How to Clean and Maintain a Smelly Front Loading Washing Machine

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front loading washer maintenance by ecokaren

I admit. I was drawn to the sleek and sexy look of the front-loading washing machines when they first came out. I always wanted one. Also, ergonomically, it made more sense for my back not to bend down to get the clothes and pick them up to load the top loader repeatedly. Then, the whole eco-friendly reasons for owning one started to make me want it even more. “You mean, I can save on electricity and water bill while a sleek and sexy washing machine clean my clothes?” Sold!

So when my top loader went kaput after so many years, I ran to buy a pair of front-loading washer/dryer. But soon after, my fantasy of having clothes washed and dried by the energy efficient, hardworking, eco-friendly, sexy machine, became a nightmarish, out of control, stinky beast that made my family sick.

Stinky Clothes

My clothes started to smell like mold and mildew after the wash. Towels and my husband’s favorite soft worn out t-shirts started to smell like mold after I washed them. And my family is allergic to mold! I thought the smell was due to my son’s athletic socks. My husband thought I didn’t use soap. He even brought home flowery smelling fabric softeners, thinking that was the problem – not using strong enough fragrant detergents and fabric softeners. I admit, I rarely used fabric softeners because it’s loaded with unnecessary toxic chemicals and fragrance. I was so sensitive to strong odor and my kids had very sensitive skin so I don’t use them. But I didn’t think not using fabric softener was the cause for bad odor. I knew I did everything that the manual said – I used High Efficiency detergent and I didn’t overload the washing machine so I was perplexed as to why newly washed clothes smelled so bad.

It turns out, the problem wasn’t any of the things I did. It was what I didn’t do. I found out, through an exhaustive search on the internet – because the manufacturer or the place where we bought the machine were not helpful at all – that the machine that was cleaning my clothes also needed to be cleaned!! What? I need to “clean” the washing machine? I scoffed. But a further research revealed the following reasons why I needed to do that.

Why Wash the Washing Machine?

Before and After Washing Machine by ecokaren
The drums on washing machines, top and front loaders, spin around a centripetal force – the water spins outward from the center, exiting through the holes on the sides of the drum. Excuse the scientific lingo here but the centripetal force is more effective in draining the water when the drum is spinning around a Y-axis or horizontally, as in top loader and not around a X-axis or vertically, as in front loader. So, there’s always a chance that not all of the water gets drained from the machine if the drum is lying on its side, as in front loaders. The result is water pooling in the rubber gasket that seals the door, allowing odor causing bacteria, mold and mildew to grow. And add some lint, hair, dust, and whatever gets shaken out of the clothes to the mix and you have a sludge that resembles an industrial toxic waste, sitting there adding foul smell to the wash, toxic mildew and mold growing. Gross. Toxic. Unhealthy. Did I say GROSS??

front loader dirty gasket
Here is a picture of the gasket that has mildew and the sludge clogging the drain holes.
dirty front loader bottom
So, since I found out that my dream machine is not so sexy anymore, I had to do something about it. I couldn’t throw it out- it was working fine. My research led me to these simple steps to eliminate the odor and the machine clean. By the way, even if you have a top loader, these steps should be taken to clean your machine once in a while.

How to Clean and Maintain a Smelly Front Loading Washing Machine

1. Wipe Down – Every time you finish your load, wipe down the water and soak up any remaining water inside the gasket. Peel back the rubber door seal, and clean in there. You’ll notice little grooves. Water sits here, and with collected dust and lint from the clothes, the gunk just accumulates into a sludge that stinks. Wrap your finger with a paper towel, stick in the grooves, and spin the washer slowly. You’ll notice there are draining holes. Clean the holes well. Call me Type ‘A’ but I use Q-tips to clean out the draining holes and an old tooth brush to scrub any stains stuck to the gasket. You only need a little bit of mold spores for them to grow exponentially. Don’t take a chance.

2. Unload the finished load immediately. Do not let the wet clothes sit in the machine for obvious reasons. If you can’t take them out in a timely manner, use the delay washing feature and time the finishing time when you can take them out right away.

3. Leave the door open when not in use to allow the water and moisture to evaporate and not stay inside stagnantly. Be careful with this if you have young children or pets; cats love to crawl inside crevices and this can be a perfect spot for catnaps. Actually, they recommend leaving the lids open for top loaders for same reasons too.

4. Run a HOT cleaning cycle with an empty washer at least once a week. The frequency depends on how many loads of washes you do but in general, once a week of a quick cleaning should be sufficient. I use 50/50 vinegar/water solution to wipe the gasket clean. Don’t forget to clean the inside rim of the glass door as well as the glass.

