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How to Clean a Smelly Refrigerator and Freezer (Interior and Exterior)

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Dan has been in the HVAC industry for 23 years, with experience ranging from installation and service to sales and distribution.

Time to clean the refrigerator?

Time to clean the refrigerator?

Dryer Sheets in the Freezer and More Tips for Keeping Your Fridge and Freezer Clean

Are you getting a less than pleasant smell coming from your refrigerator? If so, it may be time for a good cleaning and basic inspection of your refrigerator. From homemade cleaning products to a bit of "refrigerator 101," the following information can help you clean your refrigerator more efficiently and thoroughly. It may even help you to discover problems that your refrigerator is having.

Aside from removing unwanted odors, this cleaning doubles as maintenance that can help to increase the lifespan of your refrigerator and its parts.

When to Clean Your Refrigerator

Though any time of year is a good time to clean the refrigerator, it's best to clean when your "stock" is low. Having less food to move around during the cleaning will make it easier to get around inside the cabinets.

It will also make it possible to relocate food from one shelf to another so that you can clean one section at a time. Cleaning one section at a time will keep you from needing the refrigerator door open for long periods of time. We all know that isn't good.

Get Rid of Expired Products in Your Refrigerator

It wouldn't do much good to clean our refrigerator and keep food items that have overstayed their welcome. Freezer burnt items fall into this category as well. This is a good place to start getting rid of unwanted odors, wouldn't you agree?

Refrigerator cleaning products.

Refrigerator cleaning products.

What You'll Need

  1. Bucket or spray bottle
  2. 3 or 4 rags - a couple for cleaning and a couple for drying
  3. Towel - this will be to lay under the front of the unit to catch water
  4. Toothbrush - needed to scrub a few key areas
  5. Vacuum - one with a hose and attachment for hard-to-reach places
  6. 1/4" hex wrench - yours may need a different size or perhaps a screwdriver (see below)
  7. Pliers or wrenches - two pairs of small pliers may be needed if you have a water dispenser or ice maker
  8. Scouring sponge - a Magic Eraser is quickly becoming one of my favorite cleaning products
  9. Cleaning solution - The most popular product for this task is this Simple Green 13022 solution. This solution really does an amazing job and is simple if you don't feel like making something homemade to clean with. But if you'd prefer something homemade, there's another option for you in this next section.

Homemade Refrigerator Cleaning Solution

There are many products that can be used to clean a refrigerator. Simple Green is probably the best store-bought choice, but you can also use a bleach and water mixture; even water and dish soap can do the trick.

But for those of us who want something else, you can use this homemade recipe that is simple and doesn't require a rinse-down after using. You can either pour this into a bucket or mix and add it to a spray bottle.

  • 1 gallon of warm water
  • 1 cup of ammonia
  • Approx. 1/2 cup of vinegar
  • Approx. 1/4 cup of baking soda

With some products, you may want to use a separate bucket of warm water and a rag to do a rinse wipe. Make sure you read the instructions on whatever product you choose to see if it needs to be rinsed afterward. Regardless of what you use, be sure to dry down the areas you clean as you go.

How to Clean the Freezer

There is no need at this point to unplug the refrigerator. If we work steadily and with a good plan of attack, the door won't be open long enough to cause any problems or wasted food. Also, I always like to work from top to bottom to avoid having to re-clean areas that I've already done. With that in mind, let's start in the freezer.

  • Step 1: Rearrange your frozen foods so that you can remove the rack for easier cleaning outside of the unit. Then, move all the freezer food to one side or the other. For a side-by-side unit, you can put the food on the door or in the refrigerator while you clean.
  • Step 2: Once you've removed the rack(s), you can begin to clean with whatever solution you've chosen to use.
  • Step 3: Thoroughly dry this area and then move the food to that side so that you can clean the other.
  • Step 4: Once the cabinet is clean and dry, shut the door and clean the rack in a sink so that your freezer isn't hanging open while you do this. The rack will likely take longer than the cabinet since it has so many individual surfaces, so we don't want to keep the freezer open unnecessarily.

Once the rack is clean and dry, place it back into the freezer so that you can put your food back where it was. This will also give you a place to set the food that was in the door since that will be the last area we clean before finishing up in the freezer.

