How to clean a garbage disposal – and the viral hack that’s may actually damage yours

Keeping your garbage disposal clean and running properly is important for your kitchen’s functionality and hygiene. However, some popular cleaning methods and “hacks” that go viral online can actually end up damaging your garbage disposal over time. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover how a garbage disposal works, signs it needs cleaning, safe and effective cleaning methods, what not to use, and how to avoid common mistakes.

How Does a Garbage Disposal Work?

Before we get into cleaning your garbage disposal, it’s helpful to understand what it is and how it operates.

A garbage disposal is an electrically-powered device installed under the sink between the drain and the trap. It uses a high-powered motor to grind up food waste into tiny particles that can pass through plumbing and drain lines.

Key components inside the garbage disposal include:

  • Grinding Chamber: This is where the actual grinding takes place. The chamber contains rotating metal plates called impellers that pulverize the waste against a stationary grind ring.
  • Motor: Provides the power to spin the impellers. More powerful motors equate to better grinding capability.
  • Switches: Allow you to turn the disposal on and off. Can be a wall switch or built-in switch on the unit itself.
  • Drain Line: Carries the ground-up particles from the grinding chamber down the drain.

Garbage disposals offer a convenient way to get rid of food scraps without clogging pipes or drains. However, grinding up all that waste can leave behind residue that needs to be cleaned occasionally.

Signs Your Disposal Needs Cleaning

Watch for these signs that your garbage disposal needs a thorough cleaning:

  • Reduced grinding performance: Food waste doesn’t seem to grind as easily or completely as before. You may hear clanging or rattling sounds.
  • Drainage issues: Water drains more slowly from the sink and disposal. Sinks may start backing up.
  • Bad odors: The disposal emits unpleasant or sewer-like smells, even when not in use.
  • Leaking: You notice water leaks coming from the bottom of the unit or connections.
  • Power failure: The disposal refuses to turn on at all when you flip the switch. You may hear a humming sound but the plates don’t spin.

If you notice any of these issues, it’s definitely time to give your garbage disposal a good clean out. Continuing to use it could result in a full clog or burn out the motor.

Safe Ways to Clean a Garbage Disposal

Regular cleaning keeps a garbage disposal working properly and prevents more serious problems down the road. Here are some safe and effective methods:

1. Flush with Hot Water

The simplest way to clean a disposal is by flushing it out with hot water:

  • Remove the stopper from the sink drain so water can flow directly down.
  • Run the hot water and turn on the garbage disposal. Let it run for 30-60 seconds.
  • Turn off the disposal and flush it out again with cold water for a few seconds.

The hot water will dissolve grease and loosen food buildup. The cold water hardens any remaining grease so it doesn’t re-solidify in the pipes as quickly.

2. Use Ice Cubes

Grinding up ice is an easy mechanical way to clean and sharpen the blades inside the disposal:

  • Start by running cold water in the sink.
  • Turn on the disposal and gradually add a few ice cubes down the drain.
  • As the ice cubes grind, they will help scour the grinding chamber. The ice also fills in grooves along the grind ring to sharpen the blades.
  • After grinding the ice, flush the disposal with more cold water for a minute to wash away any loosened debris.

This is a handy cleaning shortcut to try weekly or monthly to extend the time between deeper cleans.

3. Clean with Baking Soda and Vinegar

For a deeper clean, use a DIY baking soda and vinegar treatment:

  • First, run the disposal for a minute with cold water to moisten the chamber. Turn it off and unplug it.
  • Pour 1/2 cup baking soda down the drain. Let it sit for a few minutes to absorb odors.
  • Add 1 cup white vinegar and let it fizzle for 5-10 minutes. The chemical reaction will help dissolve grease and grime.
  • Seal the drain. Fill the sink halfway with hot water and plug the disposal back in. Turn it on to flush for a minute.
  • Unplug again. Use a hex wrench or Allen wrench to manually spin the motor and blades to make sure they turn freely.
  • Finally, run cold water for 30 seconds to rinse. The disposal should now smell fresh and run smoothly.

Baking soda is a mild abrasive and natural deodorizer, while vinegar dissolves mineral deposits and grime. Combining them creates a simple but highly effective cleaning solution for the garbage disposal.

