We Tested 5 Methods to Clean a Dishwasher, and the Winner Outshined Them All

published Aug 19, 2023
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Graphic with dishwasher, then to the right, photos of 5 different cleaning materials: white vinegar, baking soda, citric acid, Dishwasher cleaning tablets, and baking soda and hydrogen peroxide “bombs"
Credit: Sarah Crowley

You might not have ever given much thought to cleaning your dishwasher (that’s the whole point of the appliance, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be inherently clean?), but just like you have to clean your sponge, washing machine, and shower, the dishwasher is another seemingly clean appliance you should clean regularly. Think of all the food, grease, and bits that swirl around inside of it when it runs, that then ultimately get lodged in the dishwasher filter or, worse, on your dishes.

To keep your dishes polished and fresh, it’s important to get a thorough dishwasher cleaning in monthly — so I set out to find the most effective method. 

Quick Overview

What’s the Best Way to Clean a Dishwasher?

The winning methods: Both citric acid and Affresh dishwasher-cleaning tablets scored perfectly in all four areas by our testers.

If you’ve never cleaned your dishwasher before, don’t worry. It’s a whole lot easier than you might expect. In fact, our winning methods (and two others) basically required zero effort whatsoever. Yes, really! Here’s how we tested to find the best dishwasher cleaning method.

How We Tested the Methods to Clean the Dishwasher

To test dishwasher-cleaning methods, I had five different writers (and researchers, clearly) test the different methods on their dishwashers, because I don’t have one (tiny apartment problems!). We distributed the testing methods to ensure each dishwasher was dirty enough for each test, because you really don’t have to clean your dishwasher more often than monthly, depending on how frequently you run it. The popular dishwasher cleaning methods we tested were white vinegar, baking soda, dishwasher cleaning tablets, and baking soda “bombs” (with hydrogen peroxide). These are the questions I asked each of my researchers.

  • How well did this method work?
  • How long did it take, from start to finish, and what was the “active” cleaning time?
  • How difficult/labor-intensive was the process?
  • What was left behind in your dishwasher after finishing the method?
  • Were there any undesirable fumes?
  • Would you recommend this method, or do it again in the future?

The Ratings

To compare methods, we rated them based on how easy they were to use, how well they worked, how long they took relative to the other methods (a high score means less time), and overall. Each component is rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 being the worst. 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Dishwasher-Cleaning Method: Baking Soda “Bombs”

  • Ease of use: 4/5
  • Performance: 2/5
  • Total time: 1/5
  • Overall: 2.5/5 

The method: Mix 2 cups of baking soda with 3 tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide in a bowl until it’s a paste-like consistency. Drop spoonfuls of the paste onto parchment paper and allow to dry for a few hours. Place one on the bottom of your dishwasher and run a hot-water cycle in an empty machine. For a fresher scent, add a few drops of an essential oil to the mix. 

How it went: Although it was very easy (it required no scrubbing — just mix, let sit, toss in the dishwasher) and left no unpleasant odors, it freshened the dishwasher but didn’t remove any stains or dissolve any of the greasy bits I observed on the inside of the door. It took five minutes to measure and mix the paste, and drop into blobs on parchment, then 12 hours of drying time (overnight), then one hour cleaning cycle on “hot wash.” If your dishwasher is very stinky, this might be a decent way to deodorize it, but that’s about all it does. It also felt a little wasteful to run a cycle with no dishes in the dishwasher. In the past, I have added a little Bac-Out to the soap dispenser to remove odors while running a full load, and this did as good of a job as the “bombs” method, but with less effort and waste.

Another tester shared: Honestly, it’s hard for me to say how well it worked. I don’t think we’d ever cleaned our dishwasher, but we bought it new when we moved in, so I’m sure it did need to be cleaned! That said, it didn’t smell or have any weird buildup so it was hard to gauge the effect. Although it was time-consuming overall, it wasn’t difficult at all. In fact, it was kind of fun! I found making the cleaning pods enjoyable and satisfying. I have no idea if this method does the job on a smelly or “dirty” dishwasher, so I can’t say I recommend it with confidence from personal experience. That said, I do have faith in baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, so I’m sure it did something. Like I said, it was fun making the pods and I will definitely do it again because I have many, many pods leftover, so why not? (I am probably going to repurpose them for other cleaning tasks. Not sure what. Also, I think you can comfortably halve the “recipe” as it makes way too much.)

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Dishwasher-Cleaning Method: Baking Soda

  • Ease of use: 5/5
  • Performance: 3/5
  • Total time: 3.5/5
  • Overall: 3/5 

The method: Sprinkle 1 cup of baking soda around the bottom of the inside of your dishwasher and rinse on a hot water cycle. Repeat this process when you have especially stubborn stains or smells. 

