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5 Common Washing Machine Smells (Some Normal Others Dangerous)

Your washing machine is one place that you aren’t expecting to get bad smells from (at least, I would never expect it). But bad smells from a washing machine are actually not uncommon! That being said, one shouldn’t write these smells off because some require immediate attention.

The odors that you can experience wafting up from your washer can be divided into five groups. And don’t worry; all the smells can be eliminated with relative ease.

Chemical odors (not dangerous) arise from detergent issues. Improper drying leads to wet dog odors (not dangerous) and musty/moldy smells (dangerous). Sewer gas (high levels = toxic) escape drains due to clogs or low-pressure systems. Bacteria growing in dirty washers emit foul odors (not imminently toxic).

1. Chemical Odors

Chemical smells coming from a washing machine are most likely related to the detergent. In general, the smell is not dangerous, nor does it indicate there is a problem.

However, if left, it could become harmful, depending on what is causing the smell, so it should be addressed.

Too Much Detergent

Using too much detergent could cause a chemical smell.

Detergents are designed to have a pleasing fragrance, but underneath the fragrance is the raw smell of chemicals.

woman pouring detergent in the washing machine

If you were to use an excessive amount of detergent (maybe you have changed brands and don’t realize that the quantities required are different), then the underlying chemical smell can come through, overpowering whatever scent the detergent contains.

Using too much detergent can also lead to yellow stains on your clothes when they come out of the dryer.

Clogged Dispenser

The odor might be caused by a clogged detergent dispenser.

This would create a chemical odor because the detergent is not being completely used up. By remaining in the washer, the smells can linger, and once again, the underlying chemical smell will start to become more noticeable.

Sensitivity to Detergent

Something that people don’t generally consider is that it may be the detergent itself that’s causing you to notice chemical odors.

Our bodies’ senses are often heightened towards things that it thinks are potentially harmful. Your body could be noticing the chemical smell because that particular detergent is something your body recognizes as harmful.

I have a lot of allergies, especially contact allergies, and there are certain chemical-based smells that are extremely offensive to me but not to the rest of my family.

Something Wrong With the Washer

A washing machine that isn’t functioning properly might be causing a chemical smell too.

Specifically, the odor can arise if the washer isn’t rinsing the clothes well enough. This then leaves detergent on the clothes and drum.

Getting Rid of the Odor

Getting rid of a chemical odor requires knowing what is causing the smell.

  • In the case of using too much detergent, the answer is simple, try to scale back how much detergent you are using. It is also good to make sure the amount of detergent is appropriate for the size of the load.
  • A clogged detergent dispenser can be fixed rather easily. Just remove the dispenser (normally, there is some sort of latch that will unlock the dispenser).
    • After removal, inspect the dispenser. You may have to use a wire or wooden skewer to clear out any blockages.
    • Otherwise, if there isn’t something visibly blocking the dispenser, soaking it in warm/hot water can help break up anything unseen that is causing the clog.
  • If the problem is with your sensitivity to the detergent, then swapping detergents should fix the problem.
  • A washing machine that isn’t rinsing clothes well enough may require a little more effort than these other solutions.
    • If the poor rinsing is due to too large of loads, then not washing such large loads should solve the problem.
    • Alternatively, the pump filter and the drain hose should be checked. The pump filter needs to be checked to be sure that it is not clogged. The drain hose needs to be checked for clogs or bends.
Dirt inside the pump filter of a washing machine

2. Washer Smells Like Wet Dog

A washing machine that smells like a wet dog is having problems with dampness.

Washing machines have a filter that is meant to catch debris from clothes, including fibers. If the debris trapped by the filter isn’t able to dry out properly between washes, it can start to smell like a wet dog.

This problem can also arise if the washer isn’t draining water properly and standing water is left in the drum.

A washer that doesn’t drain properly is always a problem, but you are only likely to notice the odor if the washer goes unused for long periods of time or if the door is always kept closed after you have used it.

In general, this smell isn’t particularly dangerous, but it can turn into a mold problem (see next section), which can be harmful, so it’s best to deal with the wet dog smell immediately.

Getting Rid of the Odor

Cleaning the filter appropriately and often is a good way to prevent the odor from developing. The filter is most likely located in one of four places:

  1. The top lip of the drum
  2. The agitator
  3. Within a door on the front of the machine
  4. Near the drainage hose or water pump

Top-load washing machines normally have their filter near the drainage hose or water filter. Front-load washers almost always have their filters located near the bottom of the machine by the drainage hose.

Although these are the most common places, the owner’s manual will explicitly say where your filter is.

Washing machine filters can be cleaned by soaking them in warm water, followed by a gentle scrub with a toothbrush or a brush used for cleaning dishes. The warm water is meant to soften the fibers that have accumulated, while the brushing is meant to remove them.

The odor can also be avoided by leaving the machine’s door open following each wash. This allows the inside of the machine to dry properly and also prevents the odors from being trapped and increasing in intensity.

Open white washing machine with white clothes inside, odor can be avoided by leaving the machine's door open

It is also important to make sure that the machine is draining properly. If you are having issues that a plumber’s snake is not solving, you might need to call a plumber.

