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How to clean a dishwasher

How to clean a dishwasher — a picture of a clean dishwasher
(Image credit: Future)

Cleaning your dishwasher might seem a bit pointless, but if you don’t, it will start to smell and the load won't be cleaned. Even if you own one of the best dishwashers, without maintenance it will eventually stop working, resulting in costly repairs or a new machine. If your dishwasher doesn’t smell, it’s still good practice to clean it as you can’t see how much limescale has built-up in the pipes —  a particular problem if you live in a hard water area. So how do you clean a dishwasher? Here’s a comprehensive guide to get it smelling fresh again, including how to unclog a dishwasher.     

How to clean a dishwasher

How often do you need to clean your dishwasher? Well, it largely depends on how often you use it, but as a general rule you should check the filter for any food residue or blockages after every cycle. Otherwise, the same food will dirty the water in each wash.

What you'll need

A dishwasher cleaner OR white distilled vinegar

Baking soda

Microfiber cloth or sponge 

Toothbrush

It is also advisable to give the dishwasher a once-over clean every one-to-two weeks. This involves taking out and rinsing the filter, as well as giving the internal door a clean as well.

Lastly, you should deep clean the dishwasher once a month. Here are the steps to take.

1. Empty the dishwasher, then remove the baskets completely to give yourself some space. Most lower baskets will just slide out, but you may need to refer to your manual for the upper basket. If the spray arm on the floor can be removed, take this out too. Set these aside for now.

2. Next, you'll need to clean the filter. Start by removing any obvious food debris from the well. Then remove the filter; it can usually be found in one of the back corners on the floor of the machine. Most of these can simply be twisted to unlock, but refer to your manual if necessary. Clean your filter under hot, running water, using a toothbrush to scrub the mesh. This can be replaced immediately once clean. Be sure to lock it back into place.

Dishwasher Filter Clean

(Image credit: Future)

3. Next, using a damp microfiber cloth or sponge, tackle the interior door of the machine, looking out for any dirt traps around the edges or at the base of the door when fully opened. The gaskets will also need to be scrubbed to clear out any residue. Don’t forget to give the controls a once over, too.

FAQ: Can you put bleach in a dishwasher? 

It’s worth mentioning that you should not use bleach to clean your dishwasher. This is because bleach erodes stainless steel, which most dishwashers use, so be careful not to use any cleaners which contain hydrogen peroxide either. If you want to clean a stainless steel door, use a stainless steel cleaner instead and be sure to wipe in the direction of the grain without using anything abrasive.  

Cleaning Dishwasher Door

(Image credit: Future)

 4. Now clean the accessories. Give the baskets and spray arms a wipe down with the damp microfiber cloth or sponge, focusing on any food residue which may have formed. Pay particular attention to the holes on the spray arms; if those are blocked, use a toothpick or a needle to dislodge them. Once you’re happy with those, replace them in the dishwasher. 

5. Now you’re ready to tackle any unseen grease, grime and limescale — and here you'll be using the vinegar. Not sure how to clean a dishwasher with vinegar? It's simple. With the dishwasher still empty, run a dishwasher cleaner through it such as Finish Dual Action Dishwasher Cleaner. If you want to use household items and be more sustainable, use white distilled vinegar. Simply fill a dishwasher-safe bowl or cup with the vinegar, place it on the upper rack, leaving the dishwasher empty otherwise, and run on its hottest cycle — usually the heavy or intensive wash. As a strong acid, vinegar is brilliant for shifting limescale and breaking down any remaining grease or soap scum. Remember, do not use bleach to clean the interior as it will damage stainless steel.  

Dishwasher with vinegar

(Image credit: Future)

6. If you’re dealing with a particularly smelly appliance, you can also use baking soda to clean a dishwasher. As a natural alkaline, baking soda will help with deodorizing, as well as shifting any final stains. Simply sprinkle a cup into the bottom of your dishwasher and run it on its hottest quick setting.  

And voila, your dishwasher should be looking like new again! Don’t forget to leave the door open once the cycle is finished to air-dry the dishwasher — this will prevent mould and mildew from building up, which can lead to that stale smell. Following these steps will keep your dishwasher in top condition, making it more efficient at cleaning your dishes, and it will last longer, too.   

Dishwasher with baking soda

(Image credit: Future)

Plates still coming out dirty?

This could be the result of incorrect loading. You want to fill the dishwasher for the best energy efficiency, but you don’t want to overload it, either. Make sure plates and glasses aren’t touching and that there’s a gap for the water to flow through. If you’re washing large plates or pans, it’s also good practice to check that the spray arm under the upper rack can rotate freely. If this gets jammed, the load will not be cleaned! You can usually raise the upper basket if you find this problem. 

Lastly, keep an eye on the salt and rinse-aid indicators. If the salt is low, it can result in cloudy glasses and streaky plates, while a lack of rinse aid will lead to wet crockery.  

Katie Mortram

Katie looks after everything homes-related, from kitchen appliances to gardening tools. She also covers smart home products too, so is the best point of contact for any household advice! She has tested and reviewed kitchen appliances for over 6 years, so she knows what to look for when finding the best. Her favorite thing to test has to be stand mixers as she loves to bake in her spare time.