When running the dishwasher overnight, the last thing anyone wants is to be awakened to the smell of something burning.
In dishwashers, the culprit is usually cheap plastic lids and spatulas that make their way to the heating element and melt.
After determining that the house is not burning down, it’s time to get rid of the smell.
Good ventilation, whether through opening windows or by turning on a kitchen fan, clears the smell most quickly. To deal with the lingering smell in the dishwasher itself, run a cycle with baking soda or vinegar, but not both.
Adjust the way the dishwasher is loaded if this becomes a routine occurrence. Melting plastic releases toxic fumes that can cause respiratory irritation and even carbon monoxide poisoning.
Continue reading for more ideas to combat the smell of burnt plastic, and what you need to know about the risks it poses.
Identify The Source Of The Smell
The smell of melting plastic is very unique. I can practically smell the chemicals wafting through the air.
My paranoid mind goes to concerns that the electrical wiring is melting and that a massive fire is imminent.
If you get a whiff of it while running the dishwasher, immediately stop the cycle. It is important to determine that the melting plastic is indeed from the dishwasher.
From there, find the source of the smell. That will be the first step to getting it out of the dishwasher.
Plastic Dishes And Utensils
The most common cause is also an easy fix. Usually, a plastic dish or utensil just falls from the racks down to the heating element.
To see if this happened, look at the bottom pan of the dishwasher. Most of the time, you’ll find a partially melted dish at the bottom.
We may immediately assume our husband or kids carelessly tossed the item into the dishwasher, but it is actually very easy for those items to find their way to the bottom.
Lightweight plastic can easily flip out of the racks during the cycle. This happens simply from the water pressure or from being jostled by the agitator.
Even plastics that are advertised as dishwasher safe will melt when exposed to high heat at the base of the dishwasher.
New Dishwashers May Emit A Chemical Smell
New dishwashers commonly need a few cycles to wash off the smell of all the brand-new components. That is normal and not a sign of anything wrong.
If a burning odor comes from a new dishwasher, double-check that all the wrapping plastic has been removed.
Other Causes Of The Burnt Plastic Smell
The other possible causes of a burnt plastic smell in the dishwasher are more complicated.
Look for any visible burn marks or other damage on the base of the dishwasher and on the racks. This can be a sign that there is a bigger issue with the heating element.
If the smell persists, there may be something malfunctioning in the internal components. If something in the washer is overheating, there is always a greater risk of fire.
Call a repair person and check your unit for recalls at recalls.gov.
How Do You Get The Melted Plastic Smell Out Of The Dishwasher?
After identifying the source of the smell and removing whatever caused it, it is time to eliminate the smell.
Ventilate The Area
There are a few different methods that work with ingredients in the pantry, but first, open a window or turn on the oven vent fan.
Ventilation is the best first step for mitigating the melted plastic smell. Circulating plastic fumes out of the home will take care of the bulk of the odor.
The most effective way to push the fumes out is to create a cross draft. Open two windows across the room from each other.
Or, open one window and place a box fan in it with the blades facing out. This helps move the air from the inside to the outdoors.
If the oven or cooktop has an exhaust fan, turn that on as well.
Baking Soda Or Vinegar
Kitchen staples baking soda and vinegar also help with this problem, just not at the same time.
One option is to fill the detergent compartment of the machine with baking soda. From there, run a normal cycle.
Baking soda is great for neutralizing odors, but it may take two cycles to get the smell out. If desired, supplement with a vinegar cycle.
For a vinegar cycle, put a glass bowl or cup full of white distilled vinegar in the top rack of the dishwasher. From there, run a normal cycle.
Before trying the vinegar method, do check the instructions for your machine. Some expressly recommend against cleaning with vinegar.
Do not run baking soda and vinegar together in the same cycle. The pH of the two products cancels each other out.
Professional Cleaning Products
A number of brands make specially intended dishwasher cleaners. Finish, Cascade, Lemi Shine are among just a few options.
These products are most intended to deal with built-up grease and limescale in the dishwasher, so they are not intended for a task as light as getting rid of a bad smell.
Of course, if you have them on hand, it is fine to use them, but there is no need to run to the store.
Do I Need To Clean The Filter?
Dishwashers have a filter at the bottom of the unit to catch debris. Given the purpose of the dishwasher, it is intended to catch food particles.
