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Whether you want to maintain your dishwasher, are having problems with it, or if it’s in desperate need of some serious TLC, knowing how to deep clean your dishwasher at least once, if not twice, a year is a great practice to adopt—both for the sake of your unit and your dishes. And possibly your sanity, too.
Read on to learn how to deep clean your dishwasher with our step-by-step how-to tutorial guide, as well as other useful tips, like how to clean a dishwasher filter, how to descale your unit, as well as insight on different products and methods you can use.
In this post…
Super Busy? Follow the Table of Contents above or click the links below to skip ahead—like a Time Warp but more convenient, or The Flash with less constrictive attire and better fashion sense.
Deep Cleaning vs. Regular Cleaning
Deep cleaning a washing machine focuses on the same things that regular cleanings do, such as descaling, deodorizing, prevention, and grime buildup; however, it also focuses on some of the mechanical and physical parts of the machine too. This might include racks, baskets, sprayers, the gasket (or seal), as well as filters.
Detail cleaning a dishwasher can address common problems such as a particular type of heavy buildup (i.e., limescale or calcium), dishes not coming out clean, a heavy or foul-smelling odor that won’t quit, etc. However, things may depend on the severity and condition of your particular unit.
In the event of more severe issues, you may need to call a professional repair service or plumber, but starting with deep cleaning your unit can be a great way to assess the situation. Please avoid deep cleaning the machine if your unit is not draining and call a service.
How Often Should You Deep Clean a Dishwasher?
It’s generally recommended to perform regular maintenance cleanings on your machine at least once a year. At the same time, most manufacturers recommend doing a light monthly cleaning as well to keep the device running properly.
For more information on how often to clean your dishwasher, check out our post here (opens a new tab) where we cover ways to figure out the right schedule as well as monthly cleaning methods.
Choose Your Method
Before you begin, it’s good to decide what method you want to use. This might involve natural or homemade options or even techniques that use store-bought or heavy-duty industrial products. A lot will depend on the condition of your machine, how much effort you want to put into it, and your goals and concerns.
Natural and Homemade Methods
Some households tend to use homemade options because they’re generally less expensive and can often be more environmentally friendly when compared to store-bought or industrial products. However, they may not always resolve specific issues when compared to other methods available or even be the best approach to consider.
Some of the more natural or homemade options might include using something like vinegar to descale and deodorize a unit. People even sometimes use vinegar as a natural rinse agent while washing their dishes.
In some situations, people may prefer to use a baking soda paste as a bleach-free method, particularly where a lot of buildup and stains are involved. Borax is another alternative to baking soda that some people might use.
Store-Bought Dishwasher Cleaners
For households that are short on time, have a lot of issues to contend with, or just want a quick fix, they may prefer to concentrate their cleaning on using a store-bought product, such as by LemiShine, Cascade, Affresh, Finish, and countless other options. These are often good at tackling more than one problem or issue (severe hard-water buildup, drainage issues, odors, etc.).
Trial & Error
In our home, we sometimes even mix methods when it makes sense and is safe to do so. For instance, I often use a small amount of dish soap that’s good at degreasing and pretty much everything else, such as Dawn, and hot water to lightly scrub the unit with. I then wipe the machine clean before running a rinse cycle. However, this may not be enough for some dishwashers, which may require stronger products or multiple washings.
During the rinse cycle, I sometimes like to place 1 cup of vinegar in the lower rack (or top for some machines) to help rinse and descale the unit a bit, but doing this during the rinse cycle is optional.
Either way, unless I’m only using something like vinegar or a very, very small amount of product, I always wipe the unit clean before running a rinsing cycle since dishwashers are only designed to be used with dishwasher-friendly products. Failing to wipe the unit clean of excess cleaning products (at least somewhat), such as dish soap, may cause overflow or other issues.
