Dishwasher Smells Like Fish? Try These 6 Fixes

Dishwashers are a wonderful time saver, getting dishes clean and sanitized while you tend to other things. 

As you take out a clean glass for a drink, you notice it smells like fish as you take a sip. Then, you realize that all of your dishes smell like fish too, even though you did not eat fish for dinner last night. The problem is the dishwasher.

The dishwasher smells like fish because rotten food particles are inside it. To remedy this, you can clean the filter inside the machine, remove clogs, and deodorize and sanitize parts. If your brand new dishwasher smells like fish, the most likely culprit is a faulty installation.

6 Things To Do When The Dishwasher Smells Like Fish

When your dishwasher smells like fish, or perhaps like a wet dog, it can also make your dishes and kitchen smell bad

You may smell this odor when running the machine or on your glasses and dishes after cleaning.

Even a new dishwasher can smell like fish when food particles get stuck in it. Leftover food stuck inside the dishwasher will rot, even if it has gone through a cleaning cycle. 

Typically, you’re dealing with a larger chunk or buildup of particles that block the filter and do not drain out of the appliance.

This smell can ruin your appetite, and tempt you to buy a new dishwasher. 

However, before you do that, you can try to eliminate the offensive odor on your own.

Read on to learn how to make your dishwasher smell better. You may wish to try several strategies to tackle this odor.

1. Filter Cleaning

If you have a Bosch, LG, Frigidaire, Samsung, Whirlpool, Kitchenaid, GE, or any other brand of dishwasher that smells like fish, refer to your user manual to locate the filter for your model. 

The manual will likely inform you of how to clean the filter, but in general, you should do the following:

  1. Remove the filter from the machine.  
  2. Clean it in the sink using a scrub brush, dish soap, and hot water.
  3. Hold the filter up to your nose and see if it still smells. 
    • If it does, soak it in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of baking soda and half a cup of vinegar. Keep the bowl in the sink, since the chemical reaction will make a mess. 
    • Let it sit overnight.
  4. Rinse the filter, sniff, and repeat if necessary.
  5. Put the filter back in place once the odor is gone. If you can’t get rid of the smell, replace the filter with a new one.

As a special note, older dishwashers may have a self-cleaning filter that grinds up food particles.

These filters are generally more difficult to clean. 

If it cannot be removed, you can remove the bottom shelf and scrub the filter with white vinegar. 

Newer dishwashers have filters that can be removed manually, making the job of cleaning them much easier.  

If you can’t clean the filter yourself, you may have to contact a service center or plumber for maintenance.

Before you do that, try the other remedies in this article.

2. Clean Other Dishwasher Parts

If your dishwasher still smells like fish after cleaning the filter, there may be rotting food particles in other parts. 

Refer to your dishwasher’s manual. Many of these parts are plastic, so use care to not break or snap them off. 

Your manual will indicate if other parts can be removed, such as the spray arms and drain line.

Clean The Spray Arms

The easiest way to clean the spray arms is by removing and soaking them overnight.

You may have to remove the shelves to access them. 

Soak the spray arms in a clean and plugged sink overnight in a solution made of equal parts of water and vinegar. 

Then, scrub them down with a sponge or brush. You can use a toothpick or metal skewer to carefully remove any debris from the jet holes. Rinse thoroughly when you’re done.

If you cannot remove the spray arms, you can spray on a cleaner and let it sit on them overnight before scrubbing. 

When you lean in to clean them, do not lean on the dishwasher door. The door is not designed to hold your weight, and you can break the hinges or bend it, making the unit unusable.

Drain Line Cleaning

Food particles can become lodged in the drain line, where they rot and become smelly. 

Dishwasher drain lines are typically ½-inch (2.54 cm) in diameter and made of rubber or plastic for low-pressure use. 

If the dishwasher is not used daily, water can sit in the drain line and smell moldy, or fishy.

You may be able to access the drain line by pulling the machine out. This line will also connect to larger drain pipes through your kitchen cabinetry or the basement. 

Turn off any electrical sources and water lines leading to the dishwasher before working on this part.

Lay down towels and use buckets for collecting spilled water.

Replace or clean the drain line. Make sure there are no leaks anywhere along the line. If assistance is needed, contact a plumbing professional.

Since this drain line is connected to your main line that leads to the sewer or septic system, it is possible you have a clog somewhere else in your plumbing system. 