5. Once a month, I add a cup of Distilled White Vinegar & 1 Cup of Baking Soda (adding both neutralizes the pH but the bubbling action gently scrubs any debris you can’t get to inside the drum) directly into the drum and use HOT water for washing. Then, I add about ½ cup of vinegar into the fabric softener compartment and ½ cup of baking soda into the detergent compartment. This might sound like overkill but I do a lot of loads of laundry because my kids are involved with sports. So, all the grime and dirt that come along with sports uniforms, require more washes, which translates to more frequent cleaning for me. I don’t have a “Cleaning Cycle” as some machines do so I set the wash on “Quick Wash” with HOT water and High Spin Cycle.

6. Bleach – If the mold situation is really bad, you may need to use bleach instead of vinegar and baking soda. But make sure you run a few empty cycles just with hot water before doing a load of wash. Otherwise, you may end up with tie dyed shirts.

7. Use eco-friendly High Efficiency (HE) detergents. (SEE THE UPDATE BELOW) If the detergent is concentrated, use half as much. HE detergents produce less suds and has less fragrance than regular detergents. The volume of suds produced by regular detergents acts like sludge to water draining out of the tub. Also, their fragrances mix with the mildew-y water produce even worse smell. That goes for the fragrant fabric softeners. The chemicals in the slimy thick fabric softeners, even the eco-friendly ones like the ones my husband brought home, are guilty of contributing to the foul smelling sludge. Use eco-friendly dryer sheets or dryer sachets instead.

8. Clean the detergent compartment drawer. You can easily take the drawer out – read the machine’s manual – and clean the soap, bleach, and fabric softener compartments. Soak it in warm water with dishwashing liquid or vinegar/baking soda mix. Use an old tooth brush if you have to.

9. Finally, clean the drain pump filter. This should be done about every two weeks. If the drain pump filter gets clogged with debris, the water flow will slow down, and fill up with stinky water over time. Old water that didn’t drain sits here, as does lint and other odd items. The drain pump filter is usually located at the front bottom of the washer. Refer to your washer manual as different machines have different instructions but the bottom line is that it needs to be cleaned out so that water doesn’t sit in the pump.

See how clean it is now?
clean front loader bottom

Like any other mechanical appliances, you have to maintain your washing machine in order for it to perform correctly and efficiently. Yes, it’s a hassle but why should washing machines be any different from, say, your car or even our bodies? If you maintain your washer this way, it will last a very long time and save you money in the long run.

My machine is sexy again.
clean front loader

I didn’t have to try any special products to keep the machine from smelling after following above steps but there are products that you can use to clean if the situation is beyond vinegar or bleach.

Homemade Laundry Detergent[March, 2012 UPDATE]
– I noticed that since I’ve been using this homemade powder laundry detergent, my washing machine does not get mildew-y as fast. I read that liquid detergent coats the surface and makes it attract more lint and mildew. May be that’s the reason but since I’ve been using the powder detergent, my washing machine hasn’t been as dirty or mildew-y. More reason why I love my homemade powder detergent formula!


Eco-friendly tip on dryers to use less energy

Dryers are not that different from washers. You have to maintain them to be energy efficient. You have to clean the lint filter screen each time you put in a new load. The machine will not be “energy efficient” if you have to run it more than once because the filter is clogged and can’t deliver the hot air to dry the clothes. Also, make sure the duct from the dryer to the outside vent is clear, without any obstructions and lint balls. It’s a fire hazard to have lint balls clogging the ducts but also, not energy efficient as clogged ducts make dryers work harder and lack of air circulation dries the clothes more slowly. And do NOT use dryer sheets. The chemicals from the dryer sheets clog up the screen and it will slow down on the drying time. Use natural dryer balls instead. If you can’t make them, buy them from Etsy or other online stores for natural ones.

Finally, a particular dryer model doesn’t dry clothes any faster than another. How fast the dryer dries its clothes depends on, believe it or not, the washer. If the clothes that come out of the washer are bone dry, then, the clothes will dry faster in the dryer. So unless you have a delicate wash, in which case, it’s better to hang dry, set the spin cycle on HIGH so that the most of the water is extracted. The clothes will dry quicker in the dryer and not waste energy.

Hope that helps!

Want to clean some more? Check out my other cleaning tips.

  1. How to clean your dishwasher
  2. How to clean your microwave oven without trying.
  3. How to clean  your bathtub with Non-Toxic (and CHEAP) Scrub that REALLY works!
  4. How to clean your radiant stove top.
  5. Non-toxic way to clean stainless steel pots and pans
  6. Non-toxic way to polish your silverware
  7. How to make all-purpose citrus enzyme cleaner

Disclaimer: There are affiliate links in this post. Gotta make a few pennies to pay my hosting company some how, ya know? 

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