Note: For those of you with ice makers, do not tear down any parts that you are not comfortable knowing you can put back together for cleaning.

How to Clean the Refrigerator

Staying with the theory of cleaning top to bottom, we'll clean the refrigerator in the same fashion as the freezer. The main difference between the refrigerator and freezer is that usually, the shelving in the refrigerator is more complex than that of the freezer. These will likely have glass and trim that can be broken down.

  • Step 1: Move as much of the food as possible to one side of the refrigerator and remove any racks or shelving. As you can see in the picture, this one shelf has four different parts. Leaving these pieces on while we clean will undoubtedly leave behind what it is we're trying to remove.
  • Step 2: Clean the area inside the refrigerator that is clear of food with your cleaning solution. Make sure the area is clean and dry before moving on. As we work our way down, you may notice that the refrigerator is slanted behind the "crisper" drawers. Laying towels down in front of the unit will help to catch any water that wants to run down and out onto the floor. No doubt this is where we'll also find much of our stinky culprit so the mess can be, well . . . messy.
  • Step 3: Clean any racks, shelving, or trim pieces thoroughly in the sink. Here is where the toothbrush comes in handy. These trim pieces have multiple grooves that can be hard to get to with a rag. Our toothbrush will make quick work of these crevasses and leave them as clean as the rest of our appliance.
  • Step 4: Now we get into cleaning the door. This, too, is a commonly dirtier area than others. Clean and dry it well, but don't forget to wipe off the bottom of the food containers that are likely going to have stickiness on them.

At this point, I would say, "Job well done!" if we were done. That was the inside, but let's not forget the very important outside.

Clean Under and Behind the Refrigerator

Let's go ahead and unplug the refrigerator at this time so that we aren't in danger of getting hurt by running parts inside the mechanical area of the fridge. As long as the doors are shut, our food will be fine because this won't take long. Also, be careful if you have an ice maker or water dispenser.

You may not have enough slack in the water line to pull the unit far enough away from the wall to access the mechanical cabinet. If this is the case, you will need to disconnect the water line.

First, locate the shut-off valve for your water line and turn it off. You should be able to follow the water line to its origin, where the valve is located. (See example picture) Once the valve is off, you will need your wrenches to disconnect the water line. Be sure to put one wrench on the stationary male fitting and one on the removable female fitting to avoid twisting the line and causing a leak when reinstalling.

These vents are usually easy to detach and remove the drip tray.

These vents are usually easy to detach and remove the drip tray.

Clean the Bottom Vent

At the bottom front of your refrigerator, there is likely a vent of sorts. This vent can be removed for cleaning as well as cleaning some of what is hiding in behind it. Your vacuum may be good to suck out some of those dust bunnies in here. This is also where many refrigerators keep their drip tray. This tray is a prime suspect for smells and dirt. If you can access it from here, it is likely it will slide out easily for cleaning.

It may be hard to see here but, YIKES! No doubt this could be contributing to our smell.

It may be hard to see here but, YIKES! No doubt this could be contributing to our smell.

Clean Behind the Refrigerator

The rear of our refrigerator may take a little more effort to get to, but let's not stop now. Even if we don't find nasty food here, there is likely a large amount of dust built up on the back of the unit and on the mechanical parts of our refrigerator. Much like our furnaces and ductwork, the fan is drawing air into the back of the unit and, along with it, a large amount of dust.

This doesn't just leave it smelling dusty but can also make our fan motor and compressor run hot. This is not good for these parts and, if allowed to build up too much, can shorten the lifespan of our refrigerator. Once again, this is where our vacuum will come in quite handy.

Clean the Mechanical Components

Note: Usually, the back of the refrigerator is pretty simple to take apart so you can access the internal mechanical components. However, don't take apart anything you aren't confident you can put back together.

Cleaning out the mechanical components of your refrigerator might not only help it smell better but also could drastically increase its life. Dust and dirt buildup in the mechanical parts of a refrigerator is one of the biggest reasons they fail.

Carefully remove the screws to the cover to gain access to the mechanical components of your refrigerator (see photos above). Once you have access, start by thoroughly vacuuming the area and getting as much of the dust and dirt out as possible. Screw the cover back on, and you're done!

The gasket is the rubber material between the door and the cabinet.

The gasket is the rubber material between the door and the cabinet.

