How to Remove Detergent Build Up in a Washing Machine

Dear Home-Ec 101,
I’ve recently noticed a layer of scum around the agitator.  If I were able to get my head in there I’d probably find it throughout.  Is there a way to get this out without scrubbing the thing?
Build Me Up Buttercup

detergent build up in washer

cc Flickr photo by Adrian Clark

Heather says:

This response focuses on top loading clothes washers, but the same problem often occurs in front loading washing machines, too. Front loading clothes washers do not have an agitator.

What you’re looking at is most likely a layer of detergent build up that occurs when suds are splashed onto the agitator or other parts of the wash basin not normally under the water line. Just like soap scum build up in your shower, the water evaporates leaving behind a residue that we often refer to as soap scum. In areas with hard water, the problem is exacerbated by lime scale which refers to mineral deposits also left behind.

The best way to deal with build up situations like detergent and lime scale is prevention. Regularly cleaning your clothes washer will keep the build up from becoming significant and difficult to deal with. Once a month run an empty, large load, with 2 – 4 cups of white vinegar, depending on the capacity of the machine. The acidity of the vinegar helps dissolve the detergent and lime scale build up that may accumulate on the agitator and wash tub of a washing machine.

For safety’s sake, do not use this cleaning method immediately following a load in which chlorine bleach has been used, bleach and vinegar should not be mixed.

Do not add vinegar through the bleach dispenser.

If you want to be extra cautious add water, through the bleach dispenser, to the load prior to the cleaning cycle.

In your case, it sounds like the detergent build up has been accumulating for some time, one load may not be enough. If this is the case, it is more efficient to apply some elbow grease to the situation.  Again, making sure that no bleach is present in the machine, spray the agitator and wash tub with a dilute solution of white vinegar (usually 50:50 works) give the vinegar some time to dissolve the build up and then attack the area with either a scrub brush or sturdy sponge. Thinking about it, it seems as though a NEW -never used- toilet scrub brush may help those of you on the shorter side reach some areas of the wash tub. Again, I stress the NEW toilet brush aspect of the suggestion. Scrubbing will help remove what has been loosened by the vinegar.

What you’re doing with the dilute vinegar is dissolving and removing the top layer of scum. Only so much of the build up can go into solution -your vinegar mix- before it is saturated -unable to dissolve anymore. Once this happens, just rinse it away and spray again. Yay for chemistry! Science can be cool when it is working for you.

To help prevent this problem for reoccurring use a simple test to see if perhaps you’ve been using too much detergent or overloading your machine.

guide to the laundry room

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Take a clean, dry towel and place it in the empty wash tub. Set the washer for a small load on hot. Allow the towel to agitate for a few moments. Open the lid and look in, if you see suds, you have detergent build up in your laundry. This is caused by one of two problems, 1) using too much detergent or 2) overloading the machine so it cannot be rinsed properly. Check your manual to determine if you have been over stuffing the machine and experiment with using less detergent if that is the prime suspect.

Happy laundering!

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  1. Eric on April 13, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    Is there a tool or brush that can be recommended for cleaning soap scum residue from the agitator and its many curvy, over and under and other hard to reach places?

    • Melody on February 19, 2018 at 7:30 pm

      Just got finished scrubbing down the washer. Had to remove screws to lift the lid. Lots of gray scum spots. Amazingly the hack I have found on uses for used dryer sheets scrubbed it away with little elbow grease. I am planning to keep up with monthly cleanings and pay attention to detergent amounts and load sizes. Is powdered detergent better than the liquid?

  2. Andrea on April 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    I seem to have an issue with bleach spots on some of my clothes especially my husbands any ideas on what this could be from?

  3. Wynnie Bee on April 2, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Thanks for the tip I'm going to give this a try today. I've also noticed a slight stale smell in my top loading washer. I always keep the lid closed because we have four cats who sometimes like to get into things. Don't know if the smell is having the washer 'closed' all the time/the buildup/ or both. I do use my washer on almost a daily basis.
    My recent post Late Night Surfing

    • HeatherSolos on April 2, 2011 at 8:26 am

      Part of the answer depends on the climate in your area. If you live in a really humid area like I do, it's more important to leave the lid open to encourage air flow and drying.
      Top loading washers aren't as tightly sealed as their front load counterparts, if you live in a dry climate, the airflow that can get in anyway may be enough.
      A musty smell is usually a sign of mildew. So in your case, it sounds as though leaving the lid open is probably a better choice. It's that or a more regular and thorough cleaning of the machine.
      Cats amuse me with their antics. Thankfully I only have to deal with that vicariously – my allergies will never let me be a cat person.

  4. amarjit singh on April 2, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Our washing machine became clogged and the Engineer who came asked what sort of Washing powder we used.
    We showed him the Tablets we use.

    He said Powder is better then Tablets as the tablets are made with Beef fat to hold the powder together
    it is the oil in the tablets which clog the machine.
    He also recomennded now and then to run the washing machine with some old clothes at max temperature which is 100.
    This will melt the clogging .

    SO ITS Back to Powder for us Folks
    Bless you.

  5. lakeneuron on April 1, 2011 at 9:23 am

    An even better solution (and I have no interest in or connection to this company) is to use Charlie's Soap, a terrific, no-frills detergent that leaves no buildup and even removes the buildup from your old detergent. In fact, the company advises first-time users to run an empty load (or a load of rags) to avoid having that gunk transfer to your clothes. Charlie's is environmentally-friendly, works great, and takes only a tablespoon per load.

    When I first started using the stuff, I bought it directly from the company, and they didn't charge for shipping. But as they've built out their retail network, they're trying not to compete with it. You can find retailers that carry the product at their web site, They also make a liquid detergent and a household spray cleaner.

    I highly recommend it.

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