It can be easy to overlook or put off cleaning major kitchen appliances, and that’s especially true of the dishwasher — after all, we use the dishwasher to clean things, so we don’t think of it as getting dirty. But a dishwasher does need regular cleaning and maintenance to operate properly, and to prevent foul odors from developing.

An off-smelling dishwasher can indicate a problem with a dirty filter, a clogged drain, trapped food particles or mold and mildew growth in the gasket seals, all of which can be addressed in a few simple steps. To break the process down, we consulted experts who explained how, and how often, to clean a dishwasher.

How often should you clean your dishwasher

Lindsay Jones, a brand manager at Maytag, recommends cleaning a dishwasher regularly to keep it running at its peak performance. “Ideally you should be cleaning your dishwasher at least once a month,” Jones says, “but some may have to clean it sooner depending on how often they use the appliance. I recommend setting a reminder to make it part of your once-a-month cleaning routine.”

Jillian Franke, a senior scientist at Cascade, echoed the monthly cleaning recommendation, adding that households with very hard water, “may need to use dishwasher cleaner more frequently to prevent unwanted build-up and keep it sparkling.”

Supplies you need to clean your dishwasher

The Rag Company All-Purpose Microfiber Terry Cleaning Towels, 12-Pack

$24.95 $13.95 at Amazon

The Rag Company All-Purpose Microfiber Terry Cleaning Towels

Use a microfiber cloth to wipe the gasket and spray arm clean.

Dawn Ultra Original Dishwashing Liquid

From $7.99 at Amazon

Dawn Ultra Original Dishwashing Liquid

Apply a small amount of dish soap to a damp cloth to remove stubborn buildup on the gasket or spray arm, if needed.

Master Deals Wooden Toothpicks, 2,000-Pack

$5.99 at Amazon

Master Deals Wooden Toothpicks, 2,000-Pack

Use a toothpick to dislodge debris from the holes in the spray arm.

Cascade Platinum Dishwasher Cleaner

$6.79 at Amazon

Cascade Platinum Dishwasher Cleaner

Run a normal cycle using a dishwasher cleaning tablet.

Heinz Cleaning Vinegar

$13.51 at Amazon

Heinz Cleaning Vinegar

As an alternative to commercial dishwashing tablets, place a cup of white vinegar in the top rack of the dishwasher prior to running a normal cycle.

Steps to cleaning your dishwasher

Jones and Franke provided step-by-step instructions for cleaning a dishwasher; when cleaning a dishwasher, consult the user’s manual before taking out any parts to avoid damage caused by improper removal.

Step 1: Prep the dishwasher for deep cleaning

Empty the dishwasher and remove the bottom rack. If the dishwasher has a filter, remove it and clean out anything trapped inside; check the bottom of the unit and remove any visible food. Use a damp cloth with a small amount of dish soap to wipe down the seals and the spray arm.

If the spray arms need deeper cleaning, use a toothpick to dislodge debris from the holes in the spinner arm. Spray arms can also be removed from the unit to facilitate deeper cleaning; consult the user’s manual for instructions.

Step 2: Add dishwasher cleaner

Dishwasher cleaning tablets can be used in an empty or full dishwasher. To clean the machine with a load of dishes, place the tablet in the bottom of the unit; to clean it while empty, place the tablet in the detergent dispenser. If the dishwasher has significant buildup, put one tablet in the detergent dispenser and a second in the bottom of the unit and run a cycle without dishes.

A cup of white vinegar placed in the top rack of an empty dishwasher can be used in place of dishwasher cleaning tablets.

Step 3: Run a normal wash cycle

Dishwasher cleaning tablets are designed to clean parts of the machine that you cannot see or reach: The tub, racks, the pump and valve system and the drain and recirculation hoses.