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Washing Machine Smells Bad, Could it be Hard Water?

  • Alma 

Ever have that moment when you open your washing machine expecting a clean, fresh scent only to be hit with an unpleasant odor? It’s annoying realizing you’ll have to rewash the clothes. It’s also gross thinking about all the germs necessary to create such smells.

There are a few things that would cause such a strong smell. It could simply be the clothes were left in too long giving bacteria, mold, and mildew time to grow. It could also be that you’re using hard water and your clothes are not actually any cleaner than when you put them in.

Even though you can’t see it, hard water can cause havoc on your laundry. The minerals in hard water react with soap, leaving a residue on your clothes that traps dirt and bacteria, causing smells. This results in odors that seem to linger after washing.


85% of the USA has hard water. In Utah, the average hardness is around 298 parts per million which is considered very hard.

Learn more at the USGS

What Causes Bad Smells in Washing Machines?

By identifying the potential causes you’ll understand how to eliminate the odors.

Trapped Dirt: Over time, washing machines collect dirt, hair, and other debris in areas like the drum, filter, and drain hose. This accumulation of material provides a home for bacteria and mold to grow.

Hard Water: Minerals such as calcium and magnesium react with soap and create a film. This film traps dirt and bacteria in your clothes. Hard water can also build up inside the washing machine, further contributing to the growth of organisms that cause smells.

Mold and Mildew: Damp environments like a washing machine are an ideal breeding ground for mold and mildew. They can flourish in machine parts like the door gasket, detergent dispenser, and drum.

Insufficient Drainage: A blocked drain causes stagnant water, which fosters bacteria growth and causes smells. Blockages can occur from debris buildup, faulty drain pumps, or problems with the plumbing system.

Fabric Softeners Buildup:  Although fabric softeners can enhance the softness and fragrance of clothing initially, they have the potential to accumulate within your washing machine over time. This buildup can attract grime and bacteria, ultimately leading to odors.

Leaving Wet Clothes in the Machine: Trapped moisture causes the growth of bacteria and mold, which may result in unpleasant odors. Leaving clothes in that washer for more than a few hours will result in odors.

How to Fix Bad Smells in a Washing Machine

Learning your washing machine is a breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and mildew is almost enough to make someone consider hand washing everything. However, there are solutions to fix and prevent bad smells.

Deep Clean

  • Rubber Gasket: Front-load machines have a rubber gasket around the door. Thoroughly clean and scrub this with warm water and dish soap.
  • Detergent Dispenser: Detergent residue can build up in the dispenser drawer. Clean the drawer thoroughly with warm water and soap.
  • Vinegar Rinse: Run an empty cycle using hot water and a cup of white vinegar.
  • Clean the Drain Filter: Locate and clean the washing machine’s drain filter. (Consult the owners manual)

Addressing Hard Water 

  • Water Softeners: This is the most popular and effective way to address hard water. Benefits include soft water lathers better with soap and preventing scale buildup in pipes and appliances. Research also shows it can potentially improve skin and hair health.
  • Salt-Free Water Conditioners: A new technology. However, it is not as effective for all types of hard water. The cost of the machines is higher but has lower maintenance costs.

Preventative Measures

To keep your washing machine in top shape and smelling clean, remember these tips;

  • Avoid over-stuffing the washer to prevent dirt buildup.
  • Use the right amount and type of soap recommended for your washing machine. refer to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Use hot water to kill bacteria in heavily soiled items.
  • leave the door open to let moisture escape and prevent mold growth.
  • Run cleaning cycles while using white vinegar to maintain freshness.

Why We Recommend Using a Water Softener

Hard water might not be the only reason clothes that went through the wash might still stink. However, it is a contributing factor. Hard water minerals react with soap, forming a mineral film that traps odor-causing residues onto clothes. Using a water softener this reaction no longer takes place reducing this film which allows clothes to be better cleaned from germs and mildews. 

Soaps,  detergents, and fabric softeners dissolve slower in hard water. Soap scum forms which is a great place for bacteria to grow. In soft water cleaning products disolve quickly reducing the amount of soap scum and leaving everything feeling and looking clean.

Hard water can also contribute to the buildup of calcium, lime, and other mineral deposits within appliances such as the washing machine. Using soft water reduces and even starts to flush out these build ups which extends the lifespan of appliances, and plumbing systems. 


Hopefully, you have gained valuable insights and practical steps to address and eliminate any washing machine smells. Most of the time, these suggested action items are enough to resolve any smelly concerns.

However, if you’re still finding your laundry room stinks, there might be a more serious issue. In this case, we here at Sunset Plumbing would be happy to come out and see what the issue is. In addition if you need to install or replace a water softener, we’d be happy to help.

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Alma Bradshaw

About The Author

Hello, My name is Alma Bradshaw. I'm a licensed plumber with over 20 years of experience in the industry. It's important to stay informed and up-to-date on the latest plumbing techniques, innovations, codes, and regulations. Learn more about plumbing here and feel free to comment below with any questions.

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Sunset Plumbing Utah

1562 Evans St, Lehi, UT 84043

Sunset Plumbing

776 N 470 E Genola, UT 84655

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Sunset Plumbing Utah

1562 Evans St, Lehi, UT 84043

Sunset Plumbing

776 N 470 E Genola, UT 84655

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