Every Little Thing You Need to Know About Your Dishwasher, All in One Place

updated Nov 14, 2019
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Of all the appliances in the kitchen, the dishwasher is probably the one that’s hardest for us to understand. Why are these dishes still dirty? Why does my significant other insist on loading it incorrectly? What would happen if I put these knives in there? In attempts to answer all these questions (and more!), we’ve rounded up some of our best/most crucial stories on dishwashers.

Here’s everything you need to know about dishwashers — all in one place.

1. You need to clean it.

Dishwashers, unfortunately, don’t clean themselves while they’re cleaning a load of dishes. To keep your dishwasher working as it should, and to help it last as long as possible, you need to clean it. 

Ideally, we’d do a deep clean every month, but doing it quarterly or even twice a year (or even just doing it for the first time!) is much better than nothing. A thorough cleaning of the dishwasher involves taking out and washing the removable parts, cleaning filters, and even poking through holes that may have become clogged. We’ve broken down the steps into a simple, easy-to-follow guide (See: How to Clean Your Dishwasher.)

Note: Even if your dishwasher is clean as a whistle, hard water can leave a buildup of minerals over time. Use a tablet like Affresh once a month to dissolve hard-water deposits in your machine.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

2. You can use it to clean all sorts of things.

The dishwasher is a bit of a misnomer, because it can wash so much more than just dishes. And it’s especially useful when it comes to washing things that can otherwise be hard to clean. Here are some items that can safely run through a cycle in the dishwasher and come out cleaner than ever. (You probably don’t want to put all of these things in the dishwasher with dishes. Run them on their own cycles to ensure your dishes stay sanitary.)

  • Hair brushes and combs (pull out the hair first)
  • Flip-flops
  • Baseball hats
  • Sponges
  • Cleaning brushes
  • Bottle brushes
  • Sponge holders
  • Plastic toys, including LEGO pieces (corral them in a mesh bag first)
  • Silicone cooking tools and bakeware
  • Refrigerator shelves 
  • Cabinet knobs
  • Lightswitch plates
  • Pet bowls
  • Soap dishes and dispensers
  • Some light fixture globes
  • Plastic and fabric sports equipment (don’t use the dry cycle)
  • Vent covers
  • Vacuum cleaner attachments
  • Plastic faux plants (like succulents)
  • Metal dish racks
  • Metal grooming tools (like tweezers or nail clippers)

3. But there are some things you should never put in the dishwasher.

Just because there are some unexpected things that you can clean in your dishwasher, doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. The dishwasher is a heavy-duty cleaning machine and can damage or destroy items. 

  • Crystal drinkware
  • Silver utensils
  • Cast iron
  • Wooden utensils
  • Wooden cutting boards
  • Nonstick pots and pans
  • Copper pots and pans
  • Some plastic (check labels or the manufacturer)
  • Insulated mugs
  • China with gold plating
  • Disposable aluminum items
  • Anything with an adhesive label
  • Cooking knives
  • Pressure cooker lids

4. You should stop pre-rinsing.

There’s irony here: Pre-washing the dishes you put in the dishwasher can make them, in the end, less clean than if you hadn’t. Definitely scrape food off your dishes before you load them in the dishwasher, but don’t pre-rinse. There are a few reasons. 

First, it makes it hard to tell when your dishwasher is full of clean dishes versus dirty ones and you could end up running the dishwasher needlessly because you aren’t sure or you could end up eating or drinking from dishes that aren’t clean. 

Second, your detergent actually needs your left-on food particles to do its job. This is because the enzymes in the detergent are designed to latch on to food particles; without them the detergent simply rinses away. 

Third, and perhaps most compelling, modern dishwashers have sensors that determine how much water to use based on how dirty your dishes are. If your dishes are registering “clean,” because you essentially already washed them (albeit, not well because you knew you were going to be putting them in the dishwasher), your dishwasher won’t do the job it was made to do and your dishes won’t be as clean as you think. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

5. There is a right way to load (and unload!) it.

And it’s not (necessarily) your way or your significant other’s way, either. Each dishwasher manufacturer has a suggested way to load their different dishwasher models and you can find the diagrams online. In general, dish surfaces should be facing toward the center of the machine. Because the sprayer arm works from the middle out, facing dishes toward the middle ensures they get maximum spray.

Also, don’t sort your silverware as you put it in the dishwasher. If you put all the spoons together and all the forks together, they can nest into each other and the covered-up surface area will prevent them from getting fully clean.

When it comes to emptying your dishwasher, unload the bottom first. This way, if water has pooled on anything on the top rack, the dishes on the bottom rack won’t get wet as you’re unloading. 

Related: The 10 Best Things You Can Do When Loading the Dishwasher

Credit: Joe Lingeman

6. And there are all sorts of little things you can do to make your dishwasher better and more effective.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

7. Seeing dirty dishes after a cycle doesn’t mean your dishwasher is broken.

If the dishwasher isn’t doing its job — getting the dishes clean — it must be defective or broken, right? Well, no. There are several other factors that could be leaving you with a load of not-clean dishes. Here are some things to try if your dishes aren’t coming out clean.

Credit: Minette Hand

8. But there are other signs that it might be time to get a new dishwasher.

Signs that your dishwasher may be on its last legs aren’t as apparent as you might think. Again, just because dishes are coming out dirty, that doesn’t mean you need a new dishwasher. However, if you notice any of the following, it may be time to start looking for a replacement:

  • Your dishes aren’t hot when the cycle is finished.
  • You see rust. 
  • The door isn’t latching properly. 
  • Water isn’t draining. 

If your dishwasher is on the fritz, start thinking about these 5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Getting a New Dishwasher and know what separates an expensive dishwasher from a cheap one. When your new one’s home, here’s what to do first thing. Then, refer back to this list to use it to its full potential and keep it in the best shape for its whole dishwasher life. 

Did we leave anything out? If you have more questions, put them in the comments below and we’ll try to answer them!