There is a very specific reason you are reading this, and that is because you discovered something strange in your dishwasher. You don't really see anything, but there is a smell that just won't go away. It is some weird combination of dinner from the other night and a lot of dampness that you hope you would never have to confront. Whatever is causing your smelly dishwasher, you want it gone, and you don't want to think about dealing with it at the same time. After all, no one wants a dishwasher that smells more like a dirty garbage disposal.
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And yet the problem is here, and that foul dishwasher odor may even make you gag a little with how potent it is. Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense that the problem exists. The dishwasher often has a fair amount of organic material and food particles inside it, no matter how well you think you clear off your dirty dishes before loading them in the machine. Depending on how large the pieces are, they might not go very far. Plus, even tiny pieces can get stuck in crevices and cause a bad smell that hits you in the face every time you open the dishwasher door.
Many people, especially if they live alone and only use a few dishes each day, don't run their dishwasher every day. The dishwater is a wet environment in practically any circumstance, and there's not much ventilation by design. So, it's the perfect place for all sorts of bacterial growth. Throw in some leftover food debris, and it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that dishwashers need a bit of TLC to keep them smelling fresh and clean.
Now that you've identified the problem and know what might be causing your stinky dishwasher woes, let's figure out some solutions and prevent those disgusting odors from popping back up:
Run It Regularly
The first thing you can do to help is to run your dishwasher regularly. Having your dirty plates and glasses hanging out in your dishwasher won't make things better and will likely start producing an odor within a few days. Think about it. How long would you be okay leaving those items unwashed on the counter?
We recommend running your dishwasher at least every other day if you have dirty dishes that could cause a smell (and more do than you think), and that you do so even more frequently if you were eating food that is known to cause problems. Did you have a lovely plate of grilled salmon for dinner? Run the plate through the dishwasher that evening and no later if you want to avoid a stinky dishwasher. Use dishwasher tablets to reduce the risk of buildup.
You can wait if you don't have anything in your dishwasher or hand wash the occasional item, but even rarely used dishwashers should get some attention occasionally. Every place in your home gets dirty, especially in the kitchen. Since dishwashers can hold a lot of bacteria – even when you can’t see it – we recommend running a cleaning cycle every once in a while just to keep things fresh.
Consider Leaving It Open
While you might not want to leave the dishwasher door open to let the smell waft out, there are some cases where leaving it open can help. When you are cleaning it, you will want to let it air out after a while, and there are other times where you want to leave it open. Just because your dishes are clean doesn't mean that there aren't bits of food and other problems lurking elsewhere in your appliance. And if you’re not careful, they can cause some pretty nasty odors.
After you run the dishwasher and the dishes have been dried (if you use the heat dry setting on your washer), try to leave the dishwasher open at least a crack. It will help the excess moisture escape, and while it won't completely dry out the inside, it will make a difference in preventing unpleasant odors.
Run Empty Cycles with White Vinegar and Baking Soda
If your dishwasher is smelling rough and you want to give it a bit of a reset, then baking soda and white vinegar are your new best friends.
Baking soda is the first thing most people think of when getting rid of smells — and with good reason. It is well-known for absorbing everything from weird fridge smells to stains on clothing. You can trust it to absorb practically anything lurking in your dishwasher, and it will clean up well after you get rid of the source of the smell. It's not even tough to use. You can simply put some baking soda inside of your empty dishwasher and then try to let the wash cycle run its course. The combination of baking soda and hot water should do a decent job of eliminating the bad smells.
While vinegar has a scent of its own, there are a ton of reasons to use it. It cuts into grease, handles the buildup of dishwasher detergents (they might not cause the smell in question, but they can cause other problems) and helps remove nasty odors. Plus, vinegar is safer than bleach, which makes it appealing to many homeowners.
To use it, take about a cup of white vinegar, place it on the top rack of the dishwasher in a glass or bowl where it will be snug and then run the dishwasher using the hottest water possible. Once this is done, let the dishwasher dry out for at least an hour.
