Why You Need to Clean Your Dishwasher Filter

The dishwasher cleans your dirty spoons and plates, but it also needs to get a nice scrub itself in order to do its job well.

Dirty Dishes in Dishwasher
Photo: Grace Cary/Getty Images

The dishwasher clears your dishes of food debris and makes them sparkly clean without much elbow grease on your part. But what you may not realize is that the dishwasher and its parts, like its filter, must be cleaned too for the washer to do its job well.

A dirty dishwasher can harbor mold, bacteria, food, and other particles that can make cleaning difficult or, worse, could cause unsafe conditions in your home's kitchen.

When your dishwasher filter becomes dirty, your cleaned dishes may have a gritty feel and texture from built-up food residue. The dishwasher filter may also emit some nasty odors throughout the appliance that could absorb into plastic or other absorbent materials. Yuck! That's why checking in on how your dishwasher looks and smells post-cleaning is key to successful washing and the appliance's long-term health.

Here, learn what the dishwasher filter does and how often it should be cleaned. Find out how to clean your dishwasher's filter (if it has one), too.

Why Cleaning the Dishwasher Filter Matters

"As you use your dishwasher, soap scum, food, dirt, and bacteria build up in the filter, which creates dirty water and a field day for germs and bacteria, plus a gross smell," says Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT. This all can end up back on your dishes.

"When dishes are not properly cleaned, there might be residual germs and bacteria on them, which can make you sick," adds Diana Rodriguez-Zaba, president of the IICRC-certified cleaning restoration company called ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba in Chicago.

What's more, if you've ever had a clogged drain, bugs can sneak into the dishwasher through the dishwasher drain and stay in the filter, too.

Clogged drains also make the dishwasher less effective, so you might still see leftover food particles on your plates after you've given them a rinse down (even in a heavy load).

The dishwasher filters are designed to trap excessive food particles and buildup so that your dishes can be properly cleaned.

"If your filter isn't regularly cleaned, it can dramatically decrease the efficiency of your dishwasher, so you'll probably start to notice that dishes are not as clean as before, and they might also have a lingering odor," Rodriguez-Zaba says.

That's why it's important to regularly clean the filter to protect your health and avoid any nasty odors, bacteria, and residue.

How to Clean the Dishwasher Filter

Cleaning the filter is simple and fast. Plus, it only needs to be done once a month in general, although some models may require cleaning every two to three weeks. Always read the dishwasher's manual to make sure you're cleaning as often as you need to.

  1. Find the filter, and remove it. "To clean the drain, start by removing the lower rack and cleaning all of the dirt and debris around the filter with a cloth. Then, twist and unlock the filter, and pull it out," Lakatos says. It looks like a cylinder, for reference. (Not every machine has one.)
  2. Soak the filter. "Let it soak in a solution of warm water with a few drops of dish soap, as this will loosen any trapped food particles, Rodriguez-Zaba says.
  3. Clean the filter. Use an old sponge (not a rough scrub sponge) and toothbrush to clean the filter. "I recommend using an old sponge instead of your regular dish sponge to minimize cross contamination," Rodriguez-Zaba adds.
  4. Go heavy-duty if you have to. Filter still not sparkling clean? "Vinegar and baking soda together work well also, as well as simply using dish soap," Lakatos adds.

You should clean your dishwasher drain at lease every three to six months — the more you use it, the more frequently you should clean it. Check your manual; some manufacturers recommend cleaning it every two to three weeks, though, so it can vary based on the model.

"As a rule of thumb, if you notice a grittiness or grime on your dishes, it's time to clean your filter," Lakatos adds.

Use a Vinegar Rinse in Between Cleanings

If you have some bad smells coming from the appliance, a vinegar rinse might help eliminate the odor-offending food bits in between filter cleanings. Amp up the cleaning power with a baking soda and vinegar rinse two weeks or so in between cleanings to maintain its upkeep.

Sprinkle baking soda around the filter, fill a glass measuring cup with white distilled vinegar, and run a dishwasher cycle with no other items in the appliance. The baking soda and vinegar will help clean the machine and the filter again to keep smells and buildup at bay.

Pro tip: If you want to clean your filter more sporadically, don't put the dishes in with food particles on them. Rinse them off, and dispose of any food on those plates and forks. Then, put them in for a wash. Fewer food particles will then get stuck and dirty the filter.

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