Why washing machines smell

It may not be a nice thought, but washing machines are essentially a large drain. They have to wash and remove stains, oils and all manner of dirt. The laundry products you use in themselves can accumulate and in a warm moist environment can become a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus, giving rise to the unmistakable odour. This can become even more noticeable in warm weather. Liquid detergents tend to cause more build up than powders.

As we've all become more environmentally conscious, in addition to rising fuel prices, detergent manufacturers have developed laundry products that can get fabrics clean at lower temperatures. Unfortunately, low temperature washes are not as effective at removing debris and killing bacteria. Problems can be compounded if you have hard water (and much of the UK does) as limescale build up can also act as a breeding ground for dirt and bacteria.

A smelly washing machine can therefore lead to smelly laundry.

So although limescale removal and cleaning are two separate tasks, they are linked. For best results it's best to treat this as two tasks, so we will cover limescale removal on a different page. Unless you are using one of the clean AND descale products featured below.

How to clean a washing machine

When cleaning a washing machine, you need to pay attention to the areas you CAN see...and the areas you can't. There are an increasing number of washing machine cleaners available today. Some will also remove limescale, but two step products are generally best because the jobs are slightly different.

Examples of all in one washing machine cleaner products are available from Sainsburys, Waitrose and Wilko. These products will both clean AND descale as they use two different liquids, for different tasks at different stages of the wash cycle.

Step 1

Clean the detergent/fabcon drawer by removing it from the machine. You may have to press down on the plastic part over the fabcon slot. Use a safe acid such as citric acid, white vinegar or a dedicated washing machine cleaner liquid. You will probably find that there are black stubborn marks. You should soak the detergent drawer in a bowl of hot water with 50ml of product added. Leave for 15 mins then add some neat liquid to the drawer and scrub with a brush.


Step 2

Clean the insides of the machine using a gentle acidic spray cleaner such as white vinegar. Use a stiff cleaning brush to tackle stubborn stains.

Step 3

Clean the rubber door seal thoroughly using a mildly acidic cleaner or dedicated washing machine cleaner product. Again, white vinegar is perfect for the task. Ensure to clean the crevices thoroughly.

Step 4

Add your washing machine cleaner, or 500g of Soda Crystals and run an empty machine on a hot wash. Some dedicated cleaners can also descale. The most effective ones use two different liquids so that you can clean AND descale in the same wash. They are introduced to the machine at different stages in the cycle. One liquid concentrates on cleaning and killing bacteria, whilst the other acidic liquid works to remove limescale.

If you use a product that merely cleans, like Soda Crystals, you should also descale your machine with an acidic product. 

If you have not cleaned your machine before, you may find that the odour gets worse. This is proof that the cleaning regime is working and lifting away stubborn debris and bacteria. You should repeat the cleaning procedure to remove all traces.


Once you are happy that your washing machine is clean, it is advisable to clean your washing machine every other month and if you have hard water, to descale the machine on alternate months, unless you are using one of the 2 in 1 products detailed above. If you have hard or very hard water, you should repeat the process every month. If you have soft or medium hard water, you can use the cleaner/descaler every other month.