How To Clean Your Refrigerator – A Brief Guide

How To Clean Your Refrigerator: A Brief Guide

Have you ever opened a fridge, and you just got a whiff of something that you couldn’t put your finger on, but never wanted to smell again?

Refrigerators may appear clean, but have a persistent and unsettling odor that comes out of them. While your fridge might appear immaculate at first glance, there are a lot of things to take into consideration, and more nooks and crannies than most people are aware of.

We’re going to go over how to clean the fridge, from the top down, and eliminate any of those awkward odors that are lingering around.

From the gasket to the butter tray, vegetable bin to the vents and back, this is everything you need to know, summed up in a brief guide.

What Are the Dangers of a Dirty Fridge?

rotten smell in refrigerator

Far more dangerous things than you previously thought. A study conducted proved that in the average home, there were nearly 8,000 bacteria per square centimeter (AU), which equates to that amount in 0.155 inches of your fridge.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it also doesn’t take a lot of bacteria to cause food rot and get you sick.

When you think about just how much surface space is in your fridge (every surface, including the bottom of your crisper glass, the inside of the butter tray, and everything on the door, top, and sides), it’s an alarming amount.

Literally millions of bacteria per square foot.

These are some of the dangers of a dirty fridge, riddled with bacteria:

  • Respiratory Infections: Pathogens can cause respiratory infections, which directly affect your breathing, and then affect the oxygen that travels through your blood to your heart. Respiratory infections can be fatal.
  • Urinary Tract Infections: While manageable and often self-diagnosed, urinary tract infections can be fatal. In America and other fully-developed nations, it should never be a cause for death, but when left untreated it can be dangerous.
  • Food Poisoning: Thankfully, the number of foodborne-illness deaths in the United States is extremely small. There are an estimated 48,000,000 cases of food poisoning every year, roughly 128,000 hospitalizations, and an average of 3,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
  • Listeria: This is actually one of the most dangerous illnesses that can befall a pregnant woman or a child. Listeria is rarely fatal, but can cause birthing complications and miscarriages. Listeria also affects the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

What Kind of Bacteria and Viruses Are Found in Your Fridge?

strawberry jam with mould on it

To name every individual strand of bacteria would take a while.

We’re going to group it into two categories: pathogens, which you can prevent, and spoilage bacteria, which you actually consume all the time.


These include yersinia enterocolitica (raw milk and stagnant water), listeria monocytogenes (cheese, vegetables), campylobacter jejuni (raw chicken, untreated water), aeromonas hydrophila (seafood), plesiomonas shigelloides (raw oysters), pseudomonas spp. (meat, fish, dairy), penicillium, and cladosporium.

A pathogen is an extremely harmful bacteria that is associated with food rot (not to be confused with spoilage), which can result in viruses, diseases, and life-threatening food poisoning (which can prove fatal).

Pathogens can cause a disease the moment they enter your body. They don’t have to do much work at all, and they begin spreading, digging into your tissue and spreading further.

This can also include parasites such as protozoa, ectoparasites, and helminths. Out of everything, we want to avoid pathogens more than spoilage bacteria. This is why we must adhere to the four-hour rule and 40°F to 140°F danger zone restrictions.

Spoilage Bacteria

As defined by the USDA, spoilage bacteria are small microorganisms that cannot be seen unless you use a microscope, which deteriorates food over time. These are one-cell microorganisms that slowly eat away at your food. Your body is equipped to deal with them.

These can start forming the second that a carrot is pulled from the ground and stops receiving nutrients, or the second an apple is pulled from a tree.

They multiply just like other germs, but the difference is that in your refrigerator, it takes so long for them to multiply on food, that you have days, weeks, or months on many foods before the bacteria count actually destroys the food.

One day, food can look, smell and feel fine, and the next day it can be inedible and pungent. That’s the apex of the bacterial growth, when it crosses over from being present, to overrunning your food.

How to Properly Clean Your Fridge: Step-by-Step Guide

There’s cleaning your fridge, and then there’s doing it the right way.

This method ensures complete sanitization, so can start off on the right path. Don’t worry: we’re covering every little thing.

1. Remove All Food From Your Fridge

woman removing food from fridge

Seems pretty obvious, right?

Pull everything off the shelves, put it out on the counter (for no more than sixty minutes if possible), and that’s where you start. The thing is, you’re also going to wipe down every food container.

Not to make you uncomfortable, but if there’s about 8,000 bacteria per square centimeter, imagine how many hundreds of thousands are on the outside of that slightly sticky jar of jam.

Actually, don’t. Don’t imagine it, just clean the jar off. Clean all of your food containers off with an anti-bacterial, food-safe wipe, and leave them on a clean spot on the counter.

Do yourself a favor, and stick your head in the empty fridge, and just take a whiff.

