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Here's What To Do When Your Dishwasher Gets Fishy Smelling

Illustration for article titled Here's What To Do When Your Dishwasher Gets Fishy Smelling
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SqualorJolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

A poor reader this week has a rather unfortunate dishwasher situation:

My boyfriend and I recently moved into his condo and have found that the dishwasher — and the dishes that get washed in it — are really stinky. Sort of a bad fish smell. Internet searches indicate that this isn’t an unusual problem and to try cleaning the filter. However, this is apparently some kind of fancy Samsung with a self-cleaning filter that a human being can’t clean (says the boyfriend). We’ve tried running it with white vinegar, which helped a bit, and also running it more frequently, but the smell still lingers and I’m afraid we’re not addressing some more serious underlying issue. Anything you’d recommend to take care of the smell once and for all? Thanks in advance for your cleaning advice!


Here is a fun fact for you! Most older dishwashers have a self-cleaning filter, which is also called a grinder, because it grinds food particles up so that they’re very fine before they’re passed through to the drain line. Okay, maybe that fact isn’t super fun, but it’s a fact and now you know that. Newer models tend to have what are known as manual filters, which sounds like a less ideal set-up than a self-cleaning dealie but is actually what you want in your life for two reasons. The first is that the self-cleaning filters, those grinders, are LOUD. Which you might have guessed just based on the name! But also, they’re harder to clean should you need to do such a thing, even though technically speaking you shouldn’t have to do such a thing, the nature of self-cleaning being what it is. But as our LW discovered, self-cleaning can sometimes be a lie. But I am here to speak truth to these lies, and tell you all the stuff you might want to know about cleaning a dishwasher.

Regular Cleaning

This is super easy and is a thing you could do, hmm, maybe 2-4 times a year, or possibly even monthly depending on how frequently you use your dishwasher. Here’s all you need to do: Put a cup or so of white vinegar into a glass or bowl, place it in an otherwise empty dishwasher, and run a cycle — if your dishwasher has a ‘sanitize’ cycle, use it. That’s all! The vinegar will flush out lingering bacteria that leads to odors.

Some instructions will have you putting the cup on the top rack, some will have you putting it on the bottom rack. I will level and tell you that it doesn’t much matter! Unless the cup (or bowl, a bowl will work too!) is lightweight plastic, in which case put it on the top rack so it doesn’t melt from being too close to the dishwasher’s heating element.

Now, in the case of our LW, vinegar alone wasn’t enough to eradicate the fishy smell, which means a deeper cleaning is needed. But also! Dishwasher cleaners exist in this world and I would like to tell you about them before we get into the part where were disassembling machinery.

  • Affresh is a tablet that works to clean your dishwasher alongside regular detergent, which means you won’t need to run a special cleaning cycle; it is especially good on limescale, so if you have hard water, it will be a good choice for you.
  • Cascade makes a pod-style dishwasher cleaner that’s used in an empty machine for regular cleaning.
  • Glisten is a liquid disinfectant that’s meant to be used in an empty machine and is especially good at killing bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.

Deeper Cleaning a Dishwasher With a Manual Filter

When a dishwasher starts to smell beyond what a vinegar rinse can take care of, it’s time to do a deeper cleaning. You’ll probably want to consult your machine’s manual, which you can find online by Googling the make and model number, unless you’re one of those hyper-responsible people who files your manuals, in which case cut that out you’re making the rest of us look bad!

Here’s why you’ll want that manual: Deep cleaning a dishwasher involves taking out the filter and the nozzles, and you’ll want to check to see how best to do that on the machine you have. The filter is usually on the bottom of the unit and the nozzles are usually on the top, which means removing the racks to get at them. Once you have them out of the machine, you can soak them overnight in a bowl of diluted white vinegar (equal parts water to vinegar will do it), then give them a scrub using a small brush — I like this OXO set of two brushes for its versatility.


While you have the filter out for cleaning, check the drain line as well, as food particles can sometimes get trapped, causing a lingering odor.

Deeper Cleaning a Dishwasher With a Self-Cleaning Filter

So in theory, you should not ever have to deep clean a dishwasher with a self-cleaning filter. But of course, this theory has been blown out the window because we know that the LW’s dishwasher has gone funky smelling. You could certainly try running another vinegar cycle, possibly on a different setting like ‘sanitize’ or ‘pots and pans’ to see if that does the trick. If it doesn’t you can remove the bottom rack from the unit and use a scrub brush to manually scrub the filter using white vinegar, which will dislodge any food particles that have gotten stuck.


One thing to bear in mind is that you mustn’t use dish soap for this operation, including my beloved Dr. Bronner’s, because lingering suds can cause a big old mess when you go to run the machine!

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert, advice columnist and the host of the podcast Ask a Clean Person