When your clothes get dirty, cleaning them is just a matter of turning on the washing machine. However, when your washing machine needs cleaning, the procedure is more complicated. You may not expect that a device designed for cleaning would also need a good scrub.

But, while the constant cocktail of soap and water is good for your clothing, it’s not going to keep your washing machine spotless. These substances can accumulate in the washing machine drum, thus causing a blockage. Over time, this reduces your washing machine’s efficacy and prevents you from washing large laundry loads — it can even make your clothes dirty!

Therefore, you must take care of your washing machine regularly. If you’re wondering how to disinfect a washing machine, start taking notes. With these tips and tricks, your washing machine will be just as clean as your next load of laundry!

An Intro to Washing Machines

Washing machines are such a common house appliance, you’ve likely never given them much thought. However, you may be surprised to learn the complicated history behind them.

Ancient Times

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, everyone did their laundry by hand. In ancient times it was common for people to pound dirty clothes on rocks or rub them with abrasive salts. Afterwards, they would wash them in streams and rivers to clear away any dirt.

The Romans improved the cleaning process after inventing the first soap. The crude mixture was more similar to lye and they made it using a blend of ash and animal fat. The mix was extremely efficient and quickly spread across the continent, where people tweaked it by adding aromatics and various oils to make it more fragrant.

The first washboard came about in the pioneer era. Made entirely of wood, the board had a carved washing surface that was lined with special ridges. So, when someone wanted to do their laundry, they would first soak the garment in soapy water before rubbing it against the ridges to clear away the dirt.

Modern Washing Machines

As you can imagine, washing clothes by hand was a long and fairly labor-intensive process. Consequently, when the industrial revolution came about, inventors set about making doing laundry easier. James King and Hamilton Smith came up with the first concept of a modern washer. Over the decades, others would improve the design.

Thanks to Thomas Edison’s pioneering work in electricity, the washing machine went from being operated by hand to being entirely electric. By the time the 20th century rolled around, every washing machine was electric and had a similar design.

It had a control panel, a door, and an interior barrel drum that would spin the laundry at great speeds. The side had a small compartment for laundry detergent and the entire machine was hooked to the hot and cold water pipes. The placement of the barrel depended on whether the machine was American or European.

For instance, European washing machines have a front load, meaning that the barrel is on the side of the machine. They spin clothes on a horizontal axis in a small pool of detergent-rich water. This design allows the machine to wash the clothing more thoroughly at high-intensity spin cycles. However, it also uses much more laundry detergent, which can rack up the bills.

American washing machines, on the other hand, are loaded from the top. They swirl clothes around in an upright tube, in a larger pool of water. They can run extremely efficiently with less detergent, meaning that they’re a great option if you’re trying to cut back on cleaning supplies.

Why Do Washing Machines Get Dirty?

Washing machines have a constant stream of detergent and fabric softener running through their interior. Therefore, you’d think that each time you wash your laundry, you’re also cleaning your washer. Sadly this isn’t the case. There are several things that can make your washing machine dirty, and to some extent, any clothes you put inside it.

1. Detergent

It seems paradoxical that a cleaning agent can make something dirty. But in the case of washing machines, detergent is actually the number one culprit of a dirty washer.

Repeatedly using detergent and fabric softener in your washing machine causes it to accumulate in the crevices, thus forming a filmy layer that is usually greyish in color. This layer is called soap scum and it appears when calcium stearate and magnesium stearate mix with hard water.

The more minerals in the hard water, the more soap scum your washing machine will accumulate. Likewise, the minerals can make the scum much harder, which makes it difficult to remove. Over time, if enough soap scum builds up inside your drum, your washer will start to malfunction.

Worse still, soap scum triggers the formation of 3-methyl-butanal. The compound is an aldehyde that can produce that cheesy, sweaty smell in your washing machine.

2. Bacteria

Once again, you wouldn’t expect to find bacteria in your washing machine. Sadly, the moist environment inside your washer drum is the perfect environment for various nasty pathogens to thrive.

During the spin cycle, food and dirt particles detach from your clothing and disperse in the water. That is because soap scum has a wet, slimy surface that can attract these particles. Over time, this causes bacteria to grow unchecked, especially if you wash your clothes at temperatures below 60º C. Low temperatures don’t kill bacteria, meaning that every time you wash your clothes, you’re potentially exposing them to millions of pathogens.

Unlike viruses, bacteria can survive for up to six hours outside the body. Therefore, you and your entire family run the risk of catching E. Coli from just one load of dirty laundry.

3. Limescale

Everyone who lives in an area with hard water has dealt with limescale at some point. The hard, chalky substance that forms on surfaces can be incredibly damaging to your bathroom appliances.

When the minerals from hard water come into contact with high temperatures, they alter the chemical equilibrium in the water. This, in turn, turns soluble calcium bicarbonate into insoluble calcium carbonate. The hardened calcium then separates from the water and sticks to metallic surfaces.