Checking the Refrigerator Door Gasket

Now that we've done all this cleaning, now might be a good time to check the refrigerator door gaskets. Leaky door seals on your refrigerator or freezer can cause inconsistent temperatures inside the unit and ultimately allow better conditions for smells to develop. This is quite easy to do and will let you know if you need to replace the gasket.

Tips for Preventing Unwanted Refrigerator Smells

  1. Place a partially opened box of baking soda in both the refrigerator and freezer. Baking soda is good for absorbing odor.
  2. Placing a crumpled-up piece of a paper bag in your crisper drawers for a couple of days is also good for absorbing odors.
  3. Cotton balls or a piece of extract dipped linen placed discretely inside the cabinet will offer a pleasant smell every time you open the door.
  4. A dryer sheet clipped in behind that vent at the bottom can act as a filter as well as absorb odor.
  5. Try to maintain a temperature between 36 and 38 degrees in your refrigerator.
  6. If you don't keep much food stored in your refrigerator, try placing a gallon of water in it to help reduce the amount of empty space to be cooled inside the cabinet.

Cleaning the Refrigerator Thoroughly Is Important

Perhaps much of this information is common knowledge, yet in my years of home service, I've seen some of the worst-case scenarios that you can imagine. I have seen the look on homeowners' faces as I tell them the lack of simply cleaning the mechanicals has likely caused them to spend hundreds of dollars in repairs or a new appliance.

As we read daily about clean air, bad foods, and the dangers of mold, people still forget how important a part the refrigerator plays in our home health.

Hopefully, this information has provided at least a couple of new tips and reminded you how important it is to give our beloved food storage appliances some tender love and care a bit more often.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: How can I get rotten chicken smell out of my refrigerator?

Answer: While I’ve never had to do this I know that baking soda is a great smell absorber. Beer works on skunk smell so maybe washing it down with a cold one is worth a try. There is also a product called “Clean-air” by Nu-Calgon that is an odor neutralizer. Dryer sheets also absorb odors. Again, I’m not positive these things will do the trick but they are cheap and easy so perhaps worth giving a try.

© 2012 Dan Reed


Dan Reed (author) on December 29, 2016:

And thank you for reading!

Bahanu Chandra Prasad on September 28, 2016:

Nice Article. Thank You so Much

Brandon Hart from Atlanta, Georgia, USA on January 09, 2014:

Thanks for the tips. I don't know why but my fridge will start to smell and I hate it. I'll be using your techniques.

BEEZKNEEZ on September 26, 2013:

My fridge really has been smelling really interesting. I think that this was amazing. Voted up! Thanks for the great hub.

Heather from Arizona on September 12, 2013:

What a great tutorial. I have to admit-- I've never cleaned my fridge. We've had it for two years and our friends took great care of it before giving it to us, but I'm sure it's due for a cleaning. I'm pinning this so I remember to clean the vent and all that dust. So helpful. Thanks!

Riviera Rose from South of France on February 27, 2013:

You've pricked my conscience here - my fridge needs a good clean, and I haven't cleaned behind it for years! Am sure there are a couple of dead mice back there...!

Joy from United States on February 26, 2013:

A much thanks for sharing this awesome hub. I am going to clean my fridge right now.

cartermadson on January 21, 2013:

My advice for cleaning any appliance or dish? Bathe it in bleach. hahaha just kidding.

Fehl Dungo from close to you... on April 19, 2012:

Very excellent and well instructed details. Thank you for sharing this :)

Dan Reed (author) on April 18, 2012:

Thanks Veg! A hats off to you as well.

veggie-mom on April 18, 2012:

Congratulations on your HOTD award, Dan, it is well-deserved for a great hub! Voted up & useful.

Dan Reed (author) on April 16, 2012:

Being a fisherman myself, I can imagine. I clean mine the day they're caught and freeze 'em in double bags. My wife strongly encouraged this method after realizing my love of fishing. The vinegar trick may help you immensely with strong odor. Of course the air freshening will make a nice bonus. Thanks for reading!

vickiturner on April 16, 2012:

Just what I need. My boyfriend often puts fish he's caught that day in the fridge and it stinks it out to hell. Thinking of putting an air freshener in there!