3. Musty/Moldy Odors From Washer

Mold odors in a washing machine can be very problematic both for the cleanliness of the clothes and for your health.

Mold likes to grow in dark, damp areas. This is the exact environment that a washing machine offers. The potential for mold greatly increases when the washer door is kept closed because moisture gets trapped inside.

Mold is most likely to grow in the drum, on the door, on rubber gaskets, and on the filter.

Exposure to mold spores is what makes mold potentially dangerous. Inhalation of mold spores can create symptoms like those experienced during allergic reactions. Some of these symptoms are runny nose, watery eyes, coughing, difficulty breathing, and headaches.

One of the most significant dangers associated with mold is that the longer the duration of exposure, the more intense the symptoms become.

The potential for repeated exposure is very high when considering a washing machine with mold because it is in an enclosed space and one needs to get very close to the mold to use the machine.

Getting Rid of the Odor

To get rid of mold odors, you will need to get rid of the mold itself—obviously.

This can be done in a few easy steps.

How to get rid of mold odors from your washing machine

First, whenever dealing with mold, one should wear gloves and a mask to reduce the number of spores that are contacted/inhaled.

A mixture of bleach and warm water or vinegar and warm water (do not mix bleach and vinegar!) can be used along with a towel to remove mold.

Soak the towel and then use it to scrub the mold off.

After cleaning the moldy spots by hand, run the machine to help clear away what is left.

Some washing machines have a self-clean cycle that works well for getting rid of mold.

If your machine doesn’t have a self-clean option, simply run the machine at its highest temperature with either vinegar or bleach. You might have to throw in a few old towels as some machines won’t operate if they don’t detect a weight in the drum.

After running the washer, it should be wiped down with a clean towel so that there is no moisture left over. Be sure to leave the door open so that any remaining moisture isn’t trapped.

After all this, the musty/moldy odor should be gone.

It should be noted that if there is any mold remaining after your first round of cleaning, you will have to do a second round. Mold spreads, so if there are even a few spores left, they will multiply, and your efforts will have been in vain.

4. Sewer Gas

An odor smelling of sewer gas can come from a washing machine too.

This could be a sign that your home has a pressure imbalance; specifically, there is a low-pressure system indoors.

When the pressure is lower indoors than outdoors, air will be pulled in to try and equalize the pressure. Unfortunately, one source of air is the plumbing system.

Sewer gas can be pulled from the pipes connecting to your washing machines, leading to the unpleasant odor.

Blocked drains can also lead to sewer gas escaping into the washer via the drain. A drain that is blocked may not be able to have air flow out and away from the washer. Instead, it will push the air back in the direction of the washer.

For the most part, sewer gas odors are not dangerous, but at high concentrations, they can become toxic. At high concentrations, there is also the potential for the gasses to combust.

Getting Rid of the Odor

The first thing that you want to do is eliminate the reason for the gas coming up through the washer drain.

The most likely reason for a low-pressure system in your house is exhaust systems with no makeup air. Ensuring that there is sufficient replacement of the air removed from the house will stop the draw of air from the drains.

This can be done with makeup air units.

Blocked drains can be tackled with a plumber’s snake. I would be cautious of using chemical drain cleaners as they are not always effective and can build up in front of the clog and cause a whole lot of new problems.

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If you are struggling to come right, then just call in a plumber. Sometimes, not having to get your hands that kind of dirty is worth the callout fee!

Should the sewer smell still linger in the machine after sorting out the source of the odor, you can run the machine a couple of different ways to clear it up.

One way is to run a small load through the machine (no clothes!) with just hot water, white vinegar (half distilled), and baking soda.

This should reduce the smell, but if it doesn’t, you can repeat it using a cup of bleach with baking soda instead of vinegar. Make sure you are not doing this with clothes—they will be bleached.

After doing these two loads (or potentially just the first), finish with a hot water cycle.

5. “Foul” Smell

Sometimes washers will emit generally “foul” smells that don’t land in one of the categories above.

If this is the case, most likely the problem is that the washing machine is dirty. These types of smells are caused by bacteria, which grow on dirt, body oils, and soap scum that can build up in your washer.

Although the smells are certainly unpleasant, they don’t necessarily pose any dangers.

Dirt is most likely to build up at places where water is draining from the washer. This is because, during the wash, the dirt is removed from the clothes and held in the water. Then, as the water drains, not all the dirt goes with it, and some remains on different areas of the washer.

These areas might include the drum, the filter, and the drainage hose. More dirt might be left over in the drum if the washing machine isn’t draining properly.

Getting Rid of the Odor

In order to get rid of general “foul” odors, one needs to know how to properly clean the washing machine.

All that is needed for cleaning a washing machine is bleach and vinegar (again, not mixed!).

  1. Start by filling the machine up with hot water as if there were a large load of laundry being done.
  2. Then, add the bleach and run the machine for one minute. This is to make sure the water and the bleach are completely mixed.
  3. Leave the machine to just sit (with the door open if it’s a top-loader) for an hour or so without running.
  4. Once the hour is over, close the door and let the machine run a full cycle. Once the water has drained, repeat the process, this time with the vinegar.
  5. After this second cycle, the machine can be sprayed with a mix of vinegar and water and then wiped clean with a towel.


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