DO NOT USE BLEACH IN STAINLESS STEEL MACHINES
Items You Might Need
Because each dishwasher varies in its design, the same goes for the methods you might want to use as well as cleaning products you might need. When in doubt, check your machine or the user manual to determine if you’ll need certain things like a screwdriver and which type. Some units are more accessible and easier to dismantle than others, such as our LG, which didn’t require any tools to take apart most items, including the filters.
Tip #1: I sometimes like to use a little Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Vinegar Gel No-Rinse Cleaner or Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Baking Soda Cream Cleaner for spot cleaning and then wipe the product clean once it’s had a chance to dwell (or sit) for a while.
The Vinegar Gel is a good-smelling alternative for descaling or decalcifying mineral deposits; whereas, their Baking Soda Cream Cleaner is a convenient dupe for homemade baking soda pastes, generally meant to clean, scrub, and whiten. And the fact that they have the classic Mrs. Meyers Lemon Verbena scent doesn’t hurt either!
Tip #2: Be careful when mixing certain products since crossing some chemicals can cause a dangerous reaction, particularly when dealing with things like bleach or ammonia. If you’re unsure, make sure to research what you plan to use beforehand.
Tip #3: Believe it or not, mixing vinegar and baking soda together will cancel the effects of the two out. If you decide to use them for the same cleaning process, make sure to separate the steps involving them unless you’re merely trying to use the bubbling foam action to clean small, hard-to-reach areas. However, products with citric acid usually do this more effectively.
Warning: It’s generally recommended to avoid bleach when cleaning a dishwasher, particularly if you plan to use various chemicals or have a stainless steel interior inside your dishwasher. Always check with the dishwasher or product manufacturer before using bleach.
Steps On How To Deep Clean A Dishwasher
1. Read the User’s Manual.
Refer to your user’s manual or look up your unit’s serial number on the manufacturer’s website for a digital version. This will allow you to see what parts they suggest focusing on cleaning and how. The serial numbers are usually located at the top or side of the dishwasher door.
2. Remove Racks.
Make sure the machine is empty, then remove the lower rack. Most newer dishwashers make this easy, such as our LG, where I could easily remove all three racks; however, because it’s not always easy to do with every unit, do what you can. Set aside to clean later. If you can’t remove them easily, try scrubbing them while they’re still inside the machine using a scrub brush or sponge, either now or later, during the cleaning process.
3. Remove the Filter Basket.
Check for a filter basket, which most newer machines tend to have. The filter baskets can usually be removed by giving them a slight twist, either rotating them clockwise or counterclockwise. Remove any debris and place the filter in the soapy water to scrub away any debris or buildup. Rinse clean.
4. Remove the Coarse Filter.
The coarse filter is a flat, metal piece found at the bottom of most machines. Some units feature easy, tool-free removal once the filter basket has been removed. Other units may require a flathead or Phillips screwdriver to remove it, particularly with some older models. If you feel intimidated over the idea of unscrewing anything or taking things apart, scrub the coarse filter with a brush instead. Wipe or rinse clean.
5. Soak Smaller Removable Parts.
Soaking the smaller parts like the filters, sprayers, and utensil basket is pretty much the easiest part, depending on the state and age of your machine. However, some machines may not need this step done regularly, especially if food is rinsed from the dishes before loading, and the unit itself undergoes a light or regular cleaning ever so often. Generally, a brush or sponge can be used. Rinse when finished.
6. Clean the Door and Soap Compartment.
Cleaning the door and the soap compartment is an optional step but should be done at least once a year. Make sure to clean around the edges of the door since this isn’t cleaned while the machine is in regular use. Then clean the area where the controls are. Wipe clean with a clean rag or cloth when done.
Sometimes it can be challenging to clean around those tight and filthy nooks and crannies. These areas might include spots such as the dishwasher door, the seal/gasket, or even the soap compartment. For these tough-to-reach places, I like to use the Rubbermaid Reveal Power Scrubber, which does a way better job than even electronic toothbrushes and can take on most of the elbow grease for you. Still, regular toothbrushes and cleaning brushes, as well as Q-tips and toothpicks, can also work well.