Nizam Khan from Hyderabad, India. on April 15, 2012:

This is really informative and wonderful. Excellent instructions and nice pics. Thanks for sharing and voted up :)

reagu from Los Angeles on April 12, 2012:

Wow! This is very detailed.

editorsupremo from London, England on April 12, 2012:

Gret tips. I do not buy household cleaning products to clean my home as they contain too many chemicals. As a young girl growing up my mother taught me how to clean a fridge with basic natural cleaning products such as lemon, vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and blue soap etc.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on April 11, 2012:

You have great tips here. Thanks for writing and share with us. I should looking at my refrigerator and start to clean it. Good job and rated up!


Dan Reed (author) on April 11, 2012:

Thanks again everyone. I hope to keep creating hubs that you'll find useful.

Robertgillbert from UK on April 10, 2012:

Thanks for this great information

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on April 10, 2012:

I never really gave cleaning the ref much thought before, thanks for the tips and suggestions.

Vinsanity100 from Michigan on April 10, 2012:

This a very useful article. I bookmarked this one to read later when it's time to clean my fridge out. Congrats on the Hub of the Day!

raakachi from Madurai / Tamilnadu / India on April 10, 2012:

Thanks for your very useful tips. Congrats for the hub of the day. voted useful.

sopna557 on April 10, 2012:


Xiomara on April 10, 2012:

OMG!!!!!!!!!!! I hate cleaning the fridge.

Great Hub.

Thanks for the tips. Moreover the DEMO

of how to clean the back parts of the fridge.

Would you considered moving to New York?

A huge laid back of clienteles.


Urmila from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA on April 10, 2012:

Thanks for the cleaning tips. Useful Hub. Voted up!

Congrats on getting Hub of the day award!

moonlake from America on April 10, 2012:

Congrats on Hub of the Day.

I clean my frige often from top to bottom. Hubby has to do the rest I'll show him this hub. Toothbrush is my favorite cleaning item. Voted Up.

Milli from USA on April 10, 2012:

Awesome advise! We needed these tips so bad. Thanks for posting it. Useful and voted up!

Congratulations for Hub of the Day!

Gregorious on April 10, 2012:

Great tips! I'm already using baking soda for bad smell prevention, but I will try some of your other tips.

FitnessMarkLorie from Longs, SC on April 10, 2012:

Refrigerator and freezer are two of the hardest most irritating household appliances to clean!

mottiandbander from Chd on April 10, 2012:

Very helpful..Thanks for sharing.

Motti and bander

dbuddhika on April 10, 2012:

Very helpful. Congrats on Hub of the Day.

SonQuioey10 on April 10, 2012:

Great Hub. I'm pleased the steps are so clear. Shows how much work is necessary for a truly clean fridge and why I will never spill another liquid or food product in it ever.

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on April 10, 2012:

Wow, this is a very thorough hub and useful for many of us. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

lovedoctor926 on April 10, 2012:

Your welcome:) Keep up the good work Cre8tor. I will definitely use this hub as a guide the next time I clean out my refrigerator.

Dan Reed (author) on April 10, 2012:

Thank you so much everyone for your support and congrats! I really love writing and even though I'm trying to put everyone to work (hehe) I am glad that you have found something useful here. I was shocked when I got the HOTD! My first one! It feels good I must admit. Thanks again to everyone here at HP!

lovedoctor926 on April 10, 2012:

This is an excellent hub! The tips that you have provided are wonderful. Thanks for this useful information.

kelleyward on April 10, 2012:

You did an amazing job writing this hub. All the pictures are very helpful. I will try to use your approach the next time I clean my fridge! Congrats on the HOTD!

Carrie L Cronkite from Maine on April 10, 2012:

Thank you for this very useful information, it will definitely come in very handy!

Huntgoddess from Midwest U.S.A. on April 10, 2012:

This is very nice and organized. Good information! Up, useful, interesting!

Congrats on Hub of the Day.

Jassikaur on April 10, 2012:

Thank,s a lot. I like ur all tips. But i like more toothpaste also use to refresh our refrizrator.

Debby Bruck on April 10, 2012:

Whoo-hoo! Congratulations Cre8tor for HUB OF DAY AWARD. What a thorough top to bottom, inside to outside job of cleaning your fridge. Need to get you over here to take care of my fridge. Actually, I do all you said with the inside of fridge and freezer and doors, under grate and vacuum, pull out from location to vacuum and wipe down floor. However, I won't start taking stuff apart in the back of these new appliances that have computers.

