How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips

How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips

Your dishwasher’s main job is cleaning dishes, not itself. That’s why it needs an assist from you every so often. We don’t blame you if you think that knowing how to clean a dishwasher sounds unnecessary, or frankly like overkill. After all, your dishwasher fills up with water hot enough to blast off baked-on food and sanitize baby bottles every time you turn it on, right? In theory, you might think any dishwasher you use regularly ought to be a clean dishwasher.

Well, no. And when your dishwasher—or, yikes, your dishes—start to get smelly, we bet you’ll be looking for advice. After all, who hasn’t taken a sip of water, gotten a whiff of something funky, and realized it’s not the water—it’s the glass. Gunky food buildup in different parts of your dishwasher is most likely to blame for that foul odor. It's also behind streaks, smudges, and not so clean plates.

Luckily, there are a couple of simple, routine maintenance tasks you can do every so often to keep your dishwasher smelling fresh and running smoothly. You need to do them even if your dishwasher has a self-cleaning cycle. Didn’t know a dishwasher could have a self-cleaning cycle? These tips are for you. Keep reading to learn the best way to clean a dishwasher, then put them into practice to get cleaner dishes.

How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips
This kitchen featuring a sleek GE Cafe dishwasher was designed by the Glen Ridge, New Jersey interior design firm Kitchen Designs by Debra.

1. When doing dishes, scrape most of the food off, but don't rinse them.

This is an everyday tip that'll get your dishes cleaner. You shouldn’t need a dishwasher clean dirty sign to tell whether you need to run it. The plates inside should look clean or dirty. That’s because you really don’t need to rinse your plates, we promise. The best dishwashers today have automatic sensors that detect how clean or dirty the dishes inside are; they need to pick up on a little food residue in order to tell that your dishes are indeed dirty. If you completely rinse your dishes, glasses, and utensils before loading them in, the dishwasher will think that they’re clean and adjust the cycle accordingly.

So, scrape off any large bits of food that may clog your dishwasher filter (more on this key dishwasher part in a minute), and skip the full rinse. And good luck persuading your family members to do the same. A word of warning: We know families who've feuded over this.

2. Clean these six dishwasher parts regularly.

The Filter

In the past, most dishwashers had a hard food disposal. This was basically a garbage disposal, like the one you might have in your kitchen sink, built into the bottom of your dishwasher’s tub. It has a similar purpose: to break down any bits of food before they go down the drain. Some dishwashers, like Whirlpool and Frigidaire dishwashers, still have these disposers, but many others moved away from them since they are a mechanical part that can be loud and is prone to break down.

Today most dishwashers, including Miele and Bosch dishwashers, have advanced filters. This type of filter is quieter and less apt to need repair—that’s why we recommend them. But it does require a shift in thinking for people who don't know that they need to or how to clean a dishwasher filter regularly. The filter catches bits of food you don’t rinse off, and they can build up in there. If you don’t clean the filter regularly, the water that comes up through it to rinse your dishes could be dirty—and that'll explain why your glasses smell funky or don’t look sparkling clean. The good news is that your modern dishwasher will let you know when it is time to clean the filter.

Make it a habit to use a paper towel to pick up any pieces of food you see on the bottom of the dishwasher tub when you unload it. Then clean your filter regularly. Exactly how you take out the filter depends on your dishwasher (check the manual if you have questions), but in general it’s a simple three-step process:

How to Clean a Dishwasher Filter

1. Remove the filter. Very easy - the filter is at the bottom of the tub, you just need to gently turn it to release.
2. Rinse the filter in the sink with warm water, then use a soft-bristle brush and some mild dish soap to scrub away any remaining food debris (if there is no debris just wash it under running water).
3. Put the filter back in your dishwasher.

Best tool: A soft brush, to get into the filter's nooks and crannies. A clean (out of use) toothbrush is ideal.
How often: Every three to six months, according to Bosch.

How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips
Dishwasher filter is located at the bottom of the tub. Gently turn it to release.

The Detergent and Rinse Aid Dispensers

Ironically, the compartments where the detergent and rinse aid go actually can get pretty dirty themselves. Chalky or oily residue can build up in these dispensers if you don’t clean them regularly. A toothbrush is the perfect tool to maneuver in their tiny crevices. Clean these compartments before you run a self-clean cycle (we'll explain this in a second), and be sure to leave them open.

Best tool: Your trusty cleaning toothbrush
How often: Once a month

Pro Tip: It's really important to refill the dishwasher rinse aid regularly if you have a condensation drying dishwasher, like a Bosch dishwasher. The rinse aid helps the process dry your dishes.