We recommend using the vinegar first and then pouring about a cup of baking soda into the bottom of the dishwasher and running a second, separate cycle. This should solve most odor issues if your dishwasher is otherwise clean. The cycles should be normal, though they should also be relatively close to one another. And if the scent of vinegar is not to your liking (we can't blame you), add a few drops of essential oil to the load to give the dishwasher a more pleasant aroma. This process is one of the easiest, affordable and environmentally friendly ways of maintaining a clean dishwasher and avoiding bad smells.
If you want to be preemptive about keeping your dishwasher free of smells, then do this process every once in a while (once a week is more than enough for most people). Many people swear by adding it to their cleaning routine.
Scrape Your Dishes Clear
While your dishwasher will be able to get rid of most of the grime and leftover food particles on your plates, glasses, etc., that doesn't mean you can just put things in there without at least rinsing them off first. Dishwashers don't disintegrate bits of food, so anything that was on your plates will either stay on there (despite your washer's best efforts) or get stuck in the dishwasher filter. There it will decay, creating the smell you hate so much. Food particles that remain on your dishes become even more difficult to remove after getting baked on during the heat dry process, too.
You don't need to be perfect, but make sure there aren't any scraps of food left on dishes before putting them in the top or bottom rack of your dishwasher. It'll make things much easier for you in the long run. Additionally, thoroughly rinsing your dishes before washing them decreases the likelihood of a clog forming in your dishwasher, drain filter or drain hose.
Dishwashers Need Cleaning, Too
While you can try to get rid of the smell with just the above methods, please note that you also need to occasionally clean your dishwasher to eliminate all the small food bits that you are putting in there (whether you know it or not). A family of four goes through a lot of plates and a lot of food. How much leftover food sticks on plates even if you are being careful?
Using a specially made dishwasher cleaner is a good place to start, but there are more extended guides on the subject that you should follow, including those that come in the manual for your dishwasher (often found online these days if you don't have yours). In general, do the following:
- There should be a mesh screen or filtering part on your dishwasher. Remove it and clean it out occasionally. You may want to do so over a sink or trash can so you can contain the mess. You may also want to do so in a well-ventilated place, as the smell can get concentrated.
- If you see a stain or other problem on the inside of the dishwasher, wipe it down! Similarly, you may want to clean down the racks and other holding areas every once in a while. They should be removable for easy cleaning all around.
- Depending on your dishwasher, there might be settings and cycles on the model itself to help with cleaning. Engage them regularly and check to see how well they work. They can take some time, so running them overnight might be recommended. They also aren't a cure-all, so follow the other tips and advice in this section as well.
Think About Your Other Appliances
While you are at it, you might want to think about cleaning or getting rid of the bad smells in your other appliances as well. A stinky dishwasher might not be the only appliance stinking up your home. For example, when was the last time you thought about cleaning your washing machine or dryer (cleaning out lint does not count)? When was the last time you wiped down your microwave? Even something like your coffee maker needs cleaning every once in a while, lest you want a faint mold or mildew flavor in your morning brew every day. Ovens should be cleaned out regularly, too, to remove food particles and prevent odors. Keeping the inside of your oven (and your stovetop) clean can prevent fires, too.
You may also wish to clean everything when you move into a new place. Too many landlords forget to have the appliances cleaned when they get new tenants, leading to some undesirable outcomes. Since you don't know what previous tenants have done, take matters into your own hands. It’s always better to do more cleaning than necessary than not cleaning enough when moving into a home after someone else.
When it comes to these tips, your washing machine is the most closely related item. Many of the methods translate pretty well, and you can trust that many of the products that work on one will work on the other. The more you clean the frequently damp, dark places, the better.
At the very least, consider taking care of all these appliances as part of your regular spring or autumn cleaning. You'll feel a lot better for it, and you might even notice some of your appliances working better and lasting longer. This is especially true if you have hard water. Cleaning regularly and using the right cleaning products in your home can prevent buildup and even extend the life of your dishwasher and washing machine.
One last note regarding other items in your house: Depending on your water pressure, you may want to be careful about running your dishwasher and other appliances simultaneously. This will vary from home to home, but if you run into issues, that might be the cause.
Opening up a dishwasher and dealing with whatever has been rotting and potentially living in there after some time isn't a fun task. While cleaning the area is needed and part of an overall routine, the smell can remain despite your best efforts. We hope these tips help get rid of that dishwasher smell, and you can have a better relationship with your dishwasher for the foreseeable future.