7. Clean the Rubber Seal or Gasket.
The rubber seal (or gasket) keeps water from seeping out of the dishwasher. It’s located around the outside perimeter of the unit, where it will come into contact with the door once it’s closed.
Because this area doesn’t get rinsed by the machine, it’s a good idea to clean it ever so often throughout the year to prevent mineral and grime buildup, as well as potential mildew and odor issues.
8. Scrub the Sides, Bottom, and Non-Removable Sprayers.
With most removable parts such as baskets and racks removed, now is an excellent time to clean the inside of the unit, including nonremovable sprayers and other components. You can do this with a little soap and water, but some might prefer to use a baking soda paste, borax, or another method.
As mentioned above, something like Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Baking Soda Cream Cleaner may also work for you, or even the baking soda and dish soap combination to address stuck-on messes. DO NOT USE TOO MUCH SOAP OR PRODUCT.
If your unit is relatively clean, a little hot, soapy water should do the trick, followed by a quick wipe down to avoid a sudsy overflow later. If you have a difficult spot to work on, concentrate on that area as necessary via spot cleaning and while using a light touch elsewhere.
9. Scrub Remaining Racks.
Scrubbing the racks is an optional step, but if your unit is a few years old and hasn’t been cleaned in a while, now may be a good time to start.
Unless you plan on cleaning the racks while they’re inside the machine, you can clean them at the sink or in the shower using a little soapy water and a sponge or brush. I usually replace them and let the machine do the rinsing, but do whatever is most comfortable for you.
10. Scrub Sprayers and Removable Parts.
The sprayers tend to get a lot of clogs due to mineral buildup from water over time—more so if you live with hard water. This can result in sprayers not rinsing dishes properly and leaving debris and food particles behind.
To avoid clogs, make sure to scrub and descale them now and then throughout the year. Simply rinsing the machine with vinegar or a descaling product like LemiShine or Finish for a monthly cleaning without doing anything else may help, but it may not always be enough.
During deep cleanings, it’s recommended to scrub the sprayers with a toothbrush or cleaning brush using vinegar directly. I like to use Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Vinegar Gel No-Rinse Cleaner on my sprayers (and anywhere else I see mineral buildup), which I find easier to use due to the consistency, and then wipe the sprayers clean.
11. Wipe Unit Clean and Replace Removable Items.
If you decide to use soap, baking soda, borax, or any other cleaning product, make sure to wipe the majority of it clean as much as you can before running the machine—especially if you think you’ve used too much. While soaps and other cleaners can be useful for cleaning a dishwasher before rinsing, they’re usually not designed to be used in a running dishwasher. Too much product may cause an overflow of suds if not removed beforehand, which I had to learn the hard way a few years. It’s also a good rule of thumb to use less product to begin with. Rinse and replace all removable parts once finished.
12.1 Put 1 Cup Vinegar in Rack (optional)
As mentioned before, people often use vinegar as a means to descale, deodorize, and to clean their dishwasher lightly. Some also use it as a natural rinse agent any time they run a regular load of dishes, which is why it’s useful to use it year-round.
Vinegar is also good to use during this first stage of deep cleaning since it’s excellent at removing grime, oils, and soap residue. This makes it an ideal add-on to use while rinsing away any initial product and gunk, and when dealing with any mineral buildup or mildew that may be lurking.
To use vinegar as a rinse, place a cup of it in the lower rack (or top rack for some units if there’s a sprayer above it). Move onto the next step, 12.2.
12.2 Run a Quick or Normal Cycle as a Rinse and to Descale.
If you’ve used cleaning products, such as soap or baking soda, or have done a general scrub-down on your machine, it’s a good idea to do a rinse cycle before the actual wash cycle. This is regardless if you use vinegar on the top or lower rack to help descale, and more so if you don’t plan to do a deep cleaning wash cycle with a store-bought product next.