A plumbing professional can clean out the main drain pipe line that leads out of your home.

3. Clean The Garbage Disposal

If you have a garbage disposal, this could be the culprit producing the bad odor in your dishwasher. 

Dishwashers can be connected to a drain pipe that your garbage disposal also uses. 

The P-trap on a garbage disposal can hold rotting debris that sends an odor throughout the connected lines.

You might notice that dishes smell bad after handwashing too. This is because food particles remain on the sponge or cloth you are using, harboring bacteria that make a bad smell. 

The bacteria from those will transfer to your hands and dishes.

Throw away the washcloth or sponge, and address the plumbing to find any other sources of odor.

Try the following to clean your p-trap and garbage disposal:

  • Cut up a lemon into small pieces and use the disposal blades to chop it up and freshen up the plumbing. 
  • Pour hot, boiling water down the drain to loosen food and then run the disposal. 
  • Pour a few tablespoons of bleach, let it sit for 15 minutes, flush it with hot water, and run the disposal.
    • Don’t use boiling water with PVC pipes, since it can loosen the compound holding the joints together. Use tap water at the hottest level instead.

4. Machine Cleaning

Your dishwasher may still smell like fish after cleaning the filter. This is because the rotten food particles have been repeatedly heated up inside the dishwasher spreading odor particles to the inside surfaces and onto your dishes.

You can buy a dishwasher cleaner designed for use with your machine. These can come as a hard tablet, a plastic pod with gel inside, or as a liquid detergent. 

However, keep in mind that self-cleaning machines do not always get rid of the fishy smell. Therefore, you can use household cleaning materials and methods instead of store-bought products.

Bleach Cleaning

The following cleaning method uses bleach. Follow precautions such as using it in a well-ventilated area and avoiding contact with your skin and eyes. It is recommended to use a respirator and rubber gloves.

  1. Mix 1-quart of water (0.95 L), ¼-cup (59.1 mL) of bleach, and 2-tablespoons (29.6 mL) of dish soap in a bowl.
  2. Using a soft sponge or cloth, scrub the inside of the dishwasher with this mixture. You should also clean the gaskets, shelving, and all interior walls.
  3. Run an empty cycle when done, at the hottest temperature, to disinfect and wash away all of the mixture.

You can use a small amount of dish soap, as mentioned above. 

However, do not use more than this. You could end up with suds leaking all over your kitchen floor!

Vinegar Cleaning

Vinegar is a natural and non-toxic way to kill odor-causing bacteria. It also dissolves hard-water deposits, making the inside of your dishwasher look shiny and clean.

  1. Pour one cup (236.6 mL) of white vinegar into a small bowl or glass.
  2. Place the bowl or cup into the dishwasher on the top rack in such a way that the vinegar does not spill out.
  3. Run a cleaning cycle to deodorize and clean the inside of the dishwasher. If you have a sanitize option, use this when running the dishwasher.

Borax Cleaning

Borax is a natural salt-like mineral that comes from boric acid. It is a white powder-like substance that dissolves in water. 

Borax is commonly used for cleaning to get rid of stains, mold, mildew, and to eliminate odors. 

Since borax is an acid, it should not be used on aluminum parts because it will etch and discolor the surfaces. 

Refer to your manual or call customer service for your brand of dishwasher to determine what material is used on the inside.

Make a paste of water and borax to scrub dishwasher parts. Then, run an empty cycle to wash it all away.

Alternatively, put a cup of borax into a standing glass on the top shelf of your dishwasher. Run the empty dishwasher with this in place to clean the interior.

5. Prevent Food Buildup

Dishes must be scraped and rinsed before putting them into the dishwasher. This will keep food particles out of the drainage system and filter.

Follow your dishwasher’s manual on how often to clean your dishwasher on an empty cycle to prevent buildup. Generally, it is a good idea to clean the entire machine once a month.

6. Dry Heat

Dishwashers have a high heat mode in the cycle to dry and disinfect everything inside once the water has been drained. 

Resist the temptation to save energy and do not turn this option off. Leave the dishwasher closed and allow it to heat everything inside. This can also reduce or eliminate a fishy smell.

Key Takeaways

Dishwashers commonly smell like fish due to stuck and rotting food particles. 

This can generally be addressed by homeowners using homemade cleaning products, store-bought cleaners for dishwashers, or remediating filter and plumbing issues. 

When in doubt, contact a plumbing professional to help identify the cause and fix the issue.

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