Most of these filters need to be cleaned manually about once a month, or as needed. Cleaning is simple; just take a paper towel and capture the gunk on top of the filter.
It is highly unlikely a blocked filter would cause the burnt plastic smell. When dishwasher filters become too clogged, the dishwasher performs badly.
The dishes usually come out just as dirty as they started because the leftover particles get blown up by the water during the cycle.
Wiping off the filter is a good idea before doing the baking soda or vinegar cleaning cycles.
This way, the dishwasher can be fully cleaned and deodorized, and you won’t have smelly food bits in the bottom stinking up what you just cleaned.
Can Melted Plastic Fumes Be Harmful?
We hear so much about the dangers of plastics that smelling burned plastic in our home has to be pretty bad, right?
It is. Plastics in general emit a lot of nasty chemicals when they are burned. The polymers decompose when exposed to heat.
Hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, particulates, and even heavy metals enter the air when plastic is overheated. Even worse, these things can also cause cancer.
Occasional, brief exposure, as you would get from melting a lid in the dishwasher, should not have any lasting ill effects.
Sensitive populations, like those with asthma, could experience lung irritation right away though.
To keep everyone safe, ventilate the area as soon as possible.
Can You Get Carbon Monoxide Poisoning From Burnt Plastic?
Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning refers to the sickness, and even death, that can come from inhaling carbon monoxide gas.
Carbon monoxide is created by the incomplete burning of anything that contains carbon.
Plastic can be made of many materials, but carbon is a common ingredient. As a result, it is possible to inhale carbon monoxide from burnt plastic.
This is just one of many reasons that all homes should have at least one carbon monoxide detector.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas, so it is impossible to detect until the household starts experiencing symptoms.
Unfortunately, loss of consciousness is one of the symptoms, making it too late for anyone to get help. Exposure can and will cause death.
Carbon monoxide detectors must be placed at least 5 feet up along the wall or on the ceiling, and there needs to be one on each floor.
Some states have laws that require all homes bought and sold to have one within a certain distance of each bedroom.
Hydrochloric acid exposure is actually more likely to be behind illness related to plastic fume exposure. A surprisingly small amount of plastic can release enough HA to cause lung damage.
How To Avoid The Release Of Toxins And Carbon Monoxide?
To reduce the chances of any toxins being released in the area, be careful about which plastics go into the dishwasher.
If they are labeled as dishwasher safe, then they can handle the hot water of the wash cycle.
Even dishwasher-safe plastics can be problematic when exposed to the very high heat of the coil at the base of the dishwasher.
Lightweight plastics like lids or small Tupperware containers be flipped out by the water pressure or if they are hit by the agitating arms.
To prevent this, do not overload the dishwasher or place the thin plastics in precarious positions. It can be helpful to wedge them between heavier items.
Do Not Put Children’s Plastic Cups Or Plates In A Dishwasher
In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a publication recommending that children’s plastic cups and plates be hand washed.
Ideally, parents should use glass or stainless steel dishware and cups for kids instead.
The publication noted that over 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be in foods and dinnerware, but that the FDA is unable to confirm all of those chemicals are safe.
The companies themselves are the ones certifying that the products are safe. Many do not have research regarding long-term effects on reproductive health or childhood development.
Children are more vulnerable to harm from chemicals because they eat and drink more per pound of their body than adults.
This gives them a higher concentration of chemicals from eating from the same plastics.
Can You Eat From A Burnt Plastic Bowl?
Eating from a burnt plastic bowl likely does not cause a health risk.
Heat can cause the chemicals in plastics to leach out and onto food. But, this only happens when the food is touching the plastic while the plastic is hot.
After the plastic cools again, it will be back in its same chemical state, even if its appearance looks a little weird.
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Finding burnt plastic in the dishwasher is a common and easily fixable problem. Just be sure to ventilate the area, and then remove the odor using baking soda or vinegar in the dishwasher.
Do try to prevent it from becoming a regular occurrence, both for the sake of your kitchen supplies and for the respiratory health of your loved ones.
My name is Keren Tayler. I am a stay-at-home mama to three lovely girls, Sarah + Rachel + Hannah. Prior to becoming a mom, I had a successful career in the accounting field, steps away from becoming a CPA. I decided to give up on my career in order to raise my own kids (as opposed to letting a nanny do it, no judgment here :)) I learned a lot and I love sharing it with other moms. Along the way, I also became a Certified Food Handler.