How Does a Self-Cleaning Oven Work, Anyway? Here Are 8 Things You Need to Know

updated Jan 30, 2024
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Someone pressing cleaning button on stove.
Credit: Sarah Crowley

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: “Never use your oven’s self-cleaning feature,” they say, adding that it smells terrible and can damage your oven. So, maybe you’ve never pushed that button — maybe you’ve thought about it but chickened out? Or maybe you used it once, years ago, and it blew a fuse? Maybe you have lots of questions? Like, how does a self-cleaning oven actually work? We’re here to help.

It’s time to air out the truth about the self-cleaning feature on your oven. Here’s everything you need to know — once and for all.

1. The self-cleaning feature works by heating the oven to high, high heat.

When you turn on the self-cleaning feature, it’s not like little robotic arms come out and start scrubbing the walls of your oven. (But how cool would it be if that was the case?). No, when you turn it on, your oven heats up — like, a lot. Usually to about 900 or 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit!

“When the oven heats up that hot, it incinerates dirt and debris, turning it into a fine powder,” says Harry Raker, owner of Uncle Harry’s Appliance Repair School. “Then, you just wipe all that out with a wet paper towel.” And, yes, things can get smoky and stinky because of this.

2. You still need to clean up big messes inside the oven first.

The self-cleaning button isn’t exactly a fix-all button. You’ll still need to put in a bit of effort first, including scraping out any big messes. Raker says a pie or lasagna that spilled over in the oven will likely result in setting off your smoke alarm, because it will end up creating so much smoke.

Jordan Collins, appliance repair expert and owner of Two Lions 11, says you also need to take out the oven racks (you’ll want to clean them separately). Otherwise, they’ll turn black because the heat will burn the chrome coating off. Similarly, you should also make sure you pull out any baking sheets or pieces of foil that have been left behind.

3. There are some risks involved.

Turns out, many oven repair calls are due to self-cleaning problems. There are a few reasons: The high temps can cause an oven’s electronic control panel to overheat and fail. And then, there are the heating elements.

Newer ovens almost always have hidden heating elements (which makes it easier to wipe up drips and spills when they happen), and that means it’s more difficult to vent the heat from those elements and keep air circulating. The elements get so hot that fuses can blow, and those hidden heating elements can be tough to fix. They have to be fixed from behind, with the oven pulled out from the wall, and that can be an expensive and time-consuming service call. What about older ovens? We’ll get to that next…

Credit: Diana Yen

4. You shouldn’t use the self-cleaning button if your oven is on the older side.

Yes, we know we just talked about the issues with a newer oven, but an older oven can also be problematic. If yours is older than eight or 10 years, your oven might shut down in the self-cleaning process because it can’t handle that much heat.

“Nine-hundred degrees can be excessive for an older oven, so the heat ends up leaking through the insulation, which causes the fuses to burn out,” Raker says. “Then, you have to have an appliance expert replace those fuses.” To avoid that scenario, we recommend just skipping the feature altogether.

5. If you’re going to use the feature, it’s best to use it sparingly.

Because of these risks, it’s best to use the oven’s self-cleaning feature sparingly. The more you use it, the more likely it is that something could go wrong. Collins recommends using it only around holidays or when you’ll need your oven fresh for a party. Our tip: Don’t use this feature in the day or two before having people over. Use it a week or so out — and only if you’re confident in your oven’s ability. You don’t want to be left oven-less when you need to be cooking for a group.

Our suggestion: Try using the self-cleaning feature for a shorter period of time. Rather than letting it run for the full cycle, just hit the cancel button after, say, an hour or so. This will help to minimize the risks.

6. Don’t pair it with cleaning products.

While you might think that more cleaning products means a cleaner oven, do not use cleaning solutions with the self-cleaning feature. Again, the high heat is what’s breaking down all the debris in your oven, and that can be dangerous with chemicals. Collins reminds us to never use cleaning products at the same time as a self-cleaning cycle, and to wait until the oven is totally cool before attempting to wipe it down.

7. You do need to take some safety precautions.

Even if you don’t have lots of burnt-on bits inside your oven, heating enamel can cause pretty strong fumes, so open your windows to ensure proper ventilation. Your oven should automatically lock when it heats up for self-cleaning as a protective measure, so don’t try to open it — if you do, Raker says, you could break your oven in the process and risk severe burns. 

And as a precaution, make sure your carbon monoxide detector is working, and always keeps pets and kids away from the super-hot oven (ideally, out of the kitchen) when it’s cleaning itself, even if it’s locked. 

8. Customers demand this self-cleaning feature.

Several years ago, The Kitchn’s former Editor-in-Chief, Faith Durand, spoke with Adam Dahl at The Appliance Loft, an appliance shop in Cincinnati, and learned that customers want this self-cleaning feature so badly, it can be hard to sell an oven without one. And that still surprises us, considering how many people we know who never use the button and all the potential risks we mentioned. But as long as you’re using it safely and sparingly, you should be good to go.

Do you ever use the self-cleaning feature on your oven? Got any other cleaning tips to add? Tell us in the comments below!