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 from the laundry basket on the floor 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 sleek front-loading washer/dryer. But soon after, my fantasy of having clothes washed and dried by the energy efficient, hardworking, and sexy machine became nightmarish, out of control stinky beast that made my family sick. After an exhaustive detective work and research, I found out how to clean and maintain a smelly front loading washing machine.
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, not using strong enough fragrant detergents and fabric softeners were the problem. 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 to skip the fabric softener was the cause of bad odor. I knew I did everything that the manual said – I used High Efficiency (HE) 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 smelly front loading washing machine 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 was 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?
The drums on washing machines, top, and front loaders, spin around an axis during the “Spin” cycle, pushing the water outward from the center to drain through the holes on the sides of the drum. Excuse the scientific jargon here but centrifugal force is used for an action for the water to drain and it just happens, the drum that spins around a Y-axis or horizontally in a top loader, not around X-axis or vertically in the front loader, drains the water more completely. There’s always a chance that not all of the water will get drained from front loaders. The result is water and moisture 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. The toxic mildew and mold create a foul smell and slimy film, as pictured above. Gross. Toxic. Unhealthy. Did I say GROSS??
Here is a picture of the gasket that has mildew and the sludge clogging the drain holes.
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
- Latex or Rubber Gloves
- Paper Towel (for cleaning mold and mildew, use a paper towel and discard them)
- Baking Soda
- Q-Tips (to get to the holes and crevices)
- Old Tooth Brush
- Bleach (optional when mold problem is serious)
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 drain holes. Clean the holes well. Call me Type ‘A’ but I use Q-tips to clean out the draining holes and an old toothbrush to scrub any stains stuck to the gasket. You only need a few 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 the 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, 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, 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 in 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 have 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 produces an even worse smell.
8. Do not use liquid fabric softeners – First of all, the average fabric softeners, like Downy, have toxic chemicals, to begin with, but its thick and slimy film coats the machine surface, making it a perfect trap for mildew and lint. Even the eco-friendly ones like the ones my husband brought home, contribute to the foul-smelling sludge. If you need to use fabric softeners for anti-static, use dryer sachets instead. See below in the DRYER section for which types are the best.
9. 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 toothbrush if you have to.
10. 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 on the pump.
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.
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.
[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. Liquid detergents coat the surface of the machine and make it attract more lint and mildew. 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!
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