How it went: This method worked moderately well after three repetitions. It removed some stains, but couldn’t remove stains from the filter. It took only 60 seconds of active time and the 10-minute rinse cycle, done three times, made for 30 minutes of inactive cleaning time. This method is basically odor-free, eco-friendly, and super easy. However, this method used three cycles of hot water and a lot of baking soda, and stains still remained. Because scrubbing was necessary in the end anyway, in the future I’ll scrub the dishwasher first, and run the baking soda cycle to rinse and finish. If you’re looking for an eco-friendly and easy way to clean your dishwasher, and you’re not the sort to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, this method is good enough — especially if done regularly. 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Dishwasher-Cleaning Method: White Vinegar

  • Ease of use: 2.5/5
  • Performance: 4/5
  • Total time: 4/5
  • Overall: 4/5 

The method: After removing and cleaning the different removable parts of the dishwasher, replace them and add two cups of white vinegar to the bottom of the dishwasher and run the dishwasher on a Low or Energy-Saving cycle. Stop the dishwasher halfway through the cycle, and let the vinegar stand on the bottom for about 20 minutes. Then, complete the cycle.

How it went: I would consider this full method a more labor-intensive process that can be saved for more infrequent deep cleanings (removing pieces and washing them took about 15 minutes, while the low setting with the vinegar took about an hour). Getting down to clean the floor of the dishwasher and around the filter are the most challenging parts. After finishing the method, the dishwasher had no odor and there were no food bits around the filter. Vinegar has a strong smell, so there is that scent when you’re first pouring it, but once the dishwasher was done there was no smell at all. I will continue to use vinegar with full loads or by itself on an empty cycle, but will reserve the rest of this cleaning process to about once every six weeks or so. If the method were to use vinegar alone in the dishwasher (i.e., the final step of this method), ease, performance, time, and overall would all be 4 or 5.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Dishwasher-Cleaning Method: Citric Acid

  • Ease of use: 5/5
  • Performance: 5/5
  • Total time: 5/5
  • Overall: 5/5 

The method: Put 3 to 4 tablespoons of citric acid in the detergent cup, close it, and run a normal cycle without any dishes. Follow up with another cycle with regular dishwasher detergent.

How it went: This method worked flawlessly. Our dishwasher — which we use heavily in our home — was covered in hard water stains and was very overdue for a deep-cleaning. After adding citric acid where I’d typically put a detergent pod and running a full cleaning cycle, I opened the door and it looked like a brand-new dishwasher inside. I was stunned at how good it looked with only one cycle — it was actually sparkling. I had to run and grab my husband to witness it! Plus, the method was practically effortless and odorless. We now do it weekly, just to ensure we don’t have hard-water build up again. It’s too easy not to maintain it now that we know this trick. I even put a little sprinkle in with my detergent pods during a regular load just for that extra sparkle. Run, don’t walk to your Amazon cart to add some food-grade citric acid — especially if you have problems with hard water. We’re using it to clean the dishwasher and the coffee carafe, too — our biggest trouble areas. 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Dishwasher-Cleaning Method: Dishwasher Cleaning Tablets (Affresh)

  • Ease of use: 5/5
  • Performance: 5/5
  • Total time: 5/5
  • Overall: 5/5 

The method: Place one detergent tablet in the detergent compartment and close it. Run a normal cycle. Use two tablets if it’s extra dirty. 

How it went: This method worked really well and it was super easy. I wouldn’t be interested in trying any other method. The hands-on “cleaning” time was mere seconds, consisting only of opening the box and putting the tab in the detergent compartment. I ran the dishwasher through one complete cycle, which in my unit takes about two hours. When I opened the dishwasher, it definitely had a noticeable cleaning product scent, but nothing I would say is undesirable. According to package instructions, you can use the tab while you are washing dishes, but I preferred to do it without dishes in there. If you use the tab while there are dishes in there, you just toss it into the bottom of the unit before running. Otherwise, you put it in the detergent compartment, like I did. 

The Winning Methods

Both the citric acid and Affresh dishwasher-cleaning tablets scored perfectly in all four areas, but there are some major differences between the two winners. Citric acid is a food-safe, organic compound found naturally in citruses that can be used to clean all over the home, and is even used in recipes for its tart bite. Affresh dishwasher-cleaning tablets contain citric acid, as well as a handful of other cleaning agents and chemicals; you can get six cleaning tablets for under $9. Both methods can be used with or without dishes in the dishwasher. Citric acid, at less than $10 for 4 ounces — which would make for a whole lot of dishwasher loads, meals, and cleaning projects — is the more cost-effective, all-natural option. The next time you go to clean your dishwasher (which should be some time this month, by the way), you can’t go wrong with either option. Note: Results may vary based on the make model and functionality of your dishwasher.

Shifrah Combiths, L. Daniela Alvarez, Danielle Centoni, Mimi O’Connor, Meg Asby, and Charli Penn contributed to the writing and research of this article.