🤔 Smarter: What If You Never Cleaned Your Dishwasher Filter?

A person loading a dishwasher after a messy party Photo: Getty Images

When do you think dishwashers were invented? Was it 30 years ago? Fifty years ago? The invention of mechanical dishwashers is actually older than you might think. The first mechanical dishwasher was patented in 1850 and required the user to crank a wheel for the water to be thrown on the dirty dishes. Not exactly the most convenient appliance, really.

For this week, I’m diving deep into the nooks and crannies of modern dishwashers, including the right way to load your dishwasher and the worst thing that could happen if you, for some inexplicable reason, never ever cleaned the filter (and how to prevent that from happening). Other topics I’m covering: The best fridge temperature to keep food fresh, and the answer to a TikTok user’s question, “Is it okay to use vinegar in a washing machine?”

THE BIG STORY:
🔪Dish It Out🥄

I like to think that if a dishwasher were a house, the filter would be its basement. And like any basement, once it gets too cluttered with junk, it can become disgusting really fast.

While some dishwashers have a grinder inside that pulverizes food scraps and sends them down the drain, it’s common for newer dishwashers to have a removable filter that simply captures the scraps. That makes the newer models much quieter in their operation, but it also comes with a downside: You have to clean the filter manually.

If your dishwasher has a removable filter, experts recommend that you clean it once a week, or twice a month if you use the dishwasher infrequently. But suppose you forget to clean the filter one too many times—what’s the worst thing that could happen? 

For answers, I went to Larry Ciufo, a mechanical engineer by training who has tested more than 500 dishwashers for CR over the past 15 years. His job sometimes consists of listening to dishwashers for 8 hours a day to help determine just how loud they are (Larry, I salute you). Here is his take on the most worrisome things that could happen if you never washed your dishwasher filter. (And if you want to avoid that horror show from happening, I have some simple tips coming up in a bit from our experts on how to clean your dishwasher.)

More to Make Washing Dishes Easier

First, there’s the smell.
If you don’t clean the filter, you’re basically letting food residue sit inside it to decompose. Once that starts to happen, you’ll be met with the smell of decaying food every time you open the dishwasher. Awesome.

That food could make a comeback.
Because the dishwasher recycles the water it uses, water that gets sprayed on the dishes will collect at the bottom of the dishwasher, go through the filter, and then get pumped back up to the dishwasher’s spray arms throughout the appliance’s washing cycles. 

Therefore, if you don’t clean out your filter, some smaller food particles, such as coffee grounds, might slip past the filter and through the spray arms and end up splattered on your bowls and plates, haunting you like the ghosts of your dishwashing past.

You could clog up your dishwasher.
If you neglect to clean your filter long enough, you might have a flood at the bottom of your dishwasher because the filter is clogged. Or your filter could be so obstructed by food waste that your dishwasher shuts off because there’s not enough water being propelled back up to the spray arms. 

To me, this stage feels like your dishwasher putting things on pause and giving you the “Hey, we need to talk” conversation. But instead of saying, “It’s not you, it’s me,” it’s saying, “Nope, this is all you.”

How should you clean your dishwasher?
If you want to avoid all the scenarios listed above, here’s how you can give your dishwasher filter some love and how to wash it properly. But let me give you a general cheat sheet.

To start off, turn your filter clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on your dishwasher model, to remove it. Prepare yourself mentally for delightful possibilities like food and grease stuck inside.

Use a sponge and soap to clean the filter. For grainier particles that are stuck in the filter, like coffee grounds, call in backup and use a small brush—an old toothbrush will likely do the trick.

And while the filter is one of the places in the dishwasher that’s most likely to accumulate food residue, here are some other areas you might have missed that also require frequent cleaning.

The spray arms: To wash the spray arm, lift it off its base with a tug and rinse it in the sink. If stuff is clogged in the spray arm’s holes, use a toothpick or a wooden skewer to dislodge it.

The interior of the dishwasher: Any extra food or water that’s left over and sitting in the bottom of your dishwasher can get gross, too, if you leave it unattended. Wipe away the residue with a soft sponge, and once a month use a citric acid-based dishwasher cleaner to clean out any discoloration that might have built up.