How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips
Don't let the name fool you. The rinse aid helps with spotless drying.

The Spray Arms

Your dishwasher has either one or two spinning arms dotted with nozzles that send water spraying around its tub. Depending on the manufacturer, they might be shaped slightly differently—some Frigidaire dishwasher spray arms, for example, have UFO-like discs on the end—but they all serve the same purpose: to spray water onto every dirty plate in your dishwasher. Over time, gunk can build up in the nozzles on these spray arms, the same way it does in the holes of your bathroom’s showerhead, clogging them and blocking the water flow. This is an even bigger concern if you have hard water where you live. Regardless, you need to unclog these little nozzles regularly.

Bosch says to remove the lower and upper spray arms (this usually takes a gentle tug), then use a toothpick to pry any buildup out of the spray holes. Rinse the spray arms under the kitchen sink, then replace them in your clean dishwasher.

Best tool: Toothpick
How often: Every three months, according to Bosch.

How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips

The Utensil Basket

Food bits can get stuck in here, the same way they do in the dishwasher filter. Remove this basket—it’s on the bottom rack, unless you have a Whirlpool dishwasher, in which case it might be on the door—and lightly scrub it under the sink with a bottle brush or toothbrush and some mild dish soap before rinsing it and putting it back.

Best tool: A bottle brush or cleaning toothbrush
How often: Once a week or so

How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips

The Door Gasket

The gasket (i.e., the rubber seal) that goes around the sides of your dishwasher door can harbor mildew, the same way a front-loading clothes washer's door gasket can. That's because it basically does the same job: Keeping the water inside your appliance, where it belongs. And when mildew grows, your dishwasher can get smelly the same way a front loader can.

To avoid a musty stench, wipe down your dishwasher door gasket with a microfiber cloth dipped in diluted white vinegar or mild dish soap, then leave the door open for it to dry.

Best tools: Microfiber cloth, white vinegar
How often: Once a week

The Control Panel

Your dishwasher may have a fingerprint or smudge resistant stainless steel finish on the door. But as far as we know, there’s no fingerprint or smudge resistant finish for this little electronic screen, and it's the part that’s constantly getting poked by dirty or soapy hands. Chances are it could use a wipedown. You don’t want to use anything too harsh or abrasive, to avoid damaging it. As with the door gasket, a damp microfiber cloth dipped in mild dish soap is your best bet for a clean dishwasher control panel.

Best tools: Microfiber cloth, mild dish soap
How often: As needed

How to Clean a Dishwasher: 4 Quick and Easy Tips
Control panel on a Thermador dishwasher

3. If your dishwasher has a self-cleaning cycle built in, use it.

Yes, some dishwashers come with a self-cleaning cycle, just like ovens do. For example, the DW80R9950UG Samsung dishwasher, and other Samsung models with its WaterWall technology, feature a self-clean cycle.

Miele dishwashers come with an advanced self clean technology. You can still add the cleaning solution or distilled white vinegar if you go the non-chemical route to clean the inside of dishwasher. Miele notes that it uses more water than a normal cycle and takes the internal temperature to 148 F. Essentially, it’s like an extra-strength sanitize cycle that you run without any dishes inside.

The Samsung dishwasher also alerts you when it’s time to run the self-clean cycle after every 20 to 22 loads. For most people, who wash a load of dishes once or occasionally twice a day, that amounts to running the self-clean cycle about once every two weeks. That's a pretty good guideline, no matter what dishwasher you have.

4. If your dishwasher doesn’t have a self-cleaning cycle, create your own.

Miele Dishwasher Cleaner 2 Pack

Have you heard you can get a clean dishwasher with vinegar? It’s not necessary to clean a dishwasher with bleach or harsh chemicals; this pantry staple does the trick. If your dishwasher doesn’t have a self-cleaning cycle, Whirlpool says to use distilled white vinegar and baking soda in two back-to-back cycles.

First, put two cups of white vinegar in a dishwasher-safe glass bowl on the lower rack of your empty machine, then start a normal cycle. When it’s finished, sprinkle about a cup of baking soda onto the bottom of the machine and run another cycle, this one on hot.

The Takeaway

Though it may sound counterintuitive, you do in fact need to clean your dishwasher to keep your dishwasher from getting smelly and get consistently clean dishes. Remember to run the self-clean cycle (or do your own DIY version) and to clean your dishwasher six key parts (filter, dispensers, spray arms, utensil basket, door gasket, and control panel) as directed. A clean dishwasher will pay you back for the favor with sparkling dishes.

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