How to Deep Clean a Washing Machine (Naturally)

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Many of us don’t think about cleaning out the washing machine. I mean, it’s supposed to clean our clothes, so how dirty can it get?

Yet, mildew, bacteria, soap scum, and other yucky things build up in a washing machine over time. In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to clean a washing machine using only natural ingredients, like those found in my laundry soap recipes.

Why Does the Inside of a Washing Machine Need Cleaning?

With just a few kids and a more than full schedule, why am I taking the time to clean out my washing machine?

As mentioned before a washing machine can harbor all sorts of undesirable things. Front-loading washers or High Efficiency (HE) washers are prone to mold and mildew growth, especially around the door seal. This can pose a safety hazard (not to mention it doesn’t smell good).

We’ve used cloth diapers in the past, and while the majority of the icky stuff can be rinsed off of the fabric first, fecal matter and urine still makes their way into the washing machine. Add to that microfiber cleaning cloths used in stinky areas like bathrooms and all of the other messes on clothing, and it’s easy to see why the washing machine could use some extra love.

Even machines that don’t see these items are still dealing with bacteria, mold, and mineral buildup because they are dark, closed, and moist by design.

How to Maintain a Clean-Smelling Washing Machine

The recipe below will deep clean your washer. I recommend doing this several times a year. However, when trying to solve my own washing machine woes, I found some best practices for maintaining the machine in between deep cleans:

  • Leave the lid open after every wash cycle. This helps to prevent mildew and stale odors.
  • Using too much laundry soap or fabric softener can cause soap scum buildup. Use the proper amount (it’s often less than we think) and run an extra rinse after washing if needed.
  • For front loaders, wipe down the seal with an anti-fungal cleaner, like vinegar mixed with tea tree essential oil about once a week. Dry the seal and leave the door open after every wash.
  • Only use an HE safe, low suds detergent in an HE machine. The extra suds can cause residues to be left behind in the machine.

The Best (Natural) Way to Deep Clean a Washing Machine

If your machine is in need of some TLC, here’s how to tackle it (and ways to avoid):

Ways I Wouldn’t Try

There are so many instructions out there on how to clean a washing machine, but I wouldn’t attempt many of them. Some look more effective than others, and some use cleaners like bleach that I don’t feel comfortable using. (Bleach is a respiratory toxin and doesn’t effectively kill mold, but just whitens it.)

A lot of recipes call for mixing baking soda with vinegar. Even though this combination is completely safe and natural, it may not be all that effective. When alkaline baking soda is combined with the acidic vinegar, the two create the iconic fizzing action. This can help to loosen grime, but they also likely cancel each other’s properties out.

Best Natural Cleaners to Use

So what cleaners are we using?

  • Washing soda is fabulous for cleaning different surfaces around the house. This amplified version of baking soda helps to break down hard water deposits, dissolve grease and deodorize. I use it in my laundry detergent and homemade dish soap, but it’s also great for a deep clean on the washing machine.
  • Vinegar is an acid that helps tame mineral deposits, grease, mold, and mildew. It can be regularly used on the rinse cycle as a fabric softener, but it’s also effective at cleaning out the machine.
  • Borax is a naturally occurring mineral that is known to kill a wide variety of mold and soften water. It’s surprisingly controversial, but after doing the research I feel safe using it as a cleaner, though you won’t see me adding it to lotion or consuming it. I’ve covered the safety of borax here, but for those who still aren’t keen on the idea, it can be replaced with a natural oxygen bleach or omitted.
  • Essential oils have a wide range of anti-microbial properties, depending on which ones are used. Tea tree, or melaleuca, is a potent anti-fungal to help with mold growth. Thieves blend helps to fight bacteria and viruses. These are optional, but really help to boost the disinfecting power. I buy most of mine here (use the code WellnessMama for 10% off).

Natural Washing Machine Cleaner Recipe

The exact method will vary slightly by machine model and type, especially depending on whether you have a front loader and a top loader. Also, newer washing machines typically have a filter near the bottom, while older ones don’t.

For those who are wondering, to the best of my knowledge, vinegar, washing soda, natural oxygen bleach, and borax are all safe for HE machines.

For a Front Loading Washing Machine

  1. Remove the tray dispenser and allow it to soak, fully submerged in hot soapy water. Once the residues are softened, scrub them off with an old toothbrush. Rinse the tray with fresh water, and put it back into the machine.
  2. If the tray doesn’t have a release button, then pour some vinegar in the tray, and scrub with a toothbrush.
  3. Put washing soda and borax (or oxygen bleach) into the drum. Put the washing machine on the hottest setting, and use the most amount of water. If the machine has a cleaning cycle, then use this. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for the machine to see if your model recommends putting the powder in a certain dispenser instead.
  4. After the cycle is finished, pour the vinegar, and the essential oils if using, into the liquid dispenser on the tray. Run another cycle on hot, or a cleaning cycle if the machine has that option.
  5. Wipe out the drum with a clean microfiber cloth. Use a microfiber cloth with a vinegar solution to wipe the outside of the machine, and the seal around the door.
  6. Remove and clean the filter in the bottom with hot, soapy water or vinegar if the machine has one.

For a Top Loading Washing Machine

  1. Add borax (or oxygen bleach) and washing soda to a full drum of hot water and wash on a heavy duty or cleaning cycle.
  2. When the cycle is done, add vinegar to the drum, and the essential oils if using. Run another hot water cycle. Let it agitate for a few minutes, then let the vinegar water solution sit for 30-60 minutes before finishing the cycle.
  3. While the vinegar is sitting in the machine, dip a clean microfiber cloth into the water and use it to clean the outside of the machine. Also, be sure to clean under the lip where the drum is. Clean the dispensers to remove the hair, dirt, soap, and other grime. An old toothbrush may be required for stubborn areas.
  4. Remove and clean the filter in the bottom with hot, soapy water or vinegar (if the machine has one). There may be bobby pins, a lost sock, or other surprises in there!

