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This Pantry Staple Is the Key to Cleaning Your Dishwasher

Bright white kitchen with stainless steel dishwasher.

House Sprucing

Your dishwasher thoroughly washes all that grease and grime off your dishes, so it should be fairly clean inside, right? Well, not exactly. Dishwashers don't clean themselves, which means that over time, food residue can build up in your appliance.

The resulting germs don't just cause your dishes to smell gross—bacteria and fungi from leftover food could actually contaminate your dishes. Not only that, but leftover detergent and mineral deposits may also build up in your dishwasher, causing the appliance to become less effective in washing your dishes.

So just like any other area of your home, it's important to make a routine of deep-cleaning your dishwasher. If you don't stay on top of it, you could end up with costly repairs, Luckily, you won't need any fancy ingredients, techniques, or even a ton of time to do the job effectively.

Here's your guide to cleaning a dishwasher with vinegar, according to two pros, Cyrus Bedwyr and Alex Varela.

Meet the Expert

  • Cyrus Bedwyr is an oven and appliance cleaning specialist at Fantastic Services, a London-based cleaning service.
  • Alex Varela is the general manager of Dallas Maids, a house-cleaning service in Dallas, Texas.

How Often Should You Clean a Dishwasher?

According to Bedwyr, how often you should clean your dishwasher ultimately depends on a few factors, including how often you’re using the appliance.

If you run a load of dishes daily, then you will need to clean the filter, drain, and the inside of the dishwasher at least once a month. Varela suggests performing a deep clean about twice a month if you frequently cook food with grease or oil. However, if you use your dishwasher less often and your dishes aren't often greasy, you can probably get away with cleaning it once every few months. 

Of course, there are exceptions. Here are some other times you might need to give your dishwasher a thorough cleaning, according to Bedwyr:

  • Dishes aren't coming out clean
  • The dishwasher has an unpleasant stench when you open it
  • Noticeable food buildup in the dishwasher's filter
  • Food is stuck in the sprayer arm of the dishwasher
  • Visible mineral buildup or rusting inside the appliance
  • Detergent residue inside the appliance
White kitchen with dishwasher

Instagram / cottageandsea

Things You'll Need:

There are lots of ways to effectively clean a dishwasher, but some of the best tools are likely already in your kitchen. According to Varela, vinegar is an effective way to sanitize and deodorize surfaces, and it can be especially helpful in cutting through grease leftover in the dishwasher. For that reason, it'll be a primary ingredient in your appliance-cleaning process.

While Varela says it's best to use cleaning vinegar (look for 8-10% concentration), you can also use white cooking vinegar (usually 4-5% concentration).

Here's Bedwyr's list of the supplies you'll need to achieve a clean dishwasher with vinegar:

  • Distilled white vinegar 
  • Baking soda 
  • A pair of rubber gloves 
  • A plastic tub or bucket
  • A dishwasher-safe bowl
  • An old toothbrush 
  • A clean microfiber cloth 
  • Sponge or dish brush (optional)

How to Clean Your Dishwasher With Vinegar

Step 1: Empty Out Your Dishwasher

Before you get down to cleaning, empty out your dishwasher, including all of the racks, utensil holders, and the filter, which should be located in the back corner of the bottom of your dishwasher or near the base of the bottom spray arm.

Step 2: Soak The Dishwasher Parts

Next, place all the pieces in a plastic tub or bucket filled with a mixture of warm water and a cup of white distilled vinegar. Allow them to soak for about one hour. 

Step 3: Clear Any Leftover Debris

Wipe the spray arms and the side walls of the dishwasher from top to bottom with a damp microfiber cloth to remove any lingering food, grease, or other debris.

Then, use a toothbrush to clean inside the appliance’s filter and dispenser. Sometimes, Bedwyr says, debris gets lodged in their tiny holes and slots. If a toothbrush is too big to do the job, you can also try using a toothpick. 

Kitchen bar area with dishwasher.

Charlie Interior Design

Step 4: Run the Dishwasher 

Fill a dishwasher-safe bowl with a cup of distilled white vinegar, and then place it on the bottom of your appliance. Set and run the dishwasher on a hot water cycle. "The vinegar will help break down all the smaller leftover bits and bobs of food, grease, grime, soap scum and other residues," says Bedwyr.

Step 5: Run a Second Hot Water Cycle

Once the first hot water cycle ends, take the bowl out of the dishwasher and spread a cup of baking soda along the bottom. "Baking soda is great for removing stains and also deodorizing dishwashers," Bedwyr says. After spreading the baking soda over the surface, run the appliance on a short hot-water cycle.

Step 6: Put Everything Back Together

Once all of the removable elements of the dishwasher are finished soaking, lightly scrub them with a microfiber cloth, sponge, or dish brush to remove any lingering gunk or debris.

Afterward, rinse them with water and assemble them back into the dishwasher. "And voilà, the inside of your dishwasher is now spotless once again," Bedwyr says.

Bright white kitchen with stainless steel dishwasher.

House Sprucing

Tips to Keep Your Dishwasher Cleaner Longer

As with all cleaning jobs, preventing major messes can make the job easier and less frequent while increasing the longevity of your appliance. The simplest way to prevent food buildup is to thoroughly scrape off food before loading dishes and utensils. If your pots and pans are greasy, wait for the grease to get to room temperature and dispose of it before washing them (just don't send the grease down your drain or garbage disposal).

If you have hard water, you can also purchase a dishwasher cleaner to remove mineral deposits from the inside of the appliance. Products like Affresh or Finish, used on a monthly or as-needed basis, can stave off hidden grease and grime from the inside of your appliance.

Finally, be sure to regularly rinse your dishwasher filter. If that isn't clean, the dishwasher can't effectively do its job, which means you'll unnecessarily end up with both dirty dishes and a dirty appliance.