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How to clean a refrigerator in ten easy steps

How to clean a refrigerator in ten easy steps
(Image credit: Getty)

Cleaning a refrigerator can be a bit of a hassle, and many of us do it far less often than we should. Although it’s time consuming, knowing how to clean a refrigerator can prevent long-term issues with your fridge such as mold, bacteria, and bad smells. 

Although you should be cleaning your refrigerator after spills or whenever it starts to smell a bit funny, you can do a full deep clean less regularly. The best refrigerators will make this easy, and while the best side-by-side refrigerators and best french door refrigerators will have slight differences in how they’re made (for example, the water dispenser a side-by-side will be in the freezer compartment), the fundamentals when it comes to cleaning are all the same. 

The general guidance on how often to clean a refrigerator is seasonally, which means you should be doing a full, deep clean of your fridge every three months. If you’re scratching your head trying to remember the last time you cleaned your refrigerator though, there’s no need to worry. We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about how to clean every part of your refrigerator, from the water dispenser to the inner shelves.

 Step 1: Clear out your refrigerator 

It can take a full hour (or more) to clean your refrigerator, so leaving all your fresh food sitting out while you clean would be a really bad idea. Not only does it warm up the temperature of your food, it gives your refrigerator even more work to do when you put it back in, which isn’t ideal when you’ve had your refrigerator door open while cleaning. We suggest putting your food in a keep-cool bag with some ice packs to keep things chilly while you clean. 

Top tip: Do this right before a food shop, so there’s less fresh food to clear out

 When clearing out your food, be sure to check things that can often go unnoticed. Is that jar which has been sitting at the back of your refrigerator shelf for months past its expiration date? Does anything smell bad, or have mold? Are the bottoms of your jars sticky? Cleaning your refrigerator staples and eliminating anything which is past its best is a surefire way to guarantee that your fridge will stay fresher for longer.  

Step 2: Remove any shelving

Many refrigerators have entirely removable shelving, meaning you can take out salad crispers and in-door drink shelves to reach every corner without having to leave the door open. 

For the parts which you can remove, be sure to let them warm up before subjecting them to hot water. This sudden change in temperature can damage them and even cause them to crack. It’s a good idea to leave these component parts out to sit while you tackle the interior of your refrigerator - you can come back to them later. 

Step 3 - Clean the inside of your refrigerator

It’s a bad idea to use disinfectants such as bleach on the inside of your refrigerator. If these come into contact with your food they can make you sick. Because it’s a natural cleaner, many want to know how to clean a refrigerator with vinegar. You can absolutely clean your refrigerator with vinegar, but we would suggest using apple cider vinegar as it has a more subtle smell. Simply dilute the one part vinegar with three parts water and you’ve created a natural cleaner. 

Vinegar, baking soda, and lemon are all great natural cleaners. 

Vinegar, baking soda, and lemon are all great natural cleaners.  (Image credit: Shuttershock)

A good alternative to this is to use baking soda. Adding roughly two tablespoons of baking soda to a liter or water will do the job. You can either spray one of these solutions on the inside of your fridge using a spray bottle (having one of these handy will make your life a lot easier!) or apply using a sponge or cloth. 

Any tough spots or dried-on stains will need some extra attention. A stronger solution of baking soda and water and an old toothbrush will get the job done in no time. Just leave the door open when you’re done to allow the inside to dry. 

To tackle a fridge that smells, placing a half a lemon on shelves can add a citrusy scent without any unnatural chemicals. 

Step 4: Clean your water dispenser

This is the most fiddly part, and you may be inclined to do this less regularly than every three months, but making sure the water you drink every day is clean is absolutely a good idea. Like we said, some water and ice dispensers are on the freezer half of a side-by-side refrigerator, but the principle still applies. 

First, be sure to shut off the water valve which supplies your refrigerator. Then unscrew the tubing which leads to your water dispenser so you can access it. Taking a small funnel, it’s time to use our favorite natural cleaning ingredient once more: vinegar. Flushing your dispenser with cleaning vinegar is an effective way to clean your dispenser without using nasty chemicals that aren’t safe to drink. 

(Image credit: Home Depot)

You could find yourself pouring a good few cups of vinegar into your dispenser, so be sure to hold your tubing upright. Hunker even suggests taping it upright, which is a great hack. Leave for a few minutes (five to ten will do) and then place a large container under your dispenser and flush out your water-vinegar mix until there’s nothing left.

Using baking soda and your trusty toothbrush, you should also scrub the dispenser nozzle itself to remove any limescale and general nasties. Then, reattach your tubing very carefully and switch the water supply back on. That may have been thirsty work, but it’s definitely not time to have a drink quite yet. Taking another empty container, continue to rinse at least a liter of water through your system to avoid a nasty vinegar-flavored drink. It’s not bad for you, but it definitely won’t taste good.

Step 5: Clean your shelving

Top Tip: Don't put refrigerator shelves in the dishwasher

Your shelving should be at room temperature by now, so it’s time to clean. Because they can be rinsed with water, you can use alternatives to vinegar and baking soda (such as dish soap or another kitchen-safe cleaner) to give your shelving a good scrub. Kitchen shelves are often the grimiest bit, so giving them a good scrub (as you would a plate) is a great place to start. For any stubborn marks, it’s time to get out the toothbrush again.  

What you can’t do with your refrigerator shelves is place them in the dishwasher. This may be too hot and cause damage. Instead, just wash by hand and place to dry in a drainer.  

Step 6: Clean the outside of your refrigerator 

(Image credit: Getty)

While your shelves dry, it’s time to clean the outside of your refrigerator. This is probably the easiest and most satisfying part. To tackle sticky handles and messy fingerprints, take a soapy solution of choice and a cloth and wipe the doors and sides of your refrigerator. 

Top tip: Don’t forget the top of your refrigerator!

If you have a stainless steel refrigerator, you can also buy stainless steel cleaner to keep it glistening. Make sure you don’t forget the top of your refrigerator, either. Using a handheld vacuum can tackle dirt and dust before you start cleaning, but as this is often the dustiest part it will take some extra effort. 

Step 7: Don’t forget the seal

The seal to your refrigerator is one of the most important parts, because it guarantees that cold air won’t escape from your fridge. This means it needs to be cared for regularly, as it can be fiddly to replace. 

You can check out our guide on how to help your fridge live longer to find out how to check if the seals are working properly, but when it comes to cleaning them you should be careful not to stretch or misshape them in any way. 

We suggest using a cotton bud or the corner of a cloth to clear between the folds of your refrigerator seal, and spray with your vinegar solution before wiping clean to ensure the outside is also clean and sanitary.  

Step 8: Put your shelves back

Once your shelving is completely clean and dry, it’s time to add it back in once more. Now is a great time to consider if you could arrange your refrigerator more efficiently. Many refrigerator interiors can be customized to accommodate for larger items, so consider if your layout is working hard enough to keep your items organized and easily accessible.

(Image credit: Home Depot)

As a general rule, you should try and keep a fridge 80% full at any time. Cold items act to insulate one another, so an empty fridge will actually have to work a lot harder to cool fewer items. On the other hand, an overly full fridge will struggle to circulate cold air, meaning your temperature could end up being too high.

Step 9: Allow to cool

At this point, your refrigerator will have been open for an extended period to allow its interior to dry completely. Before adding in your food again, it’s worth giving it more time to acclimatize and reach its intended temperature. 

Make sure the ice packs are doing their job with your fresh food, because adding in warm items will cause your refrigerator to struggle in cooling down once more. If you have any spare, an ice pack or two will help to lower your refrigerator temperature in a lot less time. 

Step 10: Add in your food, and enjoy!

Top tip: Take the time now to schedule in your next deep clean - you could end up forgetting in the next three months!

Add in your food, being careful to organize as you go, and enjoy your freshly cleaned refrigerator! Now you can shut the door, pour yourself a nice glass of cold water from the dispenser, and not worry about smells and bacteria for another three months. 

For other great cleaning guides, check out how to clean your washing machine, how to clean a barbecue grill, and how to clean your mattress to help it last longer