How to Clean Your Washing Machine: A 7-Step Plan for Cloth Diaper Parents

By April Duffy •  Updated: 05/06/24 •  9 min read

In order for a washing machine to continue to keep getting your diapers clean, it needs to be kept clean itself.

In this article, I’ll go over how to keep your washer in top shape.

1. Run a Cleaning Cycle Once a Month

A cleaning cycle should be performed at least once a month to eliminate any odors that may have developed and remove any detergent or product buildup that may have happened.

There is a special cleaning cycle on many newer washer models that you can use with some cleaner (more on that below). If yours doesn’t have a cleaning cycle run a normal cycle with hot water.

What Cleaner Should You Use in Your Monthly Cleaning Cycle

As usual, I’m gonna go a bit against the grain here and recommend different approaches based on your situation:

Why a Commercial Washing Machine Cleaner Is Not for Everyone

The main ingredients in washing machine cleaners like Affresh are sodium carbonate (washing soda) and sodium percarbonate (oxygen-based bleach). 

As you’ve heard me say many times, these ingredients are basically water softeners and as such are great for hard water, but will just make worse any issues with ammonia, soft water detergent buildup, etc. They also don’t have the germ-killing abilities of vinegar and/or bleach.

So, People with Soft Water Can’t Use a Commercial Cleaner, And Vice-Versa?

No, it’s not a hard and fast rule! If there’s one fault of the amazing cloth diaper community it’s taking every suggestion and making it a life-or-death mountain to die on, please don’t do that here.

That said, if you have soft water and use a commercial cleaner, make sure to check for soap buildup after you clean it, and run another rinse cycle if needed to remove any lingering suds.

If you have hard water and you don’t use a commercial cleaner but opt for bleach instead, maybe because of yeast or mold issues in the past, just monitor your washer for hard water scaling or discoloration caused by mineral buildup. That’s it.

Is Bleach or Vinegar Better to Clean a Washing Machine?

Both chlorine bleach and white vinegar are common cleaning ingredients proven to deal with mold, mildew, and everyday gunk on hard surfaces (vinegar will not kill mold or sanitize fabrics), so both are fine for use in your washer’s monthly clean cycle.

If you regularly clean your washer and aren’t worried about any issues, vinegar is great, if this is your first clean in a while or if your baby has experienced yeast diaper rashes, or if you’ve had mold in your laundry in the past, bleach is a good idea.

Can I Use Bleach and Vinegar Together?

ABSOLUTELY NOT! Mixing vinegar and bleach releases a poisonous chlorine gas, which can be fatal if inhaled at high enough concentrations.

2. Keep Your Washing Machine Empty

As soon as a cycle is completed, remove the load from the machine. By doing this, you will prevent a musty smell from developing in the washtub and then getting transferred to your clothes and linens.

3. Let Your Washer Air Out

After each use, lift the lid or keep the door slightly ajar to allow air to circulate and dry out any moisture that remains. Don’t forget to remove any water or detergent gunk from the dispenser drawers. Check your washer’s manual for instructions on how to clean them.

4. Vaccum Out Pet Hair And Debris

If you have a pet that sheds in your house, you’ll likely find pet hair in your washer after several loads. If you have young kids, you’ll probably also have stickers, Playdough bits, and who knows what else collecting in your washer from time to time.

When you see some debris or fur collecting remove it by leaving the door open until the drum is completely dry and then using your vac’s soft brush attachment, vacuum out the debris and pet hair.

5. Clean the Exterior

Don’t forget to clean the exterior of your washer as well each month.

Use a soft damp cloth to wipe up spills and never use an abrasive cleanser or solvent that can scratch and damage the surface.

If you have a front loader, be sure to wipe the rubber gasket as part of your monthly clean. To do so just dampen a microfiber cloth (or old microfiber insert you don’t use anymore) and wipe the hard rubber gasket around f the tub barrel. If necessary, use a mild soap, but do not use vinegar or another acidic cleaner on it as it *can* weaken the rubber if not removed.

6. Clean the Inlet Hose Filters Once Every Few Years (or as needed)

There is a hidden spot in your washing machine that you may have never thought to clean before — the inlet hose filters. You’ll find them inside the water inlet connections at the back of your washer.

Their purpose is to keep minerals and debris in your water from getting inside the washer. And when they’re clogged, water won’t flow adequately into the machine for a wash cycle.

This is more of a concern if you have hard water, but even with soft water if you’ve been running your machine for a few years, they could be worth checking. You’ll know you need to check them when the water seems to be pouring slowly or unevenly into your washer.

To both check and clean them, disconnect the hoses on the back side, you’ll see that there are small filters inside each of the hot and cold water fill connectors (see picture above).

If they are dirty, take a spray bottle filled with water and spray inside them. The dirt should come right out but if not use a small brush to clear it away and then spray it one more time. Do this on both the cold and the hot and you should be good to go.

7. Clean The Agitator (Old Machines Only)

If your top-loading washer is on the older side, and has a central agitator, you may be able to remove it and wipe it inside and out. It’s not recommended to remove the agitator from most newer washing machines, but older machines may really benefit from cleaning the inside of the agitator, which can become gunked up with laundry products, hair, and so on.

Check your manual to see if this is an option, and if so remove the agitator and use all-purpose spray and a microfiber cloth to clean it out. Use scissors to carefully snip away any tangled threads or hair you find stuck on the agitator, then put it back in place.

Conclusion: It Doesn’t Take Long To Keep It Clean

I’ve laid out a bunch of things here, but keeping your washing machine clean shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes and a wash cycle a month. But despite how easy it is, keeping your washer clean is crucial for its functionality and longevity, and also a good way to prevent issues with your cloth diapers.

By following the seven simple steps outlined in this guide, you can ensure your machine runs efficiently, keeping your clothes and, importantly, those cloth diapers fresh and clean. A clean washer leads to cleaner laundry.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Often Should You Clean Your Washing Machine?

If you have very hard water, clean your washing machine monthly to make sure mineral deposits are removed from your washer’s internal components.

If you have soft water, and are measuring your detergent using the Measure Method of Cloth Diaper Laundry, you could get away with cleaning it every three months if there are no smells and no visible dirt.

Is it safe to use vinegar in a washing machine?

Some sources continue to say that repeated vinegar use in your washer can cause damage to the rubber gaskets and such in your washer.

The vinegar you can get your hands on typically contains from 5% to 8% acetic acid by volume, which is very low. You’re then diluting about half a cup at most of this vinegar into liters of water and using it to clean detergent residue. When detergent and vinegar interact they neutralize each other, that’s why we’re using vinegar in the first place. All this places the risk of any damage beyond low in my opinion and is why so many sources can recommend vinegar as a fabric softener and not get sued.

April Duffy

April is the founder of Cloth Diapers for Beginners and author of The Cloth Diaper Wash & Care Handbook. Since 2015, April has helped well over 75,000 parents and caregivers cloth diaper their children through this website, her book, her YouTube Channel, and the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook Group.