Fridge Smells Bad – Why & How to Remove Bad Smell for Good

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When your refrigerator smells bad, it’s just awful. It makes you not even want to open the refrigerator’s door to retrieve food. 

Sometimes, a forgotten food item is a bad offender. Removing that and sprucing up the fridge’s interior by giving it a disinfecting clean is sufficient. Other times, you’ve done that, and the smell is still present.

In this article, we’ll explain the most common reasons why your fridge is reeking. We cover it all, whether that’s due to mold or a persistent bacterium. Also, we suggest some recommended cleaning products to return your fridge to its former glory. 

5 Reasons Why Your Refrigerator Smells Bad

Here are the five causes for why your refrigerator smells bad:  

  1. Drip Pan Has Mold Growing
  2. Refrigerator Absorbed the Unpleasant Odor
  3. Blocked Air or Water Filters
  4. Incorrect Internal Temperatures Set or Faulty Thermostat
  5. Bad Condenser Fan or Unclean Condenser Coils

Drip Pan Has Mold Growing

The drip pan is a collection area where water pools up.

Lingering moisture or water intermingled with food-related remnants or runoff leads to mold growth. Mold creates a musty odor that’s easy to discern. 

How to Fix

While refrigerator brands and models vary a little, the drip pan is almost always found at the back rear, near the bottom of the fridge. 

Often, there is either a pullout tray or a panel that must be unscrewed to access the tray.

It is designed to be cleaned, so reference the product’s manual if you’re having trouble locating it. 

A two-step process is best here:

First, empty the drip tray. Then clean it using a damp cloth. Either use soapy water or bicarbonate of soda mixed with water as a cleaning solution. 

Second, use the above-chosen cleaning solution to flush out the fridge’s drain hole to expel any mold or lingering bacteria there. 

Refrigerator Absorbed the Unpleasant Odor

Any bacteria present in your fridge spreads quickly. Mold spores, for example, fly across the chilled air compartments because of the cooling fans. Dripping water, food leakages and other nasties seep through cracks to the levels below, too. 

Also, given that a fridge’s interior surfaces commonly use plastic for a clean appearance, this is problematic. 

Why? Because plastics soak up odors, with bacteria remaining in the plastic even after giving the interior a quick scrub.

Strong chemical cleaning solutions aren’t generally the best idea inside a fridge either. They might accidentally strip the lining of the plastic or damage a rubber gusset around the door. 

Therefore, a subtler yet still effective solution is required if the foul smell remains long-term. 

How to Fix

  1. Load up an empty, clean spray bottle with a half-and-half mixture of distilled white vinegar and H2O
  2. Spray the interior fridge walls liberally with the solution
  3. Now leave the solution for 5-10 minutes (longer is better for worse smells)
  4. Then wipe the solution off with a dry, clean cloth. Be sure to throw the cloth in the laundry afterward 

Blocked Air or Water Filters

Refrigerators rely on filters. Air is pushed through fans to keep the fridge cool. These use air filters to remove impurities first. 

Similarly, ice makers and water dispensers use connected water supplies to function. These rely on a water filter to capture impurities.

Filters run on a cycle. They require replacing on a schedule. Otherwise, they’re likely to become clogged and stop being effective. 

The average replacement timeframe is every 5-6 months, but check your fridge’s manual to verify. 

How to Fix

  1. Remove any old filters
  2. Clean the areas nearby if there’s been an overflow of dirty water, and foul odors are emanating close by
  3. Replace overdue water or air filters with new ones.
  4. If the drinks dispenser has been affected, use a diluted, distilled white vinegar solution to clean its internals. Then run water through it to flush out the cleaner
  5. If the ice maker has been affected, clean any hoses connected to it, empty all the created ice, and flush the icebox with a vinegar cleaning solution (the same as with point 4 above)

Incorrect Internal Temperatures Set or Faulty Thermostat

When the internal temperature is incorrectly set, food won’t be stored appropriately. It can go bad and become moldy if left for long enough.  

How to Fix

  1. Set the fridge thermostat to roughly 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Set the freezer compartment at or near freezing temperature 
  2. If your fridge doesn’t adjust its internal temperature over time, then the thermostat may be faulty
  3. Remove the questionable food from the refrigerator
  4. Leave some baking soda in a small bowl in the fridge overnight. It will capture unpleasant odors and may be sufficient without needing to clean the fridge’s interior 

Bad Condenser Fan or Unclean Condenser Coils

Most people don’t know what condenser coils are or where they’re located. If they’re not cleaned periodically, it affects temperature regulation inside the fridge. 

Everything else is fine with the fridge, but the thermostat isn’t able to regulate temperatures correctly because of the dirty coils. 