At this stage, it’s usually good to use one of the hottest settings, like Sanitize or Normal mode. I generally prefer to use Quick or Rinse if I plan to do another wash cycle after the initial scrub-down, even just for the sake of saving time and water. If this will be your only wash, put it on the hottest setting or as recommended by the manufacturer. However, most people like to deep clean their machines by doing a total of two separate cycles: a faster rinse and then a hot, longer wash with a specialized dishwasher cleaning product.
13. Run 2nd Wash Cycle with a Cleaner Product.
Running a 2nd wash cycle is common when deep cleaning a dishwasher (or even as a 3rd cycle). While the first rinse or wash cycle is for vinegar and descaling, or to remove gunk and potential soap from the initial scrubbing, the 2nd wash is usually done with a cleaner product. Most dishwasher cleaner products often recommend running the machine on Sanitize or the hottest available setting, depending on the product’s instructions.
Because we have hard water, we usually use LemiShine for the monthly cleaning, which is great at deodorizing and descaling. For deep cleanings, we use something like Finish (the liquid version) a few times a year (seasonally/quarterly). For instance, I like to do a deep cleaning every 3 to 4 months, often when I’m doing my whole-house seasonal cleaning every quarter and when I’m focusing on the kitchen. It usually only takes 10 minutes or less of my actual time (not including run time) since I do it often enough.
In this demo, we used Cascade to test out their product for another post, but feel free to use whichever product you’d like.
14. Clean and Polish the Exterior.
Making sure your appliances are polished and free of fingerprints and debris can be a great way to help make your kitchen look better than ever. You can choose polishing products, such as the ever-popular Weiman Stainless Steel Cleaner and Polish and Method’s Stainless Steel Cleaner.
If you prefer chemical-free options, you can also try using microfiber and water instead. My favorite method to use is the microfiber and polishing cloths by E-cloth unless I’m really after some serious shine, such as for open houses or family get-togethers.
Regardless of the technique you use, polishing your dishwasher at least once a week can make for a great finishing touch, but even more so after a deep cleaning.
15. Give Your Garbage Disposal Some Much-Needed TLC.
Your dishwasher and garbage disposal can go hand in hand. What might be stinking or even clogging up one area is likely wreaking havoc on the other or might eventually, perhaps even literally. In fact, both garbage disposals and dishwashers are commonly the primary sources of unseen causes for odors in the kitchen.
Because of this, we often recommend cleaning your garbage disposal either before or after washing your dishwasher to help keep things functioning and smelling great. Some people may use store products, while others may prefer a lemon or lime wedge, baking soda, vinegar, and so forth. For this demo, we used LemiShine Disposal Cleaner (external product link, opened in a new tab), namely for its foaming action and yummy citrus scent.
Note: After running the unit, you may see a little calcium or mineral deposit left inside the machine. This is fairly common and should go away with a simple wipe from a damp cloth or sponge. Repeat the final cleaning wash cycle using dishwasher cleaner product again, if necessary or for older machines with a lot of build-up.
Because each machine and household is different, it may be necessary to experiment to see what works right for you. Even though some might do three or more wash cycles for their deep cleanings, our goal was to achieve a proper deep cleaning, avoid unnecessary steps, and to conserve a little water. Therefore, we decided to use the 2-Wash-Cycle method for this tutorial:
- Baking soda and/or soapy scrub.
- A quick wash cycle to rinse and/or to descale (if using vinegar during this step).
- A longer wash cycle, using Sanitize or the hottest setting, and a store-bought dishwasher cleaner product, such as Cascade Dishwasher Cleaner, LemiShine, Oh Yuk, Finish or similar.
Again, because each unit and household varies, as do the circumstances involved, try to play around with it and see what works for you. What might work well in one unit or house may not work well for another, as I recently learned after moving to another part of the state.
And if you don’t feel like taking the whole thing apart, focus on key things such as the filters, the utensil basket, door, gasket seal and sprayers, and run one cycle with something significant, such as a store-bought dishwasher cleaner. You can always get to the rest next time.
Interested in learning more neat-ish dishwasher cleaning and other related tips? Check out these related posts below, and let us know your favorite method or product to use to clean a dishwasher down in the comments.