishwasher doors. “Sometimes these areas are harder to reach—especially around the hinges—so using a product like Clorox Disinfecting Wipes allows you to easily clean harder-to-reach exterior areas as well as the entire sides of the door, and they kill 99.9 percent of bacteria for a healthier home.”
Be sure to clean the front of the dishwasher. Not only will it make your entire kitchen look cleaner, but it’ll get rid of oily fingerprints and food spills. You can use a disinfecting wipe for this or, if your appliance is stainless steel, a special stainless steel cleaner and a microfiber cloth.
How often should you clean your dishwasher?
The old saying “prevention is worth a pound of cure” is definitely true when it comes to cleaning kitchen appliances like a garbage disposal and a dishwasher. In fact, avoidance could shorten your dishwasher’s lifespan. Instead, being careful about removing stuck food from the drain daily is key to keeping it clean.
You’ll probably need to wipe down the exterior on a weekly basis, especially if it’s stainless steel. Fingerprints and water stains build up quickly.
Depending on the water quality in your area, you may need to clean the limescale weekly too. “Water with high water hardness will make it easier to get deposits, so more frequent cleaning will help,” says Gagliardi. “Installing a water-softening system to improve the water quality of the entire home will help, not just with your dishwasher but also [with] your laundry.”
Taking a good look at the filter every week or so—and rinsing it with hot water, if needed—will help keep your dishwasher spic and span.
Add a deep cleaning, following the steps above, to your monthly cleaning schedule. You should do this even if you rinse the filter on a weekly basis. “Removing the filter, and in some cases filters, and rinsing them with water is all it takes to keep greasy buildup under control,” says Gagliardi.
Keeping your dishwasher clean
Maintaining cleanliness is far easier than figuring out how to clean a dishwasher of mold or smelly food particles. An easy routine to start making sure your dishwasher is in good shape is to rinse dishes thoroughly before loading and inspect while you load the dishes after a meal. By keeping the drain clear, rinsing the filter weekly, and doing a monthly deep clean, you help your dishwasher live a longer, happier, and fresher life.
Best products for a cleaner dishwasher
Between deep cleanings, give yourself a break by using dishwasher tablets that make getting a sparkling dishwasher as complicated as inserting a tab and pressing start. (That’ll save you time that you can put toward cleaning your oven.)
Taste of Home editors popped Affresh Dishwasher Cleaner Tablets into their dishwashers, and when the cycle was over, they found a brilliantly clean interior. These tablets cleaned away all the limescale and mineral deposits that built up on the walls. The scent was mild and fresh, another big bonus.
The packaging says that you can use this cleaner in a regular dishwashing cycle with dishes. But testers recommend running the dishwasher empty, just to avoid compromising any delicate dishware. Overall, though, this product left dishwashers looking like new with minimal effort.
All in all, here are the tools to use in all stages of dishwasher cleanings.
- Mary Gagliardi, Clorox scientist and cleaning expert