Mildew is a common type of fungus, closely related to mold, that likes to grow in hot and humid environments. Needless to say, a washing machine can be the perfect environment for mildew to form thanks to its hot and damp interior that may stay wet for many hours after a wash cycle has been completed.
If you have noticed that your washer has started to have that distinct mildew smell and fear it may get moldy, don’t worry! You’re in the right place.
In this article, we’re going to cover all the primary reasons why your load washer might start to smell of mildew and how to get it cleaned out so you can be sure your clothes are as clean as possible and aren’t picking up any nasty bacteria during the wash cycle.
Why Does Your Washer Smell Like Mildew?
If you’re concerned that something is wrong with your front-load washer, don’t be. More often than not, it’s the simple accumulation of bacteria that has developed over a long period.
Generally speaking, you can protect against mildew growth with regular cleaning and maintenance. But if it already has developed that musty smell, it’s time to do something about it!
Let’s first walk through what can cause mildew to form so you can better understand what needs to be managed to both remove it today and prevent it from growing in the future.
1. Washing residue buildup
When we wash our clothes, a nice concoction of substances end up working their way through the washing machine.
Things like soap scum, oils, and dirt are extracted from the clothes. Those then combine with hair and detergent to create nasty dirt deposits.
These substances can easily get lodged somewhere where the washer cannot dispose of them easily in such places as washers, seals, or the rubber gasket surrounding the door and dispensers.
When these items are neglected for a long time, this is where the bacteria starts to grow.
So even though the washer is subjected to a lot of internal cleaning every time we wash our clothes, it can end up smelling worse than your dirty clothes as the bacteria and mold hides in the crevices of the washer.
Here, a little bit of internal manual cleaning is needed to get rid of the built-up mildew and prevent it from returning.
The accumulation of dirt is only the first part of the puzzle; the other is heat and moisture, which comes in the form of humidity in the context of our washer.
Washers use boiling water during the wash cycle; if you use a drying cycle afterward that introduces even more heat and steam into the equation, it’s easy to see how mold and mildew can form inside the washer.
We have a few tricks to help deal with this, such as leaving the door open and letting the residual water/steam escape, but it only really delays the onset of mildew.
3. The lack of hand cleaning
While it’s understandable to think that a machine that washes itself each use would be able to keep itself clean. Unfortunately, there are too many places where the residual dirt deposits can collect and hide in the washer.
So when no active effort is put into manually cleaning those hard-to-reach areas, that is where the mildew starts to form.
Don’t feel bad if this is something you have neglected; it’s easy to overlook and won’t cause permanent damage to the machine.
We need to take some steps moving forward to keep the washer clean to prevent the accumulation of mildew in the future.
How to clean a washer that smells like mildew
Fortunately, developing good cleaning habits for our washer is very easy as we need to give it a general clean to prevent it from returning.
You only need to do this every 2-3 months, which takes no more than 10-15 minutes.
1. Clean the leading washer tub
The primary washing tub is the most essential part of keeping clean and free of mildew, as it’s where our clothes make contact with the inside of the washer.
Fortunately, we don’t even need to do this by hand. Using a unique solution, we can run a regular cleaning cycle and get this cleaned automatically by the washer.
- First, we need to make the cleaning solution; use ¼ cup of baking soda with ¼ cup of water, and mix them thoroughly.
- Pour the mixed solution into the detergent dispenser.
- Run the washer using a regular wash cycle on medium heat. Remember, this is an empty wash cycle, so ensure no clothes are in the tub before starting.
- Once the wash cycle has finished, give the tub’s interior a quick wipe-down using a cloth and warm water to remove any residual cleaning solution that may have been left behind.
If your mildew smell is particularly bad, you can always use a slightly more aggressive cleaning solution. Still, the baking soda/water combo does a great job removing pre-built mildew as a general maintenance solution.
2. Clean the washer gasket
The washer gasket is the rubber ring that sits around the tub’s lining, which helps create an air/water-tight seal once the front load washer door is pushed in.
The gasket is usually folded over rubber with some give to it so it can form around the door as it’s pushed into it to create that seal; unfortunately, water and dirt deposits can find their way under the gasket fold and turn moldy.
Here’s the best way to clean the gasket and keep it free of mildew:
- Using a simple damp cloth, wipe away most of the grime by hand and pull the gasket back so you can get under the fold.
- If you are performing general maintenance, you can stop here. However, if you’re trying to remove a pre-established mildew smell, you should remove the gasket from the dryer completely (it will pull right out).
- Take a bowl of warm water and add the tiniest amount of bleach to it to make a cleaning solution.
- Dip a cloth into this solution and thoroughly wipe the entire surface area, both inside and out.
- Reinstall the gasket into the door frame.
3. Remove clothing as soon as possible
We know it’s easy to get lazy when a wash cycle has finished; the wet clothes get left in for an hour to two before you get around to pulling them out. This is one of the main reasons the mildew smell will develop.
Wherever possible, try to remove the clothes as soon as possible after the wash cycle has finished. This allows the residual water to dissipate from the front load washer much quicker and prevents mold buildup.
4. Leave the door ajar
Similarly, ensuring you leave the door ajar to let some air flow around the machine will tremendously help prevent mildew buildup.
Not only does it reduce the heat content inside the washer, but it also allows the humid air to escape. The sooner the washer can dry out, the better!
5. Use the correct detergent
Detergent and dirt deposits are huge contributors to mildew formation as they like to sit in the machine and combine with other dirt, which then turns moldy.
Ensuring you use the intended detergent for your machine can help prevent soap scum and detergent deposits from forming.
For example, if you are using an HE (high-efficiency) washer, you must also ensure you are using HE detergent.
6. Hydrogen peroxide cleaning
A far safer and less aggressive alternative to bleach, but it still works great when the odor is particularly bad, and you’re looking to remove the mildew smell altogether.
Take an empty spray bottle and dump some hydrogen peroxide into it, have a sponge ready to wipe the excess off.
Go to town spraying down the entire interior of the washer, being sure to hit the lid and any crevices where mildew might form.
Next, add hot water and about 4 cups of peroxide to the machine tub, let it sit for an hour, then run a cycle on the hottest setting your machine can perform. That’ll be sure to eliminate any bad smells!
7. Clean it with vinegar
Vinegar is an excellent cleaning solution if you don’t want to get stuck manually and would like to use an automatic wash to clean it for you.
Add about four cups of white vinegar to the top loading machine and set it to run an empty cycle on the hottest setting you can select.
Stop the cycle about halfway through and let the hot water/white vinegar solution sit for about 30 minutes, then allow the cycle to finish, and it will clean the whole system right out.
8. Deep clean the machine
If the mildew odor is particularly pervasive, the most aggressive and thorough way to remove it is by deep cleaning the machine using a bleach and dish soap mixture.
- Start by filling a bottle with warm water with a few drops of dish soap.
- Spray this solution around the gasket and let the suds sit for a bit.
- Wipe the gasket down with a cloth to clean any residual soap scum.
- Pour a half cup of bleach into the empty water drum and another half cup into the detergent dispenser.
- Run a complete cycle using the hottest setting possible.
- Once the cycle has finished, you will need to run two more cycles using hot water to ensure all the bleach has been washed away.