Yes, you do need to and no, it isn’t hard—if you know what you’re doing.
Credit: Laurey W. Glenn

It turns out that the miracle machine that rinses away all your leftover debris and pops out sparkling tableware and cutlery isn’t like an oven, e.g. it won’t clean itself. “Most people think because it has the name ‘washer’ in the title, it is inherently self-cleaning,” says Melissa Maker, cleaning expert and host of YouTube channel Clean My Space. “But like any damp, dark environment, you’re going to get mold and mildew building up over time. There’s residue from soap and food that bacteria feed off of, lime deposits from hard water, and odors.”

So yeah, you do occasionally need to give it a little TLC—but very little, and that’s a small price to pay for hanging up your rubber gloves for life. Assuming you use your dishwasher three times a week or less often, and rinse well before sticking anything in it, you can get away with deep-cleaning it only twice a year. Food residue on plates or utensils after a cycle are a tip-off that you may need to clean immediately. “It’s one of those things people think is a huge task but actually just takes a few minutes,” Maker says. Here is her step-by-step guide:

  1. Empty the dishwasher. While the racks don’t tend to get dirty, cutlery baskets can trap things from time to time, so remove yours and wash it with dish soap and water in the sink.
  2. Remove the filter at the bottom of the dishwasher per the manufacturer’s instructions. This is fairly straightforward, and doesn’t require a plumbing license, but you’ll probably need to remove the bottom rack.
  3. The filter is like a dryer’s lint trap: It stops large particles from getting into your pipes. In that capacity, it can get pretty grody. After a smoothie kick, Maker recalls removing hers and finding “a collection of chia seeds that had become gummy and bloated. It was like the scene out of a horror movie.” Soak that thing in a sink full of hot, soapy water, then scrub it with an old toothbrush, rinse, and let it dry.
  4. Use paper towels to blot up moisture from the filter base in the bottom of the dishwasher, then spray and wipe it with all-purpose cleaner.
  5. Another area prone to funkiness is the inner 2-3 inches of the interior dishwasher door where the frame meets the counter (it’s hidden when the door is closed). Crust tends to build up there. Spray this liberally with all-purpose cleaner and let it sit for 5 minutes before wiping it down, along with the rubber gasket that seals the door and prevents water leakage, and the instrument panel, another forgotten spot.
  6. Manufacturers have begun selling cleaning tablets, but you can achieve the same effect with baking soda, says Maker. Put either in the detergent slot and run through a sanitize or hot water cycle. (Some Pinterest fans may have seen a tip for sprinkling dry Country Time Lemonade mix in the bottom of a dishwasher before running it; the citric acid can help dissolve gunk, says Maker).
  7. The super high heat will kill off odor-causing bacteria but a way to help prevent mold and other nastiness from coming back is to leave the door open between washes.