Dear Home-Ec 101,
I’ve recently noticed a layer of scum around the agitator. I’d probably find it throughout if I could get my head in there. Is there a way to get this out without scrubbing the thing?
Build Me Up, Buttercup
This response focuses on top-loading clothes washers, but the same problem often occurs in front-loading washing machines. Please note that front-loading clothes washers do not have an agitator.
What you’re looking at is most likely a layer of detergent build-up that occurs when suds are splashed onto the agitator or other parts of the washbasin, not normally under the waterline. Just like soap scum builds up in your shower, the water evaporates, leaving behind a residue that we often refer to as soap scum. In areas with hard water, the problem is exacerbated by limescale, which refers to mineral deposits also left behind.
Also, what you see is not the only place this residue has been building up. The basket, the part your clothes sit in, actually sits in a drum, kind of like a bucket. The outside of the basket and the inside of the drum can have significant build-up that you will never see, but you might smell.
The best way to deal with build-up situations like detergent, biofilm, and limescale is prevention.
Regularly cleaning your clothes washer will keep the build-up from becoming significant and difficult to deal with.
If you live in an area that isn’t known for very hard water, you can get away with doing the following once a month:
Once a month, run an empty, large load with 2 – 4 cups of white vinegar, depending on the machine’s capacity. The vinegar’s acidity helps dissolve the detergent and limescale build-up that may accumulate on a washing machine’s agitator and washtub.
However, if you do a LOT of laundry, have never removed build-up before, or live in an area with hard water (or some combination of the above, you will need to start by doing this process more than once and then every couple of weeks.
For safety’s sake, do not use this cleaning method immediately following a load in which chlorine bleach has been used.
Do not add vinegar through the bleach dispenser.
If you want to be extra cautious, add water, through the bleach dispenser, to the load before the cleaning cycle.
In your case, it sounds like the detergent build-up has been accumulating for some time; one load may not be enough. If this is the case, even though you said you didn’t want to, applying some elbow grease to the situation will be much more efficient.
What about your washer’s existing detergent, bio-film, or limescale build-up?
I know you said you didn’t want to, but you may find it most effective to scrub out everything you can reach first. Why? Chemistry. Only so much “stuff” can be taken off of your washer with chemicals and rinsed away. Scrubbing will physically remove the build-up. Chemicals will make your job scrubbing easier, but won’t remove all of the effort.
You can start with white vinegar diluted to 50:50 with water. If that isn’t working, you may want to step up to stronger measures such as CLR. (Calcium Lime Rust Remover).
Please wear gloves while working.
Run a plain water rinse between your vinegar scrub and when you try CLR. Additionally, run another rinse and spin cycle before washing clothing.
Once you have removed all visible scum, it’s time to break run a cycle with a washing machine cleaner.
How to prevent detergent build-up in the future
To help prevent this problem from reoccurring, use a simple test to see if you’ve been using too much detergent or overloading your machine.
Take a clean, dry towel and place it in the empty washtub. Set the washer for a small load on hot. Allow the towel to agitate for a few moments. Open the lid and look in. If you see suds, you have detergent buildup in your laundry.
This is caused by one of two problems:
- Using too much detergent
- Overloading the machine so it cannot be rinsed properly.
Check your manual to determine if you have been overstuffing the machine, and experiment with less detergent if it is the prime suspect.
Remember, if you have a high-efficiency washer, you should not use more than two tablespoons per load.
Send your questions to email@example.com.
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