There’s nothing worse than opening your dishwasher and being hit with the smell of burned plastic.
While this may seem alarming at first, there are a few simple reasons why this might happen. A plastic fork may have fallen on the heating element, the appliance’s plastic packaging wasn’t completely removed during installation, or there might be a fault with the dishwasher.
But there is an easy fix.
In this article, we help you identify the source of the smell, remove it safely, and offer tips on how to prevent it from happening again.
Ready? Then let’s dive in.
What causes a dishwasher to smell of melted plastic?
It’s not unusual for a dishwasher to emit a chemical smell when you first buy it. After the first wash or two, though, the smell goes away and you forget about it.
But the smell of melted plastic is quite different, and you might worry that your dishwasher is broken or on the blink. The cause is often simple: a plastic spoon, lid, or spatula has slipped onto the heating element below and melted.
While you may have stacked the dishwasher correctly and put your plastics on the top shelf, agitation during the washing cycle can cause items to move. And if they’re small enough, they can easily fall through the shelves and onto the heating coil.
Normally, dishwasher-safe plastics can resist the high temperatures of a dishwashing cycle, but they can’t resist the direct heat of a heating coil. This means they can partially or fully melt with prolonged contact.
Unfortunately, you won’t know this has happened until you open the door – and by then it may be too late. Your child’s drinking cup is a warped mess, and your plates and glasses reek of plastic too.
If you’ve looked at the heating coil and a melted plastic cup isn’t the culprit, you’ll have to dig deeper.
Examine the inside of the dishwasher.
Do you see damage or burns on the plastic-coated racks? If this is the case, there might be a problem with the heating element. Stop using your dishwasher and call the manufacturer.
On the other hand, if your dishwasher is new and this is your first washing cycle, there might be plastic packing material on or inside your dishwasher. Check the sides for stickers or foam. Make sure these packaging materials are fully removed before you start your next cycle.
If you find that the smell persists, or if the smell happens out of the blue, there might be a fault with the dishwasher. Check with recalls.gov for a list of defective appliances or contact the manufacturer.
Is the smell dangerous?
The smell of burned plastic can be overpowering, and you might worry about its effects on your health.
If you inhale burnt plastic for a short period time, it’s unlikely to pose any long-term health risks.
While it can cause coughing, shortness of breath, and discomfort, the symptoms will pass as soon as you open a few windows and ventilate the kitchen. To help disperse the smell, turn on ceiling fans, light candles or use room deodorizers. If you have children or family members with asthma or smell sensitivities, keep them out of the room until the smell has cleared.
Can a dishwasher melt plastic?
In general, dishwasher-safe plastic containers shouldn’t melt when they are used correctly. After all, they’ve been designed to resist the pressure and temperatures of dishwashers, which can be as high as 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
But some plastic containers have a heat limit for ovens or dishwashers, so check this before use. If they can withstand the heat of your dishwasher, place them on the top shelf away from the heating coil.
On the other hand, if you have thin or flimsy plastic containers that aren’t dishwasher-safe, don’t put them in the dishwasher. There’s a risk they may melt or warp. Not only will you lose valuable containers, but it’s also unsafe for your washer.
If you’ve got kids and you wash a lot of reusable, dishwasher-safe plastics, try to avoid dry temperatures or the “sanitize” cycle. This may expose the plastics to higher temperatures than they can handle.
If you’re not sure about how heat-resistant your plastic plate or utensil is, check the brand’s home page or packaging. Or simply wash it by hand.
How do I get rid of the plastic smell from my dishwasher?
Sometimes we don’t take precautions and accidents happen. So, what do you do when you open the door and that familiar smell hits your nose?
Well, whether the smell is coming from residual plastic wrapping or a container that has fallen on the element, there are six steps you can take to safely remove the culprit and eliminate the odor from your dishwasher.
Step 1 – Ventilate
Open the windows and ventilate the space. You want to eliminate the smell as quickly as possible. After you’ve done this, turn off the dishwasher, unplug it from the wall, and wait for it to cool down. Then, when your plates and glasses are cool enough to handle, remove them from the dishwasher and put them aside.
Step 2 – Find the Culprit
Using a pair of heat-resistant gloves, remove the damaged plastic item. If it has fallen on the coil, scrape it off with a wooden spoon and throw it away. Don’t be tempted to reuse it, even if it’s only slightly damaged. Melted plastics can leach chemicals into your food and pose a risk to your family’s health.
Step 3 – Added Tactics
If the plastic is stuck on the element, a nifty trick is to use a hairdryer to soften it. Apply heat to the plastic until it’s soft enough to be dislodged without damaging the coil. Remove as much as you can and brush away dust or particles that have fallen on the base. Any residue will continue to smell when you use the dishwasher (or clog up the filter), so be thorough.
Step 4 – Add Baking Soda
Fill the detergent compartment with a cup of baking soda and set it for a normal wash. Repeat with a second wash to make sure that the smell is completely gone.
Step 5 – Once More, Overnight
Place a bowl of baking soda in the bottom of the dishwasher and leave overnight. This should absorb any residual odors.
Step 6 – Up The Strength
If the burned smell was particularly bad and it’s still there in the morning, repeat the steps above with white vinegar.
Like baking soda, it can sanitize and deodorize your dishwasher without harming the interior. However, check your manual to make sure that vinegar can be used on your model. Some dishwasher manufacturers don’t recommend the use of vinegar-based cleaning products.
How do I remove the plastic smell from my plates and glasses?
Just because you’ve removed the smell from your dishwasher, doesn’t mean your crockery and glassware have gotten off scot-free. In fact, ceramics and glass can absorb odors and ruin the flavor of your meal!
While it might be tempting to throw them away and start again, a cheaper solution is to soak them in a sink of hot water with a cup of baking soda. Leave them for a couple of hours and then rinse.
If the baking soda leaves your glasses gritty or streaked, use four parts of water and one-part white vinegar and let them soak for at least an hour. Rinse and dry naturally or wipe with a microfiber cloth. And don’t worry, the vinegar smell dissipates as soon as it dries!
How to prevent plastic smells in the future
The easiest way to avoid burned plastic in your dishwasher is to wash your plastics by hand. Let’s face it, no matter how carefully you load your dishwasher, a small lid or plastic peeler is bound to make its way to the heating element.
If you don’t have the time to handwash, you could invest in a dishwashing basket that prevents pacifiers, baby bottle parts, and peelers from moving around during the washing cycle. But even if your plastics stay put, research shows that polycarbonates in plastic can deteriorate if they’re repeatedly exposed to high temperatures and water pressure, which is why you should alternate handwashing with dishwashing, or replace your plastics after a few years. Alternatively, you could buy tempered glass or ceramic, which perform better in dishwashers – and last a lot longer too.
There’s no doubt that dishwashers save you time and effort in the kitchen, but when a spatula or pacifier falls on the heating element, it can be hard to clean and the odor can linger for days.
But you don’t have to call a technician or fumigate the house. With a few nifty hacks, like a hairdryer and a cup of baking soda, you can eliminate the source of the smell and make sure it never comes back.
If you’re after a more permanent solution, try to wash plastics by hand, buy glass containers, or use a custom dishwashing basket to keep small parts from moving around.
This means that burned plastic smells – and the clean-up involved – will be a thing of the past!
For more kitchen hacks, check out the articles below.