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How to Clean A Cooler That’s Smelly, Moldy, or Stained

You use your cooler for pool parties, tailgates, and barbecues, so it’s bound to get dirty over time. When you forget or put off cleaning your best cooler, it’s likely to be moldy or smelly due to grime, dirt, spills, and debris. Having a cooler that looks like a science experiment is gross, and over time it can even become a health hazard. Nothing ruins a weekend in the woods like good ol' fashioned food poisoning, so it’s vital to clean your cooler to keep your perishable goods safe.




35 minutes

What You Need

  • Warm water

  • Sponge

  • Liquid soap

  • Baking soda

  • Liquid bleach

  • Clean towel

  • Garden hose

Most people use their coolers on the go, so it can be easy to forget to clean them. It’s advisable to empty and clean the cooler after each use to avoid the buildup of mildew and stains. You’ll only realize it’s dirty and smelly when you want to use it. But if you’re wondering how to clean a stained, moldy, or stinky cooler, we have you covered with some easy steps.

how to clean a smelly or moldy cooler bucket of water with sponge
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How to Clean A Moldy Cooler

Storing your cooler in an area with high moisture levels for an extended period is likely to result in mold growth. This is the last thing you’ll want to happen, but don’t fret. You can still clean it to remove the mold. Here is what you need to do:

Step 1: Wash the cooler normally with a garden hose to remove dirt, filth, and light stains.

Step 2: Create a cleaning solution using a gallon of warm water, three drops of liquid soap, and a cup of baking soda. Mix the solution well in a bucket.

Step 3: Soak a sponge in the solution and use it to scrub the interior surface of the cooler. Ensure you have scrubbed the solution onto the entire surface, and remember to clean the exterior as well.

Step 4: Use the garden hose to rinse the cooler thoroughly. If it has a drain, make sure you’ve opened it to allow the seamless flow of soap residue and dirt.

Step 5: Mix equal parts of water and liquid bleach in a bucket.

Step 6: Dip a clean sponge into the solution and clean the cooler with bleach to eliminate any traces of mold. Apply the solution to every crevice and corner of the cooler.

Step 7: Allow the cooler to rest for about 10 minutes for the solution to work effectively.

Step 8: Use the garden hose to rinse the cooler. Be sure to confirm there are no traces of mold inside it. Wipe excess water using the towel and allow your cooler to dry in the open air with the lid open.

An overhead shot of a wooden toothbrush, sponge, lemon, soap, baking soda, steel wool, and a jar of water on wooden surface.
Getty Images

How to Clean A Stained or Smelly Cooler

Forgetting to clean your cooler gives it a rancid smell. Ordinary cleaning with water and soap isn’t enough to address the issue. Removing stains is the best way to prevent foul smells and mold in your cooler. Foods, water, and other liquids can stain your cooler, so you need to get rid of them as soon as possible. And remember to clean both the interior and exterior to prevent bacteria growth, which might contaminate your food. Then, let it dry adequately in the open air before storage.

If stains or smells are your problem, the cleaning process is similar, but you'll need a few different tools for the job:

  • White vinegar
  • Lemon juice
  • Soft towel
  • Sponge
  • Toothbrush
  • Garden hose

Step 1: Rinse the cooler using a garden hose to remove loose dirt and identify stubborn stains.

Step 2: Use a liquid dishwasher and a wet sponge to scrub the bottom and walls of the cooler. Take the toothbrush and scrub the drain area and the lid gasket.

Step 3: Rinse the loose dirt out with water.

Step 4: Mix equal parts of water and vinegar and use the solution to clean the cooler’s inner surfaces.

Step 5: Set the cooler outdoors and let it air out for about 30 minutes, then rinse it using the garden hose.

Step 6: If there are any stubborn stains, use lemon juice to get rid of them. If the stains have gone, wipe off the cooler using the towel, and allow it to dry.

Grab your cooler and your supplies and get to work. The outdoor season is rapidly approaching and we need to spend as much time outside as possible.

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Kurt Spurlock
Kurt Spurlock is a writer for the outdoors and motorcycle industries. When he's not busy writing you can find him hoarding…
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