How to clean your dishwasher (hint – don’t bother with the vinegar)

Have you ever seen an icky residue appearing on your dishes or the inside of your dishwasher? This is food particles residue building up over time. You may need to clean your dishwasher.

The good news is that it’s fairly easy to do and you may be able to avoid a service call by doing it yourself.

how to clean your dishwasher buildup

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How to clean your dishwasher

  1. Empty the dishwasher of all dishes and remove the racks.
  2. Look for residue built up on the surfaces of the dishwasher and around the seal, on the door, etc. Spray it with a heavy duty cleaner, let sit a bit and wipe away.
  3. Look for residue inside the spray arm. You may need to clean the holes with a toothpick. Remove spray arm and rinse well with hot water.

    how to clean dishwasher spray arm
    You’ll want to clean out these holes on the dishwasher spray arm.
  4. Look for any places that are trapping that icky residue. We had a dishwasher that trapped hideous amounts of gunk in the door panel. It was supposed to be a steam vent, but somehow food kept getting inside it. Once I learned to pop the vent cover off and wipe it out weekly, our dishwasher stayed much cleaner.
  5. Now for the biggest culprit – the drain. Each dishwasher is different, but they all have a drain at the bottom where the dirty water and food is washed away. Food can get trapped down there and build up over time. You may be able to unscrew and remove the bottom cover and clean it out. If it doesn’t simply unscrew, consult Youtube or your owner’s manual to see how to clean out this section.

Related: 18 kitchen cleaning hacks to make your life a little easier

Here’s a video demonstrating more involved cleaning if you need to take your dishwasher apart.

How to prevent food residue in your dishwasher

A simple way to keep this residue from building up is to run a hot water cycle every week or so with a tablespoon of citric acid in the soap dispenser. The citric acid breaks down the build-up and helps it wash away.

Even running it on a monthly basis should suffice the less frequent dishwasher runners.

You can buy a bottle of citric acid powder from Amazon for about $6. My bottle lasts about a year.

What about running a wash cycle with a cup of white vinegar?

You may have heard to use vinegar in an empty wash cycle. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work very well. This is because it just gets washed away in the initial rinse cycle.

And even if you put a cup of vinegar in a bowl inside the dishwasher so it doesn’t get washed away, it will be so diluted by the wash cycle that it isn’t going to do much.

Citric acid is much more effective at breaking down food residue.

In fact, you might be able to kill two birds with one stone if you have some classic Tang drink powder in your pantry! Yes, Tang has citric acid in it.

This video shows how some people are cleaning their dishwashers using TANG, believe it or not. (Note: We have not tried this ourselves, but we thought it was interesting.)

A word of caution regarding using vinegar & acids too frequently in the dishwasher.

For the casual clean of your dishwasher, it’s generally fine. Some people, however, have turned to using vinegar as a rinse aid for every single wash.

And while it definitely helps to leave the dishes spot-free, an article on CNET explains that prolonged use of vinegar in your dishwasher like this can break down the rubber in the gaskets and hoses over time. So be aware!

How do you clean a moldy dishwasher?

It turns out that citric acid and vinegar do wonders for cleaning mold. If you have a moldy dishwasher or notice some musty odors, you’ll want to wipe down everything inside with a diluted mixture of either in soapy water.

Don’t forget the rubber seal on the door!

After everything has been wiped down, run a hot dishwasher cycle using the citric acid. Repeat until mold has been removed.

To maintain a mold-free dishwasher, be sure to air out your dishwasher between uses so that excess water escapes. Or better yet, use a microfiber dry cloth to wipe down the water, especially around the seal.

If you have problems with food building up, you may want to pre-rinse your dishes before loading.

Newer dishwashers shouldn’t require this, but our 12-year-old one definitely did not.

More efficient and modern models will definitely help with this issue. Time for a trip to Home Depot?

Have you ever had to clean your dishwasher?



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4 thoughts on “How to clean your dishwasher (hint – don’t bother with the vinegar)”

  1. Thanks for this post! I just moved to a new place and there’s an old dishwasher left from the previous owner, that looks in pretty good condition. The problem is that it obviously needs cleaning and I’m pretty new at this and have never cleaned such thing before. So I’m definitely taking advantage of your post. Thank you for sharing all this useful information!

  2. I have a dishwasher with a stainless steel basin and the dishes will smell like fish if I don’t spray the inside with vinegar before each wash. ( I remove and clean the parts regularly and I use standard rinse aid in the rinse aid compartment). I disagree with your vinegar comments. I haven’t tried citric acid but also read that citric acid in hot water combines with lime deposits to form a buildup that’s hard to remove.


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Welcome. I’m Sarah!


I’m the creator of Decluttering School (formerly known as Early Bird Mom), lover of organized spaces, encourager to women and mom to four boys. Click here to read more!

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