5 Tips for Cleaning Stains From a Dishwasher

Although it doesn't happen to everyone, dishwasher stains are a common problem.
Although it doesn't happen to everyone, dishwasher stains are a common problem.
B2M Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images

Dishwasher. The name of this appliance alone brings visions of cleanliness, warmth and freedom from being hunched over a sink, hands deep in hot water and soap. After slaving over a hot grill, stove or even microwave, who wants to hand-wash (and dry) dishes, silverware, glassware and pots and pans? Dishwashers take the work out of one of the most essential, yet least favorite, kitchen chores.

The hot water, steam and detergent from these amazing appliances are supposed to keep your kitchenware clean and in great condition, right? Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Stubborn spots, caked-on food and discolored metals are all unwanted yet common results of dishwasher issues. It's easy to blame the machine for your dish- or glassware woes, but most often, it's not the appliance itself that's sabotaging your clean dishes.

Check Inside Your Dishwasher
The problem could be as simple as a clogged drain.
The problem could be as simple as a clogged drain.

Where does the food on plates in dishwashers go? There's a drain in the back of the appliance, which is used for both food and water. When was the last time you actually checked that drain? If you've never seen it, or you didn't even know it exists, take a moment and really look inside your dishwasher. While the drain is a fairly substantial size, buildup of bits of food can clog it up. Pieces of leftovers may be running loose in your dishwasher, getting stuck on plates, cups or anything you're trying to wash.

By simply inspecting the lower back portion of your dishwasher, you can save time, energy and unsightly food stains from your kitchenware!

Rinse Aid Rescue

There's a reason why modern dishwashers have an additional container next to the detergent cup. Rinse aids are now highly recommended to help prevent hard water stains or other general dishwasher residue. Made up of ethanol, citric acid, sodium, dyes and acrylic acid polymers, rinse aids break down the salts in hard water, preventing soap clumps from sticking to dishes during the rinse cycle. The National Institutes of Health report that most rinse aids are biodegradable, and while they're neither carcinogenic nor dangerous if used properly, they can cause eye and skin irritation following prolonged exposure (and should never be ingested directly, of course).

If you're not sure how you feel about adding additional chemicals to your dishwasher, there are other options. Add distilled white vinegar to the extra compartment, and see if that helps your cloudiness. No extra pocket in the door? Just place a cup of white vinegar facing up on the bottom rack before you run the dishwasher. You may be surprised by the results!

Stainless Steel Spots

It's perfectly safe to put stainless steel flatware in the dishwasher. Manufacturers will advise you, however, that these utensils this way may present problems if you're not careful. The hot air used in dishwasher drying cycles can increase the chance for discoloration of the pieces, as well as cause corrosion.

If you still want to put stainless steel utensils in the dishwasher, be sure to take the flatware out before the drying cycle, drying each piece by hand. Or, you can simply hand-wash your flatware. You can also attempt to dry your stainless steel at a lower temperature. If all else fails, use a stainless steel polish to wipe away discoloration or spots.

Change Your Detergent
Sometimes switching your regular detergent for tablets is enough to do the trick.
Sometimes switching your regular detergent for tablets is enough to do the trick.
Roderick Chen/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

The numerous dishwasher detergent options in the supermarket can be overwhelming. Shelves are stocked with various gels and liquids, powders, even detergent in pre-measured packets. These cleaners not only offer to help remove food from your dishes, but also to cause them smell like lemons and gleam like they just came out of a box.

Out of your many detergent options, gel-based cleaners are the biggest stain culprits. Water that isn't hot enough to completely dissolve the gel allows it to cling to dishware, leaving gel gunk all over your "clean" dishes. You can skip using gel-based products altogether (at least in the dishwasher), or use less so it can dissolve more thoroughly.

Treat Your Hard Water

While water is the key to clean dishes, hard water is the biggest culprit of stains on dishes and glassware. Hard water is water that is richer in minerals than soft water, which is more diluted in minerals. Minerals in hard water include lime, magnesium and calcium. These minerals are not harmful to ingest, but they do present pesky problems for dishwashers. They're seen as whitish spots on glass and are most noticeable on dark dishes and clear glass. Those white spots are actually lime scale, residue left behind from lime deposits in the water.

If your water is hooked up to a city water supply, you won't be able to soften your water yourself. However, you can prevent hard water from leaving stains on your dishes by either adding a rinse aid to your dishwasher cycle or adding more detergent.

While spots and stains on your dishware may seem like a nuisance, it's fairly simple to find solutions for dishwasher issues. Taking proper precautions and using the right products will make for a successful and long-lasting relationship with your dishwasher.


Quiz: Do I Really Have to Wash This?

Quiz: Do I Really Have to Wash This?

Take this HowStuffWorks quiz to find out your how your cleaning skills stack up.

Related Articles


  • Consumer Reports. "Hard facts about hard water." (Aug. 2010) June 17, 2012. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/2010/august/appliances/dishwasher/hard-facts-about-hard-water/index.htm
  • Martha Stewart. "Dishwasher Dos and Don'ts." June 18, 2012. http://www.marthastewart.com/275152/dishwasher-dos-and-donts/@center/277000/homekeeping-solutions
  • Oneida. "Caring for your Stainless Steel Flatware." June 18, 2012. http://www.oneida.com/customerservice/use-and-care