Cleaning Hacks

5 Reasons Your Dishwasher Isn’t Actually Washing Your Dishes Properly

Kara Jillian Brown

Photo: Getty Images / Irina Vodneva
The point of a dishwasher is to wash the dishes. Most machines take all the guesswork out of it, but even the fanciest contraption might be doing a terrible job by no fault of its own. There’s nothing worse than running a load only to open the door and find dishes encrusted with pieces of last night’s spaghetti and meatballs. And don’t even get me started on my dishwasher’s inability to remove even a speck of peanut butter or cream cheese.

I’ve gotten so used to my dishwasher’s inability to get the job done well that I fully rinse everything before I load it. But instead of doing all the work for my dishwasher, Katie Jennings, manager of consumer technical insights at Seventh Generation, says there are a few things to check do if your dishwasher doesn’t clean properly.

Reasons your dishwasher doesn’t clean the dishes properly

1. Your dishwasher needs to be cleaned

You’d think that with all of those suds and water the dishwasher would just wash itself. But sadly that’s not the case. “Your dishwasher works better when it is clean,” says Jennings. If you have a newer dishwasher, the first place you should check is your filter, which is where all the bits of food from your dishes go. According to Consumer Reports, if your dishwasher is 10 years or older, it likely has a self-cleaning filter. But in order to be quieter, newer dishwashers have a filter that you have to clean manually.

Jennings says she cleans her filter a couple of times a week. “It’s not hard to get to the dishwasher filter,” she says. “It’s just below that bottom rack; click it out and rinse it at the sink, and click it back in. And it makes the dishwasher work so much better.”

You also might need to run a dishwasher cleaning solution to remove hard water build-up and gunk that can cause lingering smells. Consider using something like the Frigidaire Ready Clean Probiotic Dishwasher Cleaner ($12).

2. You’re rinsing your dishes too much

“Dishwashers work better when your plates are a little dirty,” says Jennings. “Doing really thorough pre-rinse actually is disadvantageous. You don’t want to put a plate into the dishwasher with a whole chunk of pasta on there, but to have remnants of sauce is actually helpful.”

Jennings says this is because of the enzymes and surfactants in dishwasher detergents interact with food particles (science!).

“The enzymes are like Ms. Pac-Man. They look at those soils and they’re attracted to them and then they eat them up,” she says. “And then the surfactants come and form a little bubble around them and wash them away. So if there is some soil on the plate, the enzymes have something to grab onto, then the surfactants make these bubbles, and then the bubbles bump into each other, which creates this abrasive action.”

3. You’re using the wrong detergent

While a detergent might work great for your friend, it might not work great for you. This all has to do with how hard your water is where you live. “Some formulations just work better in different water hardnesses than others do,” says Jennings. Cycle through different detergent brands until you find one that works for you. For what it’s worth, several Well+Good staffers swear by Cascade Platinum ($17) to get the job done right.

4. You’re loading the dishwasher incorrectly

Trust me, there is a “right way” to load the dishwasher. “Unlike laundry, where you kind of can just throw it in, there’s an absolute art to loading a dishwasher,” says Jennings. “As nerdy as this sounds, reading your dish manual on how they recommend to do it can increase efficacy by 50 percent. Thinking about how maybe your mom loaded the dishwasher or how your roommates in college loaded that dishwasher, it could be wrong and it might not be how your dishwasher should be loaded.”

I looked at my dishwasher manual and was shocked to see how they wanted me to load it. My dishwasher can fit a lot more than I thought.

5. You need to use a rinse aid

A lot of manufacturers of dishwashers recommend a rinse aid, like Finish Jet Dry ($4), but I don’t know how many people actually use them. “A rinse aid is great because you just fill up the little container, then you don’t have to think about it again. It’s not like fabric softener, where you have to dose it each time. And then that just helps things rinse a little cleaner, dry a little clearer,” says Jennings.

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