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How to prevent mold from growing in your washer and how to kill if it's there

Your washing machine could use a regular deep cleaning to keep mold and bacteria at bay.

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Clean your washer regularly to prevent mold and mildew growth. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Your washing machine can harbor mold and mildew if it's not regularly cleaned. And while it's not always visible, there are a few signs that can tell you if your washer is due for a scrub. If there's a sulfur smell in your clothes or laundry room, it's a sign that mold and mildew are growing. Fortunately, there are ways to kill the mold and prevent it from coming back.

Keeping the lid closed traps moisture, which can lead to built-up bacteria and a bad smell. More could even be hiding if you use the cold-water setting a lot. If you haven't cleaned your washing machine lately, it may have mold and mildew. 

I'll explain how to get your clothes and washing machine smelling fresh and clean again, and to keep the bad smells from coming back. Plus, I'll show you how to spot the gross gunk, clean it out and keep bacteria out for good. 

Leave the lid open if you're not washing clothes 

Mold grows in dark, moist areas, which is what your washer becomes after you've unloaded the clothes. Leaving the door open helps to ventilate the washer and prevent mold from growing in the first place. 

Remove your wet clothes right away 

When you're planning to throw a load of laundry in, make sure you'll be home to remove the clothes when the timer goes off. That means don't start the washer before going to work or to bed. Not only does this prevent mold from growing in your washer but it keeps your clean clothes from mildewing.

Dry damp seals and parts after each use 

After you're finished using your washing machine for the day, make sure to wipe down any part of the washer that's damp. This includes the lid, drum, door, rubber gaskets and detergent dispenser (if your machine has that feature). Keep an old towel on hand for this purpose.

Make sure to dry the seals along with the rest of your washer to prevent moisture from sticking around. And while mold contamination can happen in any washer, it's especially common in high-efficiency (aka HE) front-loading washers. That's why you should regularly wash the gaskets and seals around the door and keep them dry. The gaskets make sure water doesn't leak out around the door and also do a good job of sealing in the moisture that can help mold grow. You should also remove pet hair, crumpled paper or any other dirt in your washing machine right away. 

Read more: How to buy a washing machine

Only use HE detergent powder in an HE machine

Liquid detergents can leave a residue in your washing machine, giving mold a food source. So if you have an HE washer, the first thing to do to keep mold in check is to make sure you're using a laundry detergent made specifically for this type of washer, which will produce fewer suds. (Look for the letters HE on the soap container.) Better yet, steer clear of liquid detergent and switch to powder detergent or pods. And whichever you choose, make sure you're using only as much as you need to wash your clothes. If you use too much, your clothes may have a smell and residue.

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If you're using an HE washer, it's best to use a detergent made for HE washing machines. 

Taylor Martin/CNET

The best way to kill mold and bacteria 

If you've got mold in your washer, here's how to get rid of it:

1. Start by putting on gloves and grabbing an old towel that you don't care about.

2. Mix a solution of either bleach and hot water OR vinegar and hot water. Never mix bleach and vinegar together, as it creates a chlorine gas that can be harmful to you.

3. Dip the towel in the mixture and start scrubbing away at any visible mold. Make sure to hit the detergent dispenser and around the gaskets.

4. If there's a gasket around the door (front-load washers have them), carefully and thoroughly clean and dry it, including all the folds.

5. Run a wash cycle on the hottest setting your machine offers with a cup of bleach or vinegar. (Not both!) If using bleach, pour it in the compartment designated for bleach. If using vinegar, pour it in the detergent slot. If your machine has a self-clean cycle, you can use that setting. This should kill any hidden mold that you may have missed.

6. Next, use another old towel and wipe away all the moisture in your washing machine. This includes the drum, dispensers, seals and any other areas you can reach.

7. Lastly, leave the door to your washer open to allow air circulation to dry out any parts you missed. Doing this monthly will help prevent mold growth.

Once you've cleaned your washer, it's time to move on to the rest of your house. Start with the bathroom: Here's a simple one-hour science hack for degunking your showerhead, and here's how to unclog a toilet without a plunger.