2. Remove All Shelving

The glass panel on your crisper drawer, the top shelf where you keep the eggs, heck, even the lid on the sliding butter dish.

This is going to make it easier later when you have to clean down all the interior surfaces of your refrigerator.

You’re going to find sticky residue and crumbs in your fridge now that it’s in barebones mode, which should hopefully grant you a scope of just how important this is for your health and food safety.

3. Scrub Those Shelves

scrubbing refrigerator shelves

Bring those shelves over to your sink, get the hot water going, and use a dishwashing detergent like Dawn to scrub these down.

It’s also a good idea to have a dual-sided sponge (one scrubby, one soft), a plastic bristle brush, and some clean cotton rags for drying at the end.

Why are we doing this now?

Because we want these to air dry while we’re cleaning out the fridge. The last thing we want to do is put more moisture into our fridge for bacteria to latch onto and grow in.

Keep your fridge closed during this time to avoid running the compressor for longer than needed.

4. First Wipedown

Get a container, and create a solution of two parts warm water, one part white distilled vinegar.

Put it to the side for the second wipedown. Use paper towels or disposable cleaning wipes, and go over every surface in your refrigerator. Put a heavy emphasis on anywhere that has hard, stuck-on food.

We’re going to use that solution we just made as a sanitizing agent, so we don’t want to be bringing unnecessary amounts of food debris with us.

Lean your head into your fridge, and give it a whiff. It should smell noticeably cleaner than it did before. This is a good in-between before we use the sanitizing agent, because that will mask many odors.

5. Sanitize

distilled vinegar for sanitizing fridge

Now it’s time to use our sanitizing agent to wipe down everything.

The vinegar is going to be a slightly strong smell, but that’s because the acidity in the white distilled vinegar is killing bacteria.

The acidity level is too high for most bacteria to exist in, and at the same time, it’s trapping odors. If you can, use a white cotton rag here so you can see the coloration that comes up on your rag.

It can’t be emphasized enough: be thorough. If you can’t remember if you went over a surface, then it’s time to go over it again.

This is one of the most critical steps in restoring the cleanliness of your fridge. You can’t make it immaculate, but it can get damn close.

6. Check Everything

Are there any food particles left in your fridge? Is there any trapped moisture?

This is your time to take a dry rag and go over your fridge to soak up any remaining moisture. Are your drawers and glass crisper drawer panel completely dry?

Round them up. This is your last opportunity to do a full check, because we need to get those perishables back in the fridge.

7. Replace the Shelves and Food

cleaning shelves

If your shelves are dry, and your food containers are as well, then it’s time to replace everything.

Be strategic here so you can place everything back nice and neat, that way you’ll notice any spills or debris in the future.

8. Temp Check in Two Hours

We just had your fridge open for anywhere from fifteen to sixty minutes.

That’s more than enough to send your fridge temps into the 40’s or 50’s, which we want to avoid. Check the temperature right away, and then check again in two hours.

So long as it’s going down, and it’s getting close to the 40°F mark, then you’re good to go. Congratulations—you just cleaned your fridge like a pro.

How to Keep Your Fridge Clean for Longer

Moisture buildup is going to happen for sure, but you can control how much, as well as odor buildup, with some simple tips.

1. Use Baking Soda

fridge with baking soda in it

Buy that baking soda container, rip the top off, and put it in the back of your fridge. This keeps things nice and clean-smelling.

This neutralizes acids and bases, meaning that when particles and bacteria travel through the air (thank you, fridge fan), baking soda can actually kill some of them.

Put your baking soda directly underneath the fan in your fridge for the best effect.

2. Start Using Sealable Containers

If food goes bad in the fridge, which can spore and spread to other foods, and latch onto the surfaces inside of your fridge. Causing mould inside your refrigerator, which is both unsightly and unhygienic.

If the food that goes bad is in a sealed plastic container, and it is truly sealed all the way, then the bacteria will stay inside of that container. The same can work for food-safe Ziploc bags.

Use these to store food instead of just leaving plates of food uncovered in the fridge, no matter how briefly you plan to leave them like that.


eggs in fridge

FIFO stands for first in, first out. It’s a term used in food service to ensure that new food goes behind the older food, so you aren’t allowing foods to go bad before using them.

It’s especially good to do when storing fresh groceries in your fridge, as these tend to reach their best before date quicker than most foods in your fridge.

Be Thorough About It

This is where you store half of the food that you eat, on a daily basis – so its best to keep it clean.

Be thorough when cleaning your refrigerator. Ensuring you’ve sanitized every surface, regardless of whether or not food will come in direct contact with it, you should be good to go.

Cleaning your fridge is one of the most important things that you can do in your kitchen.

It’s easy to forget about it when the door is closed, and it’s out of sight, but make it a habit to clean your fridge out entirely at least once every two weeks to reduce bacterial growth, and remove any foods which may be nearing their expiry date.

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