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How to Clean a Smelly Refrigerator

Updated on May 30, 2016
Cre8tor profile image

Dan has been in the HVAC industry for 22 years with experience in aspects ranging from installation and service to sales and distribution.

Time to clean the refrigerator?
Time to clean the refrigerator? | Source

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, thoroughly and even help to discover problems that your refrigerator is having.

Aside from removing unwanted odors, this cleaning doubles as a maintenance that can help to increase the lifespan of your refrigerator and it's 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. | Source

Things You'll Need to Clean the Refrigerator

  1. Bucket or Spray Bottle
  2. 3 - 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
  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)
  7. Pliers or Wrenches - (2 pair of small pliers may be needed if you have a water dispenser of ice maker)
  8. Scouring Sponge - (a Magic Eraser is quickly becoming one of my favorite cleaning products)
  9. Cleaning Solution (see below)

Toothpaste Cleans More Than Teeth

Did you know that toothpaste is a good cleaner for refrigerators? It has light abrasive qualities that make it good for removing build up. The minty smelling goodness is just a bonus quality.

Home Made Refrigerator Cleaning Solution

There are many products that can be used to clean a refrigerator. Simple Green, a bleach and water mixture, even water and dish soap can do the trick but for best results, I like this home made 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 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 rag to do a rinse wipe. Regardless of what you use, be sure to dry down the areas you clean as you go.

Cleaning the Freezer

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Remove the freezer rack for easier cleaning.Move the food to one side so half of the cabinet is entirely cleanable.Make sure to dry things down after cleaning.Now move the food to the other side to clean the remainder of the cabinet.Move the food from the door to the cabinet and clean the door shelving.
Remove the freezer rack for easier cleaning.
Remove the freezer rack for easier cleaning. | Source
Move the food to one side so half of the cabinet is entirely cleanable.
Move the food to one side so half of the cabinet is entirely cleanable. | Source
Make sure to dry things down after cleaning.
Make sure to dry things down after cleaning. | Source
Now move the food to the other side to clean the remainder of the cabinet.
Now move the food to the other side to clean the remainder of the cabinet. | Source
Move the food from the door to the cabinet and clean the door shelving.
Move the food from the door to the cabinet and clean the door shelving. | Source

Clean the Refrigerator With a Plan

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.

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, perhaps you can put the food on the door or in the refrigerator while you clean.) Once you've removed the rack(s), you can begin to clean with whatever solution you've chosen to use. Don't forget to thoroughly dry this area and then move the food to that side so that you can clean the other. 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.

Cleaning the Refrigerator

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Again, remove the shelving.Be sure to break down the shelving. There is likely a lot of stuff in between the pieces that can smell and we don't want to leave that behind.The toothbrush is a cleaners friend. What is it about teeth cleaning products that makes them so useful outside of our mouth?Again, shelf by shelf cleaning makes it easy to relocate food and easier to clean the shelving without leaving the door open for long periods of time.This area may surprise you. Apparently, the messy food party is in the crisper drawer area.I love jelly but it doesn't love my refrigerator. How does that get out of there anyway? Oh yeah...I have 3 kids.Ahhh! That's so clean I'd put food in it.
Again, remove the shelving.
Again, remove the shelving. | Source
Be sure to break down the shelving. There is likely a lot of stuff in between the pieces that can smell and we don't want to leave that behind.
Be sure to break down the shelving. There is likely a lot of stuff in between the pieces that can smell and we don't want to leave that behind. | Source
The toothbrush is a cleaners friend. What is it about teeth cleaning products that makes them so useful outside of our mouth?
The toothbrush is a cleaners friend. What is it about teeth cleaning products that makes them so useful outside of our mouth? | Source
Again, shelf by shelf cleaning makes it easy to relocate food and easier to clean the shelving without leaving the door open for long periods of time.
Again, shelf by shelf cleaning makes it easy to relocate food and easier to clean the shelving without leaving the door open for long periods of time. | Source
This area may surprise you. Apparently, the messy food party is in the crisper drawer area.
This area may surprise you. Apparently, the messy food party is in the crisper drawer area. | Source
I love jelly but it doesn't love my refrigerator. How does that get out of there anyway? Oh yeah...I have 3 kids.
I love jelly but it doesn't love my refrigerator. How does that get out of there anyway? Oh yeah...I have 3 kids. | Source
Ahhh! That's so clean I'd put food in it.
Ahhh! That's so clean I'd put food in it. | Source

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. 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.

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.

As we work our way down, you may notice that 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.

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.

