At first, when we got that washer and dryer off the curb, we wondered: why would someone throw out such a nice washer and dryer? They were only a few years old, in very good condition (well, mostly, as we later discovered), and in good working order. We initially thought that whoever got rid of them must be such fancy-pants people that they couldn’t stand having a three-year old washer and dryer and had to get rid of them so they could get the latest models. Keeping up with the Joneses!
After I looked more closely at the washer, I soon developed another hypotheses. There was a bad case of mold and mildew* on the rubber gasket that seals the washer door. This is a known problem with front-loading washers. The problem: Dirt, detergent, fabric softener, lint, socks, water and who-knows-what-else gets into the various folds and tight-spots in the gasket, and stays there, creating the perfect environment for mold and mildew and other nasty stuff odor-causing bacteria. Clothes come out of the machine, freshly washed — but smelling worse than when they went in. Mold and mildew in front-loading washers is so common, it’s called the “stinky washer” or “smelly washer” problem.
Some people never have any mold or mildew problem with their front-loading washers. Other people’s machines quickly develop mold and mildew. And once it starts, it only gets worse. I wonder if the washers that never develop a mold problem are used only a few times a week (maybe in a one- or two-person household), thus giving the machines time to dry out between uses. And maybe washers that get moldy get that way because they’re used more often (like in a household with lots of kids) and they never get a chance to dry out.
There are many things you can do to kill the mold and prevent it from coming back. Which of these methods you need to use and the extent to which it is needed depends on the severity of your smelly-washer problem. The basic idea is to keep the machine as clean and dry as possible. Mold lives and thrives in high humidity. I’ve listed them in order or ease of implementation.
- Ventilate. Keep the washer door and the detergent dispenser drawer open when the machine is not in use. You might want to completely remove the dispenser drawer and set it aside to dry. I remove mine from the washer when I’m not using it and I stand it vertically in the laundry sink allowing it to drip dry. When I do this, there is always some water that drips out, which would otherwise be in the machine keeping it humid. If you can’t leave the door open between uses (because you’re afraid a child or pet might climb into the machine, for example), then maybe a front-loader isn’t right for you. Getting the machine completely dry between uses is the easiest and most effective way to prevent mold.
- Remove clean laundry from the machine as soon as it’s done. Don’t leave damp clothes in the machine overnight — or even for an hour. Always strive to allow the machine time to dry completely between uses. Check the drum and gasket area for small items (e.g., socks).
- Use less detergent. If your clothes aren’t really dirty, you can probably get good results using only a fraction of the amount of detergent people typically use. Experiment to determine the smallest amount of detergent needed. You might be surprised how little detergent is required to get your clothes clean — especially if they aren’t terribly stained or covered in dirt. It might be as little as 1/10 of the amount you’re used to using, or even less. Various blogs report good results using just water, plain water, and no detergent at all. (However, chances are good that the first time you don’t add any detergent to a load of laundry, you will still see lots of suds and there will be plenty of detergent in the water. This is detergent in your machine and in your clothes from all the previous washings. You may have to do many loads of laundry to get all of the old detergent out of your clothes and your machine.) A good rule of thumb is that if you see suds, you’re using too much detergent. The more suds you see, the more detergent you’re wasting. Especially if you see suds in your final rinse water. When you use too much detergent, it doesn’t all get rinsed away and the innards of your machine and your clothes are coated with detergent. Pay attention to what you’re doing: Don’t just pour and pour and pour the detergent into the dispenser drawer. Use a plastic measuring cup and carefully measure how much detergent you use. Reduce the amount to the minimum needed. Detergent is biodegradable, which means that it’s actually good for mold. If you don’t want to grow mold, use less detergent.
- Use hot water, at least for some loads. Washing in cold or lukewarm water saves money and is good for your clothes, but hot water kills mold. If you never use hot water, you’re not using one of your best defenses against mold. Wash bright colors in cold water, but use use hot water for whites.
- Use bleach (or ammonia, borax, or vinegar). Like hot water, bleach kills mold. So make that, “use hot water and bleach for your whites”. Wash whites in the last load of the day so your machine will be less hospitable to mold as it awaits its next use.
- Don’t put detergent in the dispenser drawer. Yes, I know that’s what it’s for, but … Whenever there is detergent in the drawer some of it will get splashed out of the drawer and onto the slot that the drawer slides into. That creates a good environment for mold: biodegradable detergent, water, and warmth. Instead, once you’ve used your plastic cup to measure the minimum amount of detergent you need (see above), place the cup in the drum along with the clothes. If you’re worried about straight detergent coming into direct contact with your fancy duds, then add some water to the cup before you put it into the machine. With some experience you might be able to position the cup so that it fills with water as your machine starts.
- Do use the dispenser drawer for bleach, vinegar, or ammonia. (Use them one at a time; combining bleach or ammonia with each other or with other cleaning products can be dangerous!) Bleach, vinegar, and ammonia are mold killers, so a bit of splashing in the drawer slot is okay. Bleach and detergent should not be used at the same time. Clothes get cleaner if washed first with detergent and water and then bleach and water. The dispenser drawer will add the bleach at the proper time in the cycle. I often use vinegar in the final rinse, instead of fabric softener (place it in the dispenser drawer’s fabric softener compartment).
- Don’t use fabric softener in your washer. Like detergent, fabric softener residue in the washer helps create a good environment for mold.
- Clean the machine. Use a clean paper towel to wipe the folds and creases of the rubber door-gasket to remove the dirt and lint that accumulates there. You may have to do this weekly, depending how many loads of laundry you do.
- Clean the machine more. An occasional (say, monthly) empty cycle with bleach or ammonia (not together!), or vinegar and baking soda, or borax will help kill mold and remove the built-up detergent residue and other gunk that creates a good environment for mold. Check your manual for instructions. There are also packaged machine cleaners that may be of use.
- Circulate air with a fan. With the washer door and drawer open, any kind of fan — a table fan or box fan — aimed at the washer and running on low will help dry the washer’s interior much more quickly than just leaving the door and drawer open. A small rack fan that attaches to the vent at the back of the washer is also an option, but it’s more expensive.
- Dehumidify your laundry room. Get a dehumidifier. If you leave your washer door and drawer open and it still doesn’t get dry, then your laundry room is too humid. This is especially likely in a basement laundry area. The best way to install it is to place it over a drain and run a hose from the dehumidifier to the drain. That way, you don’t have to constantly remember to empty the bucket (and when the bucket is full, the machine automatically turns off and isn’t dehumidifying). A dehumidifier will not only help dry your washer, it will be good for your dryer (the machine has to work harder to dry your clothes when it’s pulling in humid air), in fact, it will also be beneficial to your entire basement.
- Clean the pump “coin trap” filter. Check your owner’s manual or search the internet for instructions. A clogged filter prevents the pump from removing the maximum amount of water from the machine. This needs to be done periodically, perhaps every year or more often, depending on use.
I’ve done all of these things and am happy to say there’s no more mold in my machine.
* I am not expert enough to know if it was actually mold or mildew. I’ve used the terms interchangeably and eventually settled on “mold” to avoid having to repeatedly type “or mildew” throughout.