Could your washing machine use a good cleaning? Are you afraid to look?!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


26 responses to “How to Deep Clean a Washing Machine (Naturally)”

  1. Amy Avatar

    I have s question on the instructions. When you say run a hot water cycle, do you mean just the wash part of the cycle? Can I catch the machine so it doesn’t refill for the cold rinse, and rerun the hot wash cycle with the vinegar?

  2. Laura Avatar

    I’ve been told in some cloth diapering groups that vinegar can break down the rubber on the seal and should be avoided. 🙁 any thoughts on this?

    Thank you!

  3. Harris Avatar

    Stick with Maytag kenmoore or whirlpool and your cleaning issues will no longer be a problem. When you venture out to other brands you will face all types of problems and costly ones at that. Front loaders are too much money to repair and fail a lot quicker than top loaders. Got of luck.

    Just my.02 bc I work on them daily.

  4. Charissa Avatar

    Thank you so much! I’ve been looking for something like this. Do you know if adding hydrogen peroxide to these ingredients would be a good idea?

  5. Mic Avatar

    Since my homemade detergent has borax and washing soda in it, can I just skip this step since the machine is getting exposure during every wash?

  6. Elizabeth Avatar

    My top loading washer doesn’t allow water to just sit in the drum. If you don’t start a cycle, it just drains out. Will it make a huge difference if I can’t let it sit for 30 to 60 minutes?

  7. Sylvia Avatar

    Do you think this would work to remove the strong smell of old laundry detergent from the washer? We just moved into a new house, and the prior owners used a strong smelling, toxic brand of detergent. I’ve run hot cycles with H2O2, and the smell is still there. I ran a load yesterday and the smell transferred to my clothes!

  8. Rae Avatar

    Thank for these washing machine cleaner recipes! Do you know, by any chance, if they are safe for a septic tank?

  9. Carol L Avatar

    Thank you for this post.
    Because my ‘laundry room’ is in an outside area, I don’t leave the top open as I get fly specks (read fly poop) on the outside top lid when closed. I don’t want this going on the inside of the machine!
    I also don’t use the soap dispenser, choosing to put the homemade soap right in the washer as it is filling. I noted that when I DID use the dispenser, it would get scummy, and because of it’s shape and design, IMPOSSIBLE to clean! (those pull out ones).
    I had a front loader, and loved it but it had some issues, which turned out to be my water source instead. I now have a GE top, which I absolutely HATE! Soon, I’m getting rid of it and getting a front load again!

    1. Sabrina Avatar

      I also hate top loaders for a good reason. They don’t clean well enough. Why? Most clothes float above the water, for all the length of the cycle except spinning. I used a wooden handle and constantly pushing those clothes inside. I noticed that when the lid latch broke. My hubby tricked it to work with the lid open. To my horror I noticed this issue and the fact that what was considered warm water, was actually damn cold (26C). Hot was 45-48C.

      1. Doug Mahoney Avatar
        Doug Mahoney

        This is something new to me as well. Thanks for the tips! Definitely try this at home.

  10. Christa Avatar

    I noticed that you have speed queen brand laundry appliances, we have a large family as well and would like to buy that brand because of their longevity, but was shocked at how small the capacity is on the washer. Have you run into issues with large items like comforters? I know smaller loads wash cleaner, but lots of kids here.

  11. Sarah Avatar

    Thanks so much for posting!! We just moved into our first house and the washing machine is so stinky. I’d been looking for the best way to get it really clean. It’s like you read my mind!

  12. Monica Avatar

    I have a top loading HE washer. It doesn’t allow me to fill the drum because the sensors weigh the clothes to save on water usage. Could I just add everything to the drum and run it on the cleaning option?

  13. Kala Avatar

    Hi Katie, awesome post! I really like how you covered the vinegar-baking soda relationship! I’m still hesitant to use borax or any bleach, do you think it is possible to use without that ingredient?


  14. Monica Avatar

    I recommend to use the highest washing degree possible and let it run empty without any cleaning stuff. 90 degrees celsius should sterilize your machine.

    1. Sabrina Avatar

      Monica, in Europe all or most machines allow you to boil water up to 95 C. In US and Canada, there is only cold, warm, and hot (From the tap water). Only a few machines have a sanitize function (they have a small heater) and they heat water around 70 degrees C. But most washers have no heater, and all use the hot water from the faucet for their hot menu. So no possibility of boiling water in washers.
      I had a front loader for 10 years in Europe, and never ever had any fungus. It is true I always kept the door open. But the boiling water was wonderful.
      I eventually bought a front load, after cursing my life with an upright, and I noticed this one has a clean basket option. i use some pods designed for cleaning baskets.

  15. Rebecca Simpson Avatar
    Rebecca Simpson

    I also discovered that by putting a small fan inside the drum when not in use it dries it out quickly and has kept my machine mildew free going on two years now. Prior to the fan it would smell horrific very soon after cleaning.

  16. Leslie Avatar

    Another great post! I have been thinking about this, so perfect timing for me. Thanks again!

  17. Richard Nelson Avatar
    Richard Nelson

    Wonderful ideas. Thank you. What do you recommend if we have to use a public laundry mat. I am at loss here in the building where I live as no one seems to clean out the machines. HELP!!

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