washing machine - photo by David Jones
My washing machine had an odor problem. Embarrassing, but true.

At first I tried to politely ignore it — it was just a faint musty smell, after all — and it was partly my fault, I figured.

After all, I’d forgotten to take that load of damp towels out before we went away for the weekend… so of course the washer smelled a bit stale.

A quick run-through with a splash of bleach and it would be fine, I figured.


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How about giving the washer an extra go at the spin cycle, in case it just wasn’t getting all the water out? How about leaving the washer lid open to let the insides dry between laundry loads? How about blasting a hot blow-dryer at its tub?

No, no, and no. It still smelled.

And the smell was getting worse. Not only that, the smell was transferring itself to the laundry that should have come out fresh and clean. Even rinsing with vinegar and hanging the laundry on the line couldn’t banish the smell from certain items. My much-loved heavy cotton shirts were in a particular skunky state.

When you feel the need to ask – “All Right . . . who threw the fish in the washer?” then you know it is time for some proper washing machine hygiene.

Heather L. Sanders, who wrestles regularly with cloth diapers — now, there’s some serious laundry credentials! — had the advice that saved my washing machine from a smelly, lonely, unloved condition… and probably saved some of my more intimate social relationships, too.

Here’s how she explains the problem:

Both front and top loading washing machines have two tubs. The inner tub holds the clothing and the outer tub holds the wash and rinse water during the wash cycles… With regular usage a layer of both laundry detergent and fabric softener can build-up leaving a sort of curd on both tubs. This curd will leave a constant odor in your washer. Cleaning only the inner tub (what is visible to your eye) will not remove this sour smell.

Heather goes on to explain, in useful detail, exactly how to clean the washer properly. Basically, we’re talking about a certain amount of vinegar and baking soda, in the hottest water your system can produce.

That’s the first step, to loosen up the icky gunk.

(I call it Icky gunk but that’s not a technical term… Heather and my lonely appliance repairman more properly call it “curd” — but please note that Miss Muffett’s cheese has nothing to do with it — washing machine curd is the result of laundry soap binding with minerals in the water… but I digress…)

The cleaning process is long, and it’s not a whole lot of fun.

But it’s a heck of a lot longer, less fun, and possibly more expensive if the vinegar-baking-soda-scalding water cleaning routine doesn’t do it all — how long did I ignore that musty smell for, anyway? — because the next step, if you must go one, involves actually opening up the washing machine cabinet to get at the disgusting innards and to scrub it down…

If your machine is under warranty, take a deep breath and pull out your wallet — then call the serviceman to do this part. My old Admiral is a real workhorse, but its warranty ran out around the time when Top Gun hit the movie screens, so I wielded the screwdriver myself.

Not a hard job… but man! it’s disgusting in there!

And that’s exactly why you’ll want to pay particularly close attention to Heather’s tips for maintaining your washer so as to avoid any future nasty build-up of smell grunge:

  • Avoid using more than 1/2 of the cup that is provided with standard commercial laundry detergents. Obviously the manufacturers are not going to tell you to use less of their detergent (a sales oriented approach is to suggest using MORE), however most have found that using even 1/2 the recommended amount is more than enough to get the same level of cleanliness. This is going to vary according to water types and detergent types, but ‘play’ with amounts until you settle on what is right for your diaper laundry or laundry in general.
  • Avoid using liquid fabric softeners (try the all natural fabric softening ability of distilled white vinegar instead). However, if you are set on using fabric softeners, be certain to dilute it with water when you pour it into the receptacle in your washer. Too much fabric softener has been known to leave black marks on clothing when used in full strength – as well as the negative effects of build-up in the fabric softener dispenser and in the tub(s) of the washing machine.
  • Choose liquid over powder detergent. Often times powder detergents do not dissolve and cause a build-up on clothing and your washer’s tubs and pipes/hoses (this is true of dishwashers as well).
  • Do not overload.

Now, never would I think for a single moment that you might have a smelly washer… but maybe you’ve got a “friend” with that embarrassing problem? Send them over to The Diaper Hyena’s guide to Washing Machine Care. Truly, they’ll thank you for it… later.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Cindy

    My front loader only smells after the first load of clothes if I haven’t done laundry in more than a couple of days, and the whole room smells like rotten eggs on the first load? The rest of them the smell goes completly away, like it’s been washed d away. I leave the door open, I’ve cleaned it with those tablets, the inside smells fine… I have been using a lot of fabric softener which I just read was not good.. I’m stumped. Have u ever heard of this?

  2. Mike Baker

    Thank you!!! I love this page. According to me the best and the simplest way to get rid of the mildew odor from your freshly laundered clothes is to use vinegar with baking soda in the washing tub.

  3. Susan

    How much baking soda and vintages and what ratio!

    1. Domestik Goddess

      Amounts are flexible, but try 3 cups of white vinegar and 1/2 cup of baking soda in a full washer tub of the hottest water you can run.

  4. Tanya

    The diaper hyena link doesn’t appear to be active anymore?? Help please, my washing machine is stinky!! I mean, my friend’s machine stinks… :)

  5. Zach Smith

    There is nothing embarrassing about a smelly washer because nearly all front load washers have this problem. Blame that on its construction that makes it easier for molds to form. Once you have cleaned the curds that might have formed inside the washer, maintain that by regular cleaning solution of vinegar and baking soda. If you have a spacious laundry, you can just leave the front load door open all the time to allow air to penetrate inside the washer drum.

  6. Tanja

    Have I got a product for you that will save you some time. There is this product called Affresh made by Whirlpool that you should be able to find in most grocery stores and Walmart etc (in Canada – not 100% sure about the US but likely to similarly found). The product came out last year and is amazing. For 8.99 you get three months worth so about 3 bucks a month which is totally reasonalbe. You throw the puck inside the main part of the washing machine and run it through the hot cycle. Like magic for getting rid of the smell and importantly the residue build up that is allowing the bacteria that grows on that residue to cause the smell! They also have a grit grabber kit that comes with some wipes that you can use to clean the mildew around the gasket (seal) of the washing machine. Leave your door open and try this Affresh product once a month and no more smelly machine! The web site is affresh.com

  7. domestika

    Still could be those nasty sneakers of yours, Mitch! :D

  8. Mitchell Allen


    The fun thing about this coffee-table blog is that I get to stumble upon highly entertaining articles.

    I always thought the smell came from washing my sneakers! LOL



  9. DazzlinDonna

    Makes total sense. Will absolutely do that from now on.

  10. domestika

    Donna, I’ve got another tip for you on this, something new to add — and by the way, my washer’s been sweet for 4 months straight, hurrah! — in the way of maintenance routine:

    If you’ve got a dark load (cold water) and a light load (warm/hot water) to wash, do the dark load first, finish off with the light one, so the hotter water can help de-gunkify the machine’s secret parts. A small thing, but such a difference to ‘quality of life’ and laundry! :)

  11. DazzlinDonna

    OMG, i just went thru this with my washer a couple of months ago, and smell isn’t the worst of it. Gunk can also prevent the washer from draining, so the clothes stay soaking wet. Called the repairman out and I felt like a dork when he took out all that gunk, but who knew? Frankly, I’m realizing that the second area needs to be cleaned out fairly often, but I didn’t know about the vinegar and baking soda trick, so I’ll try that first before taking everything apart every couple of months. Thanks!

  12. domestika

    Neena, thanks! — hehe, just wait till we get onto toilet-scrubbing techniques! ;)

  13. Neena

    I love the way you write. This post is hilarious and helpful at the same time. I never would have thought that learning how to clean a washing machine could be so entertaining.

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