Another related possibility is a bad condenser fan. When these go bad, they’re unable to keep the condenser coils from overheating. Then they cannot perform well, and internal temperatures get a bit loopy. 

Both the condenser coils and condenser fan are located behind a rear access panel for almost all refrigerator models. 

Here are instructions on specific refrigerator brands:

How to Fix

  1. If the condenser fan isn’t operating, then don’t attempt to fix it. It needs a replacement part
  2. When your condenser coils are dirty, purchase a condenser coil cleaning kit or use your vacuum’s hose attachment to suck up the accumulated dust
  3. The older the fridge, and the longer period between cleaning sessions, the worse it’ll be. We’d recommend using a face mask and maybe goggles to protect yourself if you’re sensitive to dust 
  4. Once the necessary action has been taken, the temperature regulation issues should be resolved. It may take a few hours to occur. However, if that doesn’t happen, then there may be other reasons for temperature variation issues
Baking soda placed in the refrigerator

How to Prevent Refrigerator Smell

Here are some quick ways to prevent your refrigerator from developing odd smells:

  1. Set a scheduled reminder to clean your fridge every quarter. Every month is even better
  2. Ensure every item is in a sealed bag or container. This does much to prevent unwanted spills or food debris from spreading unnoticed inside the refrigerator
  3. Be careful about consume-before dates. Check daily that nothing is out of date. This prevents mold spores from developing on food, which spreads with airflow
  4. Clean the condenser coils every quarter to ensure the fridge stays in good working order and properly regulates temperatures 
  5. Use an activated charcoal product like Fridge Ninja (featured below) to hang inside your fridge. It continually captures unpleasant odors 

Best Refrigerator Odor Eliminator

Here are three of the most effective odor-eradicating products to keep in your home:

Arm & Hammer Fridge-n-Freezer Baking Soda

Baking soda has been standard in kitchens since the 1970s. Adding some inside a bowl monthly effectively eliminates many bad odors. 

Fridge-it from Innofresh

Fridge It is a convenient deodorizer with activated charcoal inside. It is an all-in-one solution that is a no-muss, no-fuss type product.

It comes with a little hook to hang inside your fridge. Alternatively, it’s usable elsewhere in the home too. A single Fridge-It product lasts half a year. 

Fridge Ninja with Activate Charcoal

Fridge Ninja also relies on activated charcoal to eliminate bad smells. It removes certain bacterial smells that baking soda or distilled vinegar cannot touch. 

One nice trick with this product is that sitting it outside in sunlight allows the charcoal to recharge, ready for the next use. This little ninja provides a year of use. 

Fridge Smells, but No Rotten Food

It’s not necessary to find rotten food on a refrigerator shelf to get a terrible smell. Just the remnants of past edibles are enough. 

Even the smallest trace of old food becomes a persistent nasty odor waiting to happen. 

Here are a couple of places to look when there’s no rotten food, but it sure smells like it:

Look Beneath Your Fridge

It’s entirely possible that something edible fell to the floor and was kicked underneath the fridge. Also, if you have pets, your cat or dog could have chased a treat to the same spot without your realizing it. 

Also, an overflowing drip pan could be the reason. 

Move the fridge off its spot to look for spills or some other indicators. It can be a food or beverage-based stain on the floor too, so don’t discount that either. 

Use a bacterial floor cleaner to mop the floor and remove what’s there or stuck to it.

Vegetable Bins/Crispers Are Dirty

Keeping vegetables and fruits in the veggie bin or crisper is handy. But unless items are individually wrapped, it’s simple enough for sections to accidentally break off. These then sit in the tiny gaps and rot. 

Prepare some hydrogen peroxide to use as a cleaning solution. First, get a clean rag and wipe the trays down thoroughly. 

Then be sure to repeatedly flush them with water to remove all the peroxide before reusing. Doing this avoids accidentally ingesting peroxide later. 

My Fridge Smells Bad Even After Cleaning It

If your fridge smells bad even after you’ve cleaned it, then the odor is on the interior walls or underside.

Let some baking soda sit in an uncovered bowl for a few days with the fridge door closed. Or some citruses, such as sliced lemons or oranges, provide a pleasant replacement smell. 

Alternatively, try using Fridge Ninja. It uses activated charcoal and is effective on odors that won’t shift using other methods. 

Thoroughly clean the underside of the fridge, the surrounding floor, and the drip pan. Also, look at the drainage and hoses to see if they are producing a foul odor. 

If so, flush them out with disinfectant to remove the remaining bacteria. 

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Niels Joensen is the founder and chief editor at Niels is a professional painter who runs his own painting company. When not painting he likes to write about home renovation and appliances.