This Is How To Clean a Refrigerator That Smells Bad

an open refrigerator filled with fresh foods and drinks

Many of us will spend about $1,500 to buy a refrigerator and have it installed, yet don't remember to keep it clean until it's too late. Suddenly, you're opening the door one night to get a late-night snack and an undistinguishable odor hits you right between the eyes.

Yes, it's time to tackle your fridge and if you don't do it soon, that stench is only going to get worse. Here's how to clean a refrigerator that smells.

Find the Source of the Smell

Your first step is to find whatever is causing the smell. Pull out all food containers and open them one-by-one. Sometimes a bad-smelling food can smell like something else, so it's best to go through them all.

Then remove all food items in their own containers such as milk and soda. Emptying out the entire fridge will also make it easy to see and access all areas to clean it properly.

Toss out whatever is making the odor and while you're at it, throw out all leftovers that are on the verge of going bad. This is also a good time to get rid of any foods your family just isn't crazy about eating.

Then wash the empty food containers in hot, soapy water or place them in your dishwasher if it's safe to do so.

Remove and Wash Shelves

If your fridge has removable shelves, take them out and clean them with warm water and dishwasher soap. Rinse thoroughly.

It's a good idea to use unscented soap or one made with natural ingredients such as citrus oil. You don't want a perfumy fragrance lingering where you keep your food. 

Let shelves air dry or wipe them thoroughly with a clean dishtowel. Sometimes food spills onto a fridge's inside surfaces, creating a nasty smell.

Remove and Clean Bins

Don't forget to go through the storage bins for produce and other food items for anything that may be rotting and giving off an odor. Fruit and veggies can go bad, as can sandwich meat and cheese.

Pull out the bins and clean them in warm soapy water. Make sure they've dried completely before placing them back inside your unit.

Clean Inside Surfaces

Clean the inside walls and any non-removable shelves using a half-and-half solution of vinegar and water. If an area has caked-on food or liquid, spray the mixture onto it and let it soak for about 15 minutes.

Avoid using bleach--its odor can linger for a long time inside your fridge. If you use it, you will have to unplug it and leave the door open for a few hours. Whenever possible, go for natural cleaners that leave no scent behind.

Wipe Down Food Jars and Cartons

Any food items you're returning to your fridge may be sticky from spills. Wipe them down with a dampened dishtowel or paper towel.

Make sure lids and other openings are secure before placing them back. If they're leaky or sticky, wash and dry them before placing them back on the food item. You want everything being returned to the shelves and bins to be squeaky clean.

Change the Fridge's Water Filter

If your fridge dispenses water, your filter may actually be the cause of odors. Bacteria build-up in the filter can not only cause a funky smell but will make your water and ice taste bad. It can also hurt your fridge's performance and shorten its lifespan.

So change your fridge's water filter when you clean your unit. This article has more information about the consequences of not changing it regularly.

Deodorize With Baking Soda

Baking soda absorbs smells, so if the fridge still has a lingering odor, place an open box of baking soda on one of the shelves. Leave it there for a few hours, or you can leave one in the fridge all of the time to help soak up nasty smells.

You can also use baking soda to clean the surfaces of your fridge. Sprinkle a little onto the shelves, spray with water, and then scrub away.

Don't Forget the Freezer

Believe it or not, smells can also originate from your freezer. Even frozen food has an expiration date. Or, something may have spilled a while ago and got frozen in place.

If you do plan on cleaning the freezer, it's a good idea to unplug your fridge. Any spills will be easier to clean up once they've thawed a little.

Go through your frozen food items and throw away any that are old or appear to have developed freezer burn. Make sure all remaining frozen food is secured well in its carton or plastic freezer bags or containers.

Remove thawed food spills as you would from the rest of your fridge, by using vinegar or a dampened dishrag. Once it's clean, promptly return frozen food items and plug the fridge back in.

Clean the Outside

Now is a good time to also clean the outside of the fridge. Oils, dirt, and other contaminants can easily build up on surfaces, especially when you have several family members.

Make the fridge's exterior shine with an unscented cleaner of your choice or the good old vinegar and water mixture. If you have a stainless steel fridge, use a cleaner designed for this type of surface. Use paper towels or a soft cloth so you don't scratch the surface.

Don't forget to clean around the handles. The top of your fridge tends to be a magnet for dust and dirt. Clean this surface area thoroughly.

If your condenser coils look grimy, get the dust out with a coil cleaning brush.

Lastly, vacuum around, behind, and under the fridge by gently sliding or rolling it out of place by a few feet.

Remember How to Clean a Refrigerator That Smells

Congratulations! You should now have a fresh-smelling fridge. Refer back to these tips so you'll always know how to clean a refrigerator that smells.

For more how-to articles on keeping your home clean, check out our Home and Garden posts.


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