My original fridge lasted 25 years with little hassle. Then the new one from Sears had the computer components. Bomb! One little thing goes wrong and have to replace a $300 panel. And, all the water filters, leaks and frozen ice section gets very touchy.

Appreciate so much your excellent presentation with illustrations. GREAT JOB! Blessings, Debby

David from Idaho on April 10, 2012:

We hate to clean the refrigerator but your tips are very useful in making the task a little bit easier.


Jill Spencer from United States on April 10, 2012:

Well written and useful! Congrats on HOTD!

Saadia A on April 10, 2012:

A very well written step by step explanation.Your homemade refrigerator cleaning solution seems good.Will surely try that one. Thank you for sharing the useful pictures as well and not to forget congratulations on the Hub of the day too :)

houseclearance from Preston, Lancashire on April 10, 2012:

some really good advice on cleaning the refrigerator. I like to keep check of my food and expire dates, probably comes from me working in a shop and dealing with date expired food all the time. I like the fact you posted a link to a page explaining the dates as if your not used to them they can be a right pain understanding what all the numbers mean sometimes and where to find them.

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on April 10, 2012:

Great write-up and thoroughly written. The pictures always help. Good job, and congrats on the HOTD award,

Well deserved!

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on April 10, 2012:

Excellent step by step explanation with great pics.

Thanks for sharing.

Dawn on April 10, 2012:

Great tips! Now I need to attack! Have a blessed day!

Uzma Shaheen from Lahore,Pakistan on April 10, 2012:

I was just planning to clean my refrigerator,thanks for sharing this information,will help me. toothbrush tip is good,I never thought of it before,now going to apply are helpful.thanks up and sharing.

Marigeo on April 10, 2012:

Great! You certainly know quite abit about cleaning and maintaining. I'd like to see more helpful tips!

msorensson on April 10, 2012:

Very helpful..and you wrote it very well. Thanks.

Anoop Aravind A from Nilambur, Kerala, India on April 10, 2012:

Thanks for this ref cleaning guide.

Chin chin from Philippines on April 10, 2012:

We just bought a new fridge. Thanks for this ref cleaning guide. It will definitely help extend its lifetime. Voted up!

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 09, 2012:

Oh brother, I really need to do this @_@

I've been living in the same place for nearly a year and a half and I've only WIPED DOWN the refrigerator once. That thing needs a proper cleaning. Thanks for the reminder- and the great guide!

FordeAhern from Broadford, Co. Limerick. ireland on April 09, 2012:

Great hub, thank you for sharing. You are making me feel guilty because I should be out cleaning my fridge. voted and useful.

Dan Reed (author) on April 09, 2012:

Well, you saw the pictures right? Apparently, I was due too. I do try to do this a few times a year though. It gets bad fast though...especially with 3 boys and a Saint Bernard.

Dan Reed (author) on April 09, 2012:

Thank you Robie! Glad I come through clear and easy to understand.

Dan Reed (author) on April 09, 2012:

If you buy the flight, I'm on my way :-)

Mmargie1966 from Gainesville, GA on April 09, 2012:

Nice! I try to keep my fridge clean, but apparently, I'm not doing a very good job. ha ha

Thanks for the advice. Voted up and useful

Robie Benve from Ohio on April 09, 2012:

Great step-by-step instructions, I like your style, clear, detailed, and with a bit of humor. :)

Holle Abee from Georgia on April 09, 2012:

Um, could you come over and show me in person?? lol

Great tips you've provided!

Dan Reed (author) on April 09, 2012:

Thanks roxanne and allie - I know cleaning isn't the funnest thing but with a plan and the feeling that I'm maintaining it as well, I guess it motivates me a little more to do these types of chores.

alliemacb from Scotland on April 09, 2012:

Fab hub. I would never have thought to use toothpaste. Like the step by step instructions. When I clean the fridge I usually go at it lke a bull at a gate and end up with a mess, so will try your more sensible, methodical approach next time.

Roxanne Lewis from Washington on April 08, 2012:

Awesome! You just reminded me that it's been a while since I cleaned my frige out.. time to get to it! ;)