4. Scrub with a Disposal Cleaning Brush

For stuck-on gunk, use a specialized disposal cleaning brush:

  • Unplug the disposal and confirm the blades spin freely with an Allen wrench. Remove any large obstructions.
  • Insert the cleaning brush down the drain and use an in-and-out twisting motion to scrub the grinding chamber walls.
  • Add a tablespoon of baking soda and scrub again to scour off grease.
  • Turn on the cold water and plug in the disposal. Turn it on for 30 seconds to flush away any loosened debris.

Garbage disposal brushes have sturdy nylon bristles shaped to reach all the grooves and crevices inside the grinding chamber. This lets you scrub away any accumulated grime.

5. Use a Disposal Cleaner and Degreaser

For regular maintenance, specialized disposal cleaners can simplify the process:

  • Start by running cold water to moisten the chamber. Unplug the disposal.
  • Pour the cleaner/degreaser down the drain. Let it sit for 5 minutes to break up grease and residue.
  • Plug the disposal back in and turn it on for 30 seconds, allowing the cleaner to grind through.
  • Unplug again and rinse by running cold water for a full minute.

Look for cleaners that contain active ingredients like sodium hydroxide or nitric acid to cut through grime. Citrus-scented products help neutralize odors naturally. Follow product instructions carefully.

6. Freshen with Lemon or Orange Peels

For quick odour elimination, try grinding up citrus peels:

  • Start by running the cold water and disposal together for 30 seconds.
  • Turn off the disposal and drop a couple lemon or orange peels down the drain.
  • Turn on the disposal again and let the peels grind up completely, filling the sink with fresh citrus scent.
  • Run the water for a final 30 seconds to rinse.

The citric acid in the peels cuts through nasty smells. This offers a fast way to freshen up a smelly garbage disposal between deep cleans.

No matter which method you choose, take safety precautions when cleaning a garbage disposal:

  • Always turn off/unplug before putting hands near the drain.
  • Run cold water first to prevent heated grease from liquefying.
  • Confirm blades spin freely before turning on.
  • Avoid reaching into the actual grinding chamber.
  • Use a long-handled brush to scrub inside.

With safe usage and regular cleaning, a garbage disposal should provide many years of food-scrap grinding convenience.

What NOT to Put Down Garbage Disposals

While garbage disposals are built to grind up organic matter, some items can cause clogs, damage, and maintenance issues. Avoid putting these items down the disposal:

  • Egg shells: The fibrous texture can get caught in the shredder ring.
  • Coffee grounds: Grounds are too abrasive and can scratch the inside.
  • Seeds & pits: Tough, woody consistency jams blades.
  • Rice and pasta: Starch expands into a cement-like paste.
  • Bones: Can fracture into sharp shards that damage blades.
  • Corn husks: Get tangled in shredders.
  • Grease/oil: Causes nasty clogs as it cools and thickens.
  • Fruit peels: Fibrous and choke grinders. Exceptions are lemon/orange peel.
  • Onion skins: Wrap around impellers.
  • Potato peels: Starch pastes up blades.
  • Shellfish shells: Extremely hard and chip grinders.
  • Glass/plastic/metal: Can shatter or break blades.

This includes avoiding any of the “magical cleaning solutions” involving these dangerous items that often get shared online. Be wary of any viral garbage disposal hack that hasn’t come from a reputable plumbing source.

Viral Garbage Disposal Cleaning Hacks to Avoid

Certain garbage disposal cleaning methods go viral online every year, promising magical results with bizarre ingredient combinations. However, most of these trendy cleaning “hacks” should be avoided because they can actually damage your unit:

No Ice Cream and Salt

You may see tips to clean disposals with a mixture of ice cream and rock salt. The claim is that the salt will scrub the ice cream off the sides. In reality, this has the opposite effect:

  • The milkfat in ice cream liquefies and coats the grinding chamber in a layer of grease.
  • Meanwhile, the salt gets trapped, abrading the metal components.

Save yourself the cleanup headache and avoid this harmful kitchen myth.

No Foaming Cleaners

Viral videos show foaming cleaners like Coke, mentos, or denture tablets fizzing inside the disposal. Despite the impressive suds, this won’t clean effectively:

  • The foam fills up the grind chamber but doesn’t have time to actually scrub before getting flushed out.
  • Chunks of mentos or tablets can wedge inside and jam the unit.
  • Acidic Coke erodes metal and rubber parts over time.

