Why does my washing machine smell? Six common reasons and how to fix them

Wondering why your washing machine is giving off a nasty odour? There's probably an easy fix...

Women holding her nose and wondering 'why does my washing machine smell'
(Image credit: Alamy/Future)

Washing machines can end up giving off an awful odour - but it's not always obvious what's causing the problem. We've broken down six common reasons why your washing machine smells and detailed how to fix them.

We are all often so focused on cleaning clothes, that we completely forget to clean the washing machine itself - until it begins to smell that is. It's a common problem, that can leave clothes smelling worse than they did before they went in. 

Just think about what we put washing machines through; the hair, dirt, oils, and odd bit of chunky debris left in pockets that we throw into it every couple of days. And then we just leave the machine to fester, until these nasty odours demand our attention. 

Why does my washing machine smell?

1. Washing at a low temperature

While washing clothing at a low temperature appears to be a good choice for saving energy - especially if you're worried how much it costs to run a washing machine. But, doing so consistently may lead to a pungent smell as it this won't eliminate nasty bacteria. 

The fix: To clean a smelly washing machine caused by washing at low temperatures, simply run a 'service wash' on your machine. While it sounds fancy, all you need to do is put an empty washing machine on a high-temperature cycle at a high spin rate. Doing a service spin on your washing machine at least once a month should help to keep any bad smells at bay.

Expert tip: Lynsey Queen of Clean, a cleaning influencer, relies on bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar to keep her washing machine smelling fresh. She recommends mixing white vinegar with baking soda to create a paste that you can put in the detergent drawer of your washing machine. Then, adds around 250ml of white vinegar to the drum and runs the machine on a hot cycle, followed by another hot cycle to rinse the machine.

2. A dirty door seal

If it has been a while since you cleaned the door seal of a washing machine, a musty smell can start to develop and soon your whole house may smell slightly off. Furthermore, a door seal covered in grime and soap scum can slow the flow of water into the machine, which may cause mildew to develop.

The fix: Luckily, a dirty door seal is a simple problem to fix. Simply wipe the insides of the seal, getting into all the little nooks and crannies of your washing machine’s rubber door with a dry rag before you put on the next load of washing. If mould has begun to accumulate, use a brush and mould-busting spray to scrub away the mould before ensuring the seal is dried. If you take too long to work up the effort to clean the door seal, the dirt and grime might sink into the rubber and you will have to shell out to replace the entire door.

Expert tip: Cleaning guru Kim Woodburn, who rose to notoriety on the TV programme How Clean Is Your House, recommends wiping the door seal after every wash. She says, "When you open your washing machine, run your fingers with a paper towel around the rubber rim and get the muck off."

3. A poor drainage system

If your washing machine is emitting a particularly bad and far-spreading odour, poor drainage may be the culprit. A poor drainage system leaves water in the machine, and with more and more stagnant water beginning to accumulate, the smell will only continue to grow. More importantly, dormant water leads to mould, slime, soap scum, and bacteria.

To fix: To mend a blocked drainage system, you can use a drain unblocker to quickly clear out the drain and allow the stagnant water to escape. After doing so you will also want to give the washing machine a good clean, making sure any lingering mould, bacteria and slime are removed.

4. You use too much detergent

Ironic isn't it? Using too much detergent can cause your wash machine to smell the exact opposite of clean and fresh. Using an excessive amount of detergent means the vast majority of it will be left after washing, leaving soap residues to get stuck, go mouldy and smelly, and become an excellent hiding place for bacteria.

The fix: The simplest fix for this issue is to clean out the detergent drawer and filter at least once every fortnight - and only use the recommended amount of detergent when washing clothes. Most washing machines will allow you to remove the drawer, which you can then soak in warm soapy water before using a scrubbing sponge, or toothbrush if you want to get really stuck in. Then wipe the drawer down with a cloth to dry it.

Expert tip: Follow Mrs Hinch's cleaning tips and use Flash Bathroom spray to clean the drawer of your washing machine. "It removes soap scum so it's perfect for removing old fabric conditioner," she says. She also recommends cleaning behind where the drawer sits. She does this by using a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar along with her 'trusty' Sonic Scrubber.

5. The drum is damp

The smell of damp is an unmistakable scent and one that is hard to get rid of. It's inevitable that the drum of a washing machine will get wet, but if it is continuously damp then you may start to notice a lingering smell in the air and on your clean clothes.

The fix: To ensure the problem does not persist, there are a few steps you can take to prevent the drum from getting damp. Post-washing, you want to remove clothes from the washing machine as soon as the cycle is over and make sure to leave the machine's door open so air can circulate properly and dry it out. If the air is particularly humid, using a fan in your laundry room will help to facilitate the circulation of fresh air. If none of that helps, it may be worth purchasing a dehumidifier to help eliminate excess moisture. 

6. Your cleaning method actually worked

It seems contradictory, but cleaning your washing machine correctly can actually lead to it smelling worse than it did before. Cleaning the machine, however, you choose to do it, should break up hidden gunk and this can cause a bad odour. The smell means that the dirt has not been completely washed away and now it’s just sitting in your machine.

As well as the smell being even worse, you may see black specks of dirt, or notice that the wastewater has a nasty colour to it that was not there before. This is likely to happen if you have just cleaned the washing machine for the first time in a long while.

The fix: Fortunately, this problem is easily rectified by running a second clean cycle. A simple empty hot wash may suffice, but if you need a little extra cleaning power, you can try adding soda crystals straight into the drum of the washing machine before starting the cycle.

News writer

Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse is a news writer for Goodtoknow, specialising in family content. She began her freelance journalism career after graduating from Nottingham Trent University with an MA in Magazine Journalism, receiving an NCTJ diploma, and earning a First Class BA (Hons) in Journalism at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute. She has also worked with BBC Good Food and The Independent.