Apart from looking funky, limescale can also be extremely damaging. The plaque buildup gradually reduces the efficacy of your appliances, especially ones that use a heating element. Likewise, limescale can trap food particles while the washer is running. Thus, every time you go to do another load of laundry, you’re swishing old food in your clothes and making them dirtier than they already were.

4. Mildew

Just like limescale, mildew is another common problem plaguing bathroom appliances. Mold is a type of fungus that grows in damp areas that have decaying organic matter. There are several different types of mold species that can live both indoors and outdoors, in all types of climates. Outside, mold feeds on plants and decaying organic matter to thrive.

Inside, however, they require a carbon source and moisture to grow on walls, or metallic surfaces. You’ll find both of these elements inside your washing machine in spades. When mold spores settle on moist surfaces, they can form mold colonies. The constant stream of warm water helps the colony grow and the food particles from your clothing act as the ideal source of sustenance to nourish it further.

Overall, having mold can be extremely damaging not just for your clothing but for your health as well. Depending on the type, mold spores can trigger severe allergic reactions such as coughing, sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy skin rashes. However, if you have the misfortune of encountering a toxic strain of mold in your washer, then the consequences may be even more severe.

Certain strains of toxigenic mold produce mycotoxins called Stachybotrys chartarum. This substance is very harmful to human health and can cause a variety of health issues, including:

  • Cognitive difficulties such as anxiety, poor memory, or brain fog
  • Stomach pains
  • Muscle aches and spasms
  • Unexpected weight fluctuations
  • Numbness and tingling in extremities
  • Nausea and vertigo

Tips for Disinfecting Washing Machines

As you can imagine, a dirty washing machine is not good. It can not only hinder the washer’s ability to clean your clothes, but it can also put your health at serious risk. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to get it as spotless as possible.

Luckily, you can get your washer squeaky clean in several easy steps.

1. Prep Your Tools

Before you can get started, you’ll first need to acquire some basic tools. Rubber gloves, a scrub, and cleaning cloths are essential for removing any gunk that’s left over after you’ve run the washer. You’ll also need a clean bucket or another container to mix your cleaning solution.

In terms of cleaning solutions, you’ll need two of them — bleach and vinegar. You’ve likely heard that mixing these two substances is dangerous, and this is absolutely correct. However, the cleaning method does not require combining the two, so you don’t have to worry about safety.

2. Set the Washer’s Temperature

Once you’ve set up your tools, it’s time to set your washer’s temperature. It’s important that you opt for the hottest setting your washer has. This is because scalding water helps kill dangerous bacteria, as well as loosen soap scum and limescale. After you’ve set the temperature, check to see if the drum is empty. You don’t want anything in there once you start the cleaning process.

3. Add Bleach to the Drum

After the temperature is set, it’s time to add a cup of bleach directly to the drum. This amount is enough to clean both top-loaded and front-loaded washers. However, you can add another half cup if you haven’t cleaned your washer in a while and have a lot of gunk buildup in there. Be sure not to add any laundry with the bleach.

4. Set the Cycle

As soon as the bleach is in, turn on the washer to a full cycle. If you have the setting, add a hot water rinse at the end to wash out the remainder of the bleach. Depending on your washing machine, the full cycle can last between 50 minutes to an hour.

5. Scrub the Drum

Once the cycle ends, the washer will drain the bleach water, leaving the drum empty. The chemicals in the bleach will loosen the soap scum and limescale. Therefore, all that’s left is for you to scrub out the gunk from your drum.

Open the washer door and inspect the rubber seals, gaskets, the inside of the appliance door, and lid. Take care not to neglect the fabric and detergent dispenser as this area can also have hidden mold and soap scum residue. Once you’ve found the buildup, take your container and mix 1/4 cup chlorine bleach and 1 quart of water. After dipping a cloth or soft-bristled brush in the bleach solution, thoroughly scrub these areas till the buildup is gone.

6. Rinse

After you’ve finished scrubbing, it’s time to wash away the residue. Set the setting to rinse, and add half a cup of vinegar to the drum. The first full cycle washed away the bleach, so it’s completely safe to load it up with vinegar. The acidity will dissolve any leftover dirt and leave your washer as good as new.

7. Disinfect the Exterior

As soon as the wash cycle ends, it’s time to add the finishing touches to your washing machine. The drum may be clean, but you also need to scrub the exterior to make sure the insides don’t get contaminated again. Run a clean cloth over the top, the side of the washer, as well as the door. You can use a mild cleaner and hot water to clear out any potential bacterial growth still lingering around.

To Sum Up

A washing machine is an essential appliance every home needs. It’s an easy and convenient way to keep your clothes clean without having to wash them by hand. However, just because it can clean your clothes does not mean the washer itself doesn’t get dirty.

The constant stream of soapy water can cause a buildup of soap scum in your washer. Likewise, limestone, mold, and bacteria can grow inside the drum contaminating your clothes and reducing your washer’s efficacy. Therefore, it’s important to regularly clean your washing machine. Using tools you likely already have in your home and a bit of elbow grease, you can make your drum as good as new. Thus, you’re not just ensuring you get clean clothes after each wash but also extending the shelf-life of your most essential appliance!

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