Still images of suds may look satisfying, but it’s all for show. Stick to proven cleaning methods.

No Raw Potatoes

Some advice says stuffing raw potatoes down the drain will “grind away residue” when you turn on the disposal. This fails for a few reasons:

  • Potatoes turn into a thick starchy paste, not an abrasive scrubber.
  • The paste oozes into gaps and clogs components.
  • Potato skins can wrap around impellers and seize the motor.

Instead, grind up lemon peels for a pleasant scrubbing action and fresh scent.

No Pulp Fruits

Oranges, lemons, and grapefruits are often recommended for their citric acid. But you need to avoid the stringy pulp:

  • Long citrus fibers tangle up in the grinders and drainage pipes.
  • The fibrous texture doesn’t scrub away gunk very effectively.

Stick to grinding the peel only for freshening odors, not the juicy pulp.

No Raw Onion

Onion can clean out odors, but dropping one down whole can damage the disposal:

  • Dense, fibrous texture quickly jams shredders.
  • Juices leak into crevices and crystallize.

Chop up small amounts of onion first. Never drop in whole or large chunks.

Trendy cleaning hacks prey on the desire for quick cleaning shortcuts. But garbage disposals require specific techniques to avoid harm. Always research disposal care from qualified experts like plumbers or appliance repair technicians. Viral trends should be met with skepticism.

Troubleshooting Clogged or Jammed Garbage Disposals

Even if you take all the right precautions, garbage disposals can still get jammed or clogged occasionally. Here are some troubleshooting tips if your disposal stops working:

  • Flip the reset switch – Many models have a red reset button on the underside. Press this to restore power after an overload.
  • Remove obstructions – Carefully use a pair of tongs or needle-nose pliers to pull out any large, hard objects lodged in the grind chamber.
  • Unjam impellers – Insert an Allen wrench in the bottom of the unit. Turn back and forth to manually spin the impellers and loosen debris.
  • Clean out drain line – Use a zip-it cleaning tool or bendable auger to pull out any clogs in the drain pipe below.
  • Check circuit breaker – Food jams can trip the breaker. Reset if needed.
  • Test grind chamber – Drop a few ice cubes down drain while running water. Listen for proper grinding noise. If blades still won’t turn, the unit likely needs professional service.

Avoid putting your hands directly into a jammed disposal, as serious injury can occur. Unplug the unit, then use long-handled tools to safely extract debris and get blades turning again. Call for repairs if problems persist after attempting these steps.

When to Call a Professional

While many garbage disposal clogs and issues can be DIY fixes, at some point professional help may be required. Reach out to a licensed plumber for disposal problems such as:

  • Chronic clogging and jams
  • Leaks coming from the unit
  • Loud or strange noises during operation
  • Continued bad odors after cleaning
  • Complete failure to turn on or spin
  • Trip of the dedicated disposal circuit breaker
  • Damage to components like blades or grind ring

For severe or persistent problems, the internal workings of the disposal are likely compromised. Let a pro inspect and determine if repairs or full unit replacement are required.

Improper DIY repairs can make matters worse and put you at risk of injury or electric shock. Professional plumbers have specialized tools, skills and experience to safely diagnose and fix garbage disposal issues.

Maintaining Your Garbage Disposal

With regular use, even a properly cleaned disposal will eventually suffer wear and tear. You can maximize the lifespan through preventive maintenance:

  • Grind some ice monthly – The cubes help sharpen blades and reveal problems.
  • Use cold water – Prevents grease liquefaction.
  • Flush with baking soda – Helps scrub away grime and odors.
  • Avoid putting certain items down the drain – Only grind appropriate food scraps.
  • Inspect components – If noises develop, have a look with a flashlight. Watch for cracks or leaks.
  • Clean with citrus peels – Freshens smell and clears minor buildup.
  • Have a plumber inspect annually – Routine inspections/service prevent bigger issues.

With regular care and cleaning, a high-quality garbage disposal should operate smoothly for 5-15 years. Don’t wait until major problems develop to start maintenance.


Maintaining a clean garbage disposal doesn’t require sketchy viral cleaning hacks. Using proper methods like grinding ice, baking soda mixes, and citrus peels will keep your unit operating safely and odor-free. Avoid putting the wrong items down drains, and have a plumber inspect the disposal annually. With smart use and care, your garbage disposal will grind food waste reliably for years before needing professional service or replacement.