How To Properly Clean a Cooler: Get Rid of Mold, Smells and Stains

Have you ever left a cooler with old water or food in there for too long only to come back and find it moldy and smelly? Or maybe you've just been on an adventure and your cooler is just dirty and needs a good clean.

Recently, I left my cooler outside for so long it rained, got wet and moldy and even had snails inside it! Yup snails.

Needless to say it needed a good clean before I was ready to use it again. I'm happy to say it's now clean and getting a lot of use in my campervan. So how to you clean a cooler properly and remove mold, smells, stains and….snails haha?

Take Out The Old Food, Tip Out The Old Water, Scrap Away Big Things

The first step is pretty obvious and that's to tip out your old food or the old water left in your cooler so you can start cleaning it.

I like to take my cooler outside and clean it on the grass so if I make a mess there's not extra to clean up.

If there's bits of food, or god forbid you have snails too, then scrape these away so you can start cleaning your cooler properly.

Start By Spraying It With a Hose

Next grab your hose, turn it on full blast and use your finger or the nossle to get a high pressure stream of water coming out of your hose.

This'll break away and clean off the big bits of dirt, mold or buildup in your cooler.

It's not going to get rid of stains or bad smells but it'll mean that as you move onto the next steps you're going to get huge chunks of mold or dirt on your scrubbing brush.

Use Some Detergent, Baking Soda and a Tough Scrubbing Brush, Warm Water Helps

Use some detergent as well as baking soda and fill your cooler up with water.

You don't need to fill it to the top but I like to fill it about one third to half full so I've got a good amount of water to work with to clean my cooler.

I prefer to use warm water if possible because it helps remove build up better but cold water works fine too. Just make sure you don't use boiling water in your cooler.

Take anything from a dish cloth, to a scrubbing brush or even use a mop or a large brush you would use to brush your floor.

Give your cooler a mighty good scrubbing. Get in there and use some elbow grease. Get your strength into it and scrub it hard and scrub it good.

This likely isn't going to make your cooler completely stain free, but it'll make your cooler clean and it'll make it usable again, even if it is a little stained.

To remove stains check out the steps below or read my article on how to clean tough stains and mold from a cooler.

Soak It If You Need To

If you're finding some buildup or some dirt but won't seem to scrub away then letting your cooler soak in water for a bit can help loosen up the residue and allows it to scrub off easier.

I like to use warm water for this and leave it to soak for 30-60 minutes. Then I come back and scrub it again, then leave it to soak for a bit longer if needed.

Use a High Pressure Spray (At Home or at a Local Car Wash)

One of the best ways to clean your cooler and also to remove the bulk of hard stains is to actually hit it with a high pressure water gun.

You know the one's people use to clean driveways?

If you or your friend has one then you can do this at home. Otherwise you can head over to one of those self service car washes and they usually have a high pressure spray hose meant for cars, but you can use it on your cooler too.

Spray close up to the cooler moving slowly and methodically over all surfaces of your cooler. Focusing more time on the strong stains or dirt you want to remove.

This is one of the easiest, funnest and most effective ways to clean a cooler.

Use Bleach To Remove Stains

Mix bleach with water (I usually use 9 parts water to 1 part bleach) either in your cooler itself (this is what I do) or in a bucket.

Get a cloth and use it to wash the entire surface of your cooler with bleach.

Leave it to sit for 15-60 minutes then come back and rinse the bleach off with a hose. This is a great way to remove a lot of stains as well as bad smells.

Just make sure you don't use bleach if you've got a stainless steel cooler as it'll corrode the metal. Quick tip: Don't use bleach on Yeti tumblers or other stainless steel cups or bottles.

Use Vinegar To Remove Smells

If your cooler stinks even after you've clean it then vinegar can be a great way to neutralize odors.

Take some white vinegar and a cloth and wipe vinegar all over your cooler then you can either leave it open to air dry or leave it closed to soak for a bit then open to air dry.

If you're like me and are personally a huge fan of the smell of vinegar then you can also give your cooler a rinse after the vinegar dries to remove the vinegar smell.

Depending on how bad your cooler is you might need a couple of rounds of vinegar. Click here for more tips on how to remove smells from a cooler.

Use a Magic Eraser or Steel Wool For Hard To Remove Dirt

If you've got really tough stains that you couldn't remove with basic scrubbing.

Or if you couldn't remove stains from your cooler with the high pressure hose, or you don't have access to a high pressure hose, then using either a magic eraser or steel wool is a great way to get rid of even the toughest stains.

You need to be careful with steel wool as it can scratch your plastic, but if it's not too coarse then you should be able to use it to get rid of those big tough stains.

Magic erasers are great for little faint stains, or stains in little cracks of your cooler.

Magic Erasers are actually made from a foam, but the foam is actually micro-abrasive and will be able to get in there and get rid of those super tough stains.

It'll take a lot of rubbