A Complete Guide To Deep Cleaning Your Fridge

It's time to give this appliance a top-to-bottom refresh.

Close up of a woman cleaning the refrigerator door handle with a cleaning product. Disinfecting surfaces is very important during the Covid-19 pandemic to avoid contamination and to flatten the curve.

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We rely on our refrigerators to keep our food fresh, our beverages perfectly chilled, and our kitchens fully functional. But in spite of the fridge’s undeniable importance, many of us cut corners and take shortcuts when it comes to cleaning out this appliance.

While a simple wipe-down with a damp paper towel might suffice for small spills and day-to-day maintenance, your refrigerator (and the food that you store within) deserves a full-scale, thorough clean-out from time to time.

Here, we’re breaking down the refrigerator deep clean: what it entails, how often it needs to happen, and exactly how to do it step by step.

What’s the difference between "regular" fridge cleaning and "deep" fridge cleaning?

A deep cleaning varies from a standard-issue cleaning both in terms of its thoroughness and its time commitment. According to cleaning expert Karen Barrigan of Housetastic, a weekly or daily fridge cleanup "should include disinfecting the door handle and wiping down the surfaces. You should also rotate the food as it starts to get older to prevent things from spoiling. Wipe lids on [food containers], and put paper towels down underneath anything likely to drip.”

By contrast, a deep clean requires you to empty the refrigerator, do a thorough scrubdown of the interior (including the shelves and bins), wash and dust the outside, and fully clean the floor under, behind, and around the fridge.

How often should you deep clean your fridge? 

Barrigan tells us that refrigerator deep cleans should be performed "a few times per year." For a standard fridge, deep-cleaning once every three to four months should do the trick. 

However, if your fridge includes a built-in water dispenser and/or ice dispenser, then more frequent cleaning will be necessary. The presence of a water line in the fridge introduces more moisture, and “surfaces with moisture and organic matter offer the ideal conditions for a mold spore to transition into a living colony,” explains mold and air quality expert and founder of HomeCleanse Michael Rubino. For that reason, a fridge with a water/ice dispenser should be deep cleaned "at least every two months."

Bowl full of cleaning equipment

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How To Deep Clean Your Fridge, Step by Step:

Gather your gear

In order to deep clean your fridge, you’ll need:

  • clean water
  • baking soda
  • rags or dishcloths
  • a sponge
  • white vinegar
  • dish soap
  • stainless steel cleaner (if your fridge is made of stainless steel)

If there’s a possibility of coming across rotten food or mold in the fridge, then biohazard expert and supervisor Gabby Martin of Bio Recovery urges you to personal protective equipment (PPE) while cleaning. Specifically, she recommends "tight-fitting, nitrile gloves and a N-95 mask."

Turn off or unplug the fridge

The very first step to the cleaning process involves turning off the power to the fridge. (In most cases, this means unplugging the appliance.)

“Since water is present [while cleaning], be sure to eliminate hazards by shutting off all power before scrubbing,” says Kathy Cohoon, operations manager of Two Maids and a Mop.

Remove all food, shelves, and drawers 

Once the fridge is unplugged, it’s time to remove all food and beverage items from the shelves, bins, and compartments. This part of the process is a prime opportunity to check the expiration dates on all refrigerator contents and to discard items past their prime.

Also, while the food and drink items are on your counters, you can use a dish rag or paper towel to wipe down the containers and remove any product residue from bottle tops and jar lids. If you have items that need to remain cold during the cleaning process (like meat, dairy, and medications), set up a cooler in the kitchen to store these products.

Next, pull the shelves and bins out of the refrigerator, and get ready to scrub them down.

"Any shelves, drawers, or other removable parts that can be cleaned individually and subsequently replaced should be taken out. Cleaning the goods will be much easier if they are not in the refrigerator. Since many of the shelves and drawers fit into a standard kitchen sink, cleaning will be easy,” says Maria Ivanova, founder of Master Maid

Before you start washing the shelves and drawers, let them come to room temperature; using warm water on fridge-temperature plastic or glass can result in cracking and splintering. When the pieces are at the proper temperature, wash them with warm water, gentle dish soap, and a soft sponge or dish cloth. Use towels to thoroughly dry the shelves and bins.

Hand cleaning refrigerator. Person washing refrigerator with rag. Housekeeper wipes shelves of clean refrigerator. Hand in yellow rubber protective glove and green sponge washes

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Scrub the interior with water, white vinegar, dish soap, and baking soda

It can be tempting to use bleach and other chemical cleaners to deep clean a refrigerator, but our experts streunously advise against it. According to Vera Peterson, president of Molly Maids, bleach and harsher chemicals can "damage surface materials and possibly release harmful toxins into your food.”

Using gentle dish soap and food-grade pantry items like white vinegar and baking soda will effectively clean the fridge’s interior without the risk of chemical contaminants or structural damage.

A mixture of warm water and a few drops of mild dishwashing soap will give you a gentle yet effective cleaning solution for the fridge interior. Soak a clean dish rag or a soft sponge in the solution, and wipe down the inside of the refrigerator, focusing on areas with spillage and stains. If you come across a particularly sticky or unyielding mess, create a paste with baking soda and water, and scrub the paste into the stain with the dish rag until it lifts.

To disinfect the inside of the refrigerator without the use of bleach or other chemicals, mix 1 part white vinegar and 2 parts hot water in a spray bottle. Liberally spray the inside of the fridge with this mixture, then wipe it clean with a dry dish cloth. 

Once the inside of the fridge is fully cleaned, the drawers and shelves can be returned to their rightful positions. As an extra safeguard against fridge odors, place an open box of baking soda in the back corner of the refrigerator’s top shelf. 

Wipe down the rubber gasket with a dishcloth and warm water 

The rubber seal (or gasket) framing the interior of the fridge door is often overlooked during refrigerator cleaning sessions, but, as Karen Barrigan tells us, “the folds on the door seals can collect crumbs and debris” and can even develop mold and mildew. Adding a gasket wipe to your fridge deep clean will also “help keep the seal tight, allowing your fridge to work at maximum efficiency.”

Luckily, this phase of the deep clean is one of the easiest. Just “wipe the gasket down with a damp cloth” to remove any food particles and dust, says exposure scientist and writer Samantha Radford, PhD of Evidence-Based Mommy. Radford doesn’t encourage the use of any cleaning agents aside from warm, clean water, explaining that vinegar or bleach “can damage the gasket, causing your fridge to cool less efficiently.”

Clean the outside with dish soap or stainless steel cleaner

The method that you use to clean the outside of the fridge will depend on its material. A standard-issue fridge with a plastic facade can be washed with "a cloth dampened with soapy warm water," says chief hygiene officer Jennifer Rodriguez of Pro Housekeepers. After wiping the exterior of the fridge down with the cloth soaked with the dish soap-water mixture, "dry with a microfiber cloth."

If your fridge has a stainless steel facade, Rodriguez recommends "using a stainless-steel cleaner" in lieu of the soapy water. In addition to cleaning the outside of the door and any visible fridge sides, "don’t forget to clean the top of the refrigerator. We often overlook this area, [but] a lot of dust can get accumulated there."

Vacuum the coils and clean the floor under and around the fridge

The final step before turning the fridge back on is to vacuum the coils (the cooling condensers usually found on the back of the refrigerator) and to straighten out the floor area on which the fridge sits. Use a powerful vacuum with a hose to “vacuum the back coils and the grate on the bottom of the fridge,” says Kathy Cohoon. While you have the vacuum out, take the time to get rid of any food bits, dust, and other debris on the floor space around, under, and behind the fridge.

Optional: Clean the water line

This next step only applies to refrigerators that have built-in dispensers for water and ice.

While these amenities are highly convenient and desirable for many homeowners, the flow of water into the appliance can increase the odds of mold growth. According to Michael Rubino, the best way to avoid mold outbreaks is to clean the water line "at least [once] every six months."

Rubino says that this process should begin by “disconnecting the water line and the ice maker line from the fridge. Drain any water that’s inside the lines.”

Next, fill the water line and ice maker line with white vinegar and “leave it for at least 30 minutes; tape it upright to the back of the fridge. If there is an ice machine, turn it on so the vinegar cycles through.”

Then, pour out the vinegar, rinse the lines with water, and change the water filter. Finally, reconnect the water line, “turn the power back on, and turn the water valve back on. Make sure to run the water dispenser quite a few times afterward to get rid of all the vinegar in the lines. Also, toss the first few batches of ice for the same reason.”

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