The seal between dishwasher door and tub: This has probably slipped your attention, but food particles can also accumulate in the seal of a dishwasher door over time, so use a rag to clean it to prevent mold growth and food odors.

DOUBLING DOWN

Okay, now that we’ve tackled the gross, let’s move on to the controversial. And nothing is more controversial than methods of loading a dishwasher. You might have been doing it wrong all this time (hate to point fingers, but I said what I said).

Let’s settle this argument once and for all. This is the right way to load a dishwasher.

  • Don’t prerinse: You should scrape larger chunks of food into the trash, but don’t prerinse your dirty dishes. Dishwashers have sensors that detect how dirty the dishes are and adjust the washing cycle accordingly.
  • Top rack: This is for cups, glasses, small bowls, and dishwasher-safe plastic.
  • Bottom rack: For plates, big bowls, and other larger items. If you’re washing platters and dishwasher-safe cutting boards, make sure you put them on the sides and the back so that they don’t block the soap dispenser and spray arm.
  • Utensils: Forks and spoons should be placed with handles facing down. Knives should have handles facing up to avoid you cutting yourself. For dishwashers that include a third rack, you can also place your utensils there, and if the rack comes with slots, fit one item in each slot. 

A QUESTION FOR YOU

This is a random question that I think about perhaps too much: What’s the most disgusting thing you ever found in the kitchen? 

I’ll start. I once found an onion that had been in a food drawer for so long that it had turned fully into liquid inside.

You can share your experiences here. Don’t worry—no admission is too embarrassing. In the meantime, here are some tricks you can try to maximize the shelf life of your groceries.

QUIZ

Here’s a scenario a lot of us are all too familiar with: It’s winter and you’re shuffling toward your car, numb from the cold. What should you do to heat up your car fast?

  1. Get your car moving.
  2. Crank the temperature and fun up to high.
  3. Turn on air recirculation.
  4. Dance your heart out.

ASK AN EXPERT

Question
“Is it okay to use vinegar in a washing machine?”

Answer
Great question. A lot of people think that distilled white vinegar is an effective, nontoxic solution for cleaning things in your house, but when it comes to washing machines, vinegar actually can be harmful. Prolonged use of vinegar might break down the rubber seals and hoses in your washing machine and cause leaks, so it should be avoided because nothing good has ever followed the word “leak.”

If you want to clean your washing machine, you can turn first to the document that too many of us snub—the owner’s manual. “Some machines have a specific cycle that should be run regularly based on your usage,” says Richard Handel, who oversees our exclusive washing machine ratings and is the star of one of our most-watched TikTok videos, which is on laundry stripping.

Alternatively, you can also run your washing machine through a hot-water cycle and use a washer cleaner or bleach. Rich also recommends that you wipe the door and gasket with a soft cloth and a mild soap solution if you want to keep it clean.

By the way, your washing machine isn’t the only thing you should keep vinegar away from. Here are some others: countertops, dishwashers, electronics screens, and your hardwood floors. Here’s why.

If you have a question you want to ask an expert, email me. I’m all ears!

THE SHORT ANSWER

❄️ What is the best temperature to store food in the fridge? 37° F.

THE GOOD STUFF

🍚 Here’s why you should rinse your rice before you cook it.

@consumerreports What’s your rice rinsing method? Share this reminder with someone who needs to hear it. 🍚 #rice #cookingtiktok #foodtiktok #riceislife ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

QUIZ ANSWER

The answer to what you should do to heat up your car in winter is get your car moving. A running engine generates heat, and the fastest way to warm an engine is by driving. 

Here’s why the other answers don’t work: If you crank the temperature and fan up to high, you’ll be force-fed a lot of cold air first. And if you turn on the air recirculation so that only warm cabin air is recirculated inside your car, you risk fogging up your windows. Neither is a great situation, having your car fogged up or being blasted with cold air in the throes of February.

For those who chose dancing their hearts out, all I can say is it warms my heart, the image of you doing so, but it’ll do nothing to warm your car.


Adulthood is 10% hard work and 90% procrastinating on cleaning something.


Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

Pang-Chieh Ho

I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."