Cleaning the Mechanical Areas of Your Refrigerator

These vents are usually easy to detach and remove the drip tray.
These vents are usually easy to detach and remove the drip tray. | Source
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. | Source
This is where you may need a hex wrench or screwdrive to remove the access panel to the mechanicals of your refrigerator.
This is where you may need a hex wrench or screwdrive to remove the access panel to the mechanicals of your refrigerator. | Source
This dust build up is no good at all for our refrigerator parts.
This dust build up is no good at all for our refrigerator parts. | Source
This is a typical saddle valve for a water line. Yours may be built into the line itself.
This is a typical saddle valve for a water line. Yours may be built into the line itself. | Source
This is the female fitting on the water line that is likely attached to the back of your refrigerator.
This is the female fitting on the water line that is likely attached to the back of your refrigerator. | Source

Cleaning Under and Behind the Refrigerator

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.

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 build up on the back of the unit and on the mechanical parts of our refrigerator. Much like our furnaces and duct work, 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.

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.

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

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 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 the 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 and 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.

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    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 2 weeks ago from Ohio

      And thank you for reading!

    • Bahanu Chandra Prasad 3 months ago

      Nice Article. Thank You so Much

    • toptenhome profile image

      Brandon Hart 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia, USA

      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 profile image

      BEEZKNEEZ 3 years ago

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

    • Heather Says profile image

      Heather Rode 3 years ago from Buckeye, Arizona

      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 profile image

      Riviera Rose 3 years ago from South of France

      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...!

    • joym7 profile image

      Joy 3 years ago from United States

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

    • cartermadson profile image

      cartermadson 3 years ago

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

      http://www.westcoastappliance.ca

    • blaise25 profile image

      Fehl Dungo 4 years ago from close to you...

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

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks Veg! A hats off to you as well.

    • veggie-mom profile image

      veggie-mom 4 years ago

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

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

      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 profile image

      vickiturner 4 years ago

      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!

    • internetgeek profile image

      Nizam Khan 4 years ago from Hyderabad, India.

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

    • reagu profile image

      reagu 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      Wow! This is very detailed.

    • editorsupremo profile image

      editorsupremo 4 years ago from London, England

      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 profile image

      prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

      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!

      Prasetio

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

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

    • Robertgillbert profile image

      Robertgillbert 4 years ago from UK

      Thanks for this great information

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

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

    • Vinsanity100 profile image

      Vinsanity100 4 years ago from Michigan

      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 profile image

      raakachi 4 years ago from Madurai / Tamilnadu / India

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

    • sopna557 profile image

      sopna557 4 years ago

      Tanks

    • Xiomara 4 years ago

      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.

      Peace

    • urmilashukla23 profile image

      Urmila 4 years ago from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA

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

      Congrats on getting Hub of the day award!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 4 years ago from America

      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.

    • livingpah2004 profile image

      Milli 4 years ago from USA

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

      Congratulations for Hub of the Day!

    • Gregorious profile image

      Gregorious 4 years ago

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

    • FitnessMarkLorie profile image

      FitnessMarkLorie 4 years ago from Longs, SC

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

    • mottiandbander profile image

      mottiandbander 4 years ago from Chd

      Very helpful..Thanks for sharing.

      Motti and bander

    • dbuddhika profile image

      dbuddhika 4 years ago

      Very helpful. Congrats on Hub of the Day.

    • SonQuioey10 profile image

      Toni Northern 4 years ago from Williamston NC

      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.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

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

    • lovedoctor926 4 years ago

      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.

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

      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 4 years ago

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

    • kelleyward 4 years ago

      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!

    • creativelycc profile image

      Carrie L. Cronkite 4 years ago from Maine

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

    • Huntgoddess profile image

      Huntgoddess 4 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

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

      Congrats on Hub of the Day.

    • Jassikaur 4 years ago

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

    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 4 years ago

      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

    • adjkp25 profile image

      David 4 years ago from Northern California

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

      Thanks

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill 4 years ago from United States

      Well written and useful! Congrats on HOTD!

    • learner365 profile image

      Saadia A 4 years ago

      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 profile image

      houseclearance 4 years ago from Preston, Lancashire

      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.

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 4 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

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

      Well deserved!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Excellent step by step explanation with great pics.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • shimmering Dawn profile image

      shimmering Dawn 4 years ago

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

    • uzma shaheen profile image

      Uzma Shaheen Bhatti 4 years ago from Lahore,Pakistan

      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 it.pics are helpful.thanks again.voting up and sharing.

    • Marigeo profile image

      Marigeo 4 years ago

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

    • msorensson profile image

      msorensson 4 years ago

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

    • anusujith profile image

      Anoop Aravind A 4 years ago from Nilambur, Kerala, India

      Thanks for this ref cleaning guide.

    • Chin chin profile image

      Chin chin 4 years ago from Philippines

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

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

      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 profile image

      FordeAhern 4 years ago from Broadford, Co. Limerick. ireland

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

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

      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.

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

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

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

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

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 4 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      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 profile image

      Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

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

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 4 years ago from Georgia

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

      Great tips you've provided!

    • Cre8tor profile image
      Author

      Daniel Robbins 4 years ago from Ohio

      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 profile image

      alliemacb 4 years ago from Scotland

      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.

    • roxanne459 profile image

      Roxanne Lewis 4 years ago from Washington

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

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