Smelly Refrigerator: Common Reasons and Solutions

VIA Appliance
January 10, 2023
Refrigerator Repair

Unsurprisingly, a smelly refrigerator usually indicates that it needs to be cleaned. The most likely cause of the refrigerator’s odor is that it is not routinely cleaned and emptied of spoiled food. Plastic, which makes up the majority of the refrigerator’s inside, absorbs scents and may cause bad odors to linger.  Other causes may include clogged filters, or odors emanating from the drip tray. 

Cause: Spoiled food and absorbed aromas 

The bacteria or mold responsible for unpleasant refrigerator scents are frequently caused by food decomposition or moisture buildup in incorrect places. After cleaning your refrigerator, if an unpleasant smell still exists, you probably missed some residual bacteria. Dish soap can often mask odors but not eliminate them, so you might need to wipe the walls again after the initial deep clean.

Deep cleaning your fridge

The best place to start is by emptying the fridge of everything and throwing away any food that might be rotten or past its expiration date. Any jars or containers with sticky residue or exposed food should be cleaned. After that, remove any inner surfaces, such as drawers, movable shelves or racks and soak them in hot water and dish soap. Once done, clean the surfaces inside the fridge.


Vinegar is a mild disinfectant, and with a handy vinegar all-purpose spray, you can start combating unpleasant odors. Spray the walls with a solution of equal parts distilled white vinegar and water. After letting the solution sit for a while, clean it off with a fresh rag. 


Lemon contains a mild acid that helps deodorize the interior of the refrigerator, similar to vinegar. Citric acid can kill off certain germs while also leaving behind a pleasant zesty aroma. Clean the inside of the refrigerator using lemon juice that has been squeezed onto a clean towel. Slices of squeezed lemon can also be placed on a plate and placed in the back of the refrigerator to freshen circulating air.

Airing out your fridge 

If cleaning your fridge does not remove the smell, it might be necessary to briefly empty and air out your refrigerator. In the small, enclosed area of a fridge, odors have nowhere to go and can build up. Take your food out of the fridge and put it in a cooler. Then, unplug your refrigerator and leave the door open for 30 minutes to let out the stale air.

Cause: Clogged filters

Many contemporary refrigerators contain a water filter for the water dispenser or ice maker in the door, as well as an air filter that purifies the air circulating inside. Generally speaking, both of these require inspection and replacement every six months. 

Replacing a clogged filter

If you haven’t looked at your filters in a while, consult your user’s manual to locate the replacement part numbers and cleaning guidelines. These spaces can collect mold and bacteria, so a replacement part could spare you from an unpleasant fridge stench. 

Cleaning a clogged filter

You can also clean water filters with dish soap, a solution of water and vinegar, or with the use of cleaners designed specifically for the purpose. Let the filters soak in a cleaning solution for 10 to 30 minutes, depending on how dirty the filter is. After that, rinse until the water flowing out of the filter is clear.

Cause: Dirty drip pan

When deep cleaning a refrigerator, few people are aware of the concealed drip pan. The pan sits beneath the refrigerator and collects condensation from the condensate line. That moisture has the potential to develop into the ideal environment for mold over time and can lead to musty and unpleasant odors. 

Not all refrigerators will have a drip pan. If you’re not sure, you can consult your refrigerator’s manual or look for a tiny line that runs down the back of the appliance; however, keep in mind that the pipe may be internal and not visible. 

Cleaning a drip pan 

If a drip pan is present, it is often found near the compressor, behind the refrigerator’s rear access panel. 

To remove your drip pan, follow the directions in your user manual. Make sure to turn off the refrigerator’s power before you access the drip pan. If your refrigerator is linked to a water line you will likely need to turn off the water and disconnect the input water line. Once removed, empty the drip pan and clean well with warm soapy water. Before reinstalling it, let it thoroughly dry.

How to avoid unpleasant refrigerator odors 

1. Set your refrigerator to the right temperature 

Most of the time, the smell of the fridge is caused by failure to control its internal temperature, which promotes microbial growth. It is advised to maintain the refrigerator’s interior temperature between 4 and 5 degrees Celsius.

2. Keep your food in airtight containers 

The scents of leftover foods can linger and become unpleasant odors, so it is crucial to store leftovers in an airtight container. These containers can also help to limit the overpowering and offensive smell of any food products.

3. Use a natural deodorizer 

A quick and easy natural deodorizer can be made by simply placing a bowl of baking soda in the refrigerator. This will help to eliminate any foul odors and keep the fridge smelling fresh and clean. A mixture of 1 cup baking soda and 1 gallon of water can also be used to clean the inside of the refrigerator.

4. Maintain good airflow 

Maximize airflow in your fridge by organizing storage and compressing packaging. This not only ensures optimal circulation but has the added benefit of helping to keep track of food that is approaching its expiry date. 

The bottom line

A smelly fridge often comes as an unpleasant surprise. The most common cause of a smelly fridge is expired food, which can be easily missed. If removing expired food and wiping down the fridge does not remove the smell, you may have to consider odors arising from clogged filters or dirty drip pans. These can both be cleaned out to solve this issue. Utilizing natural deodorizers will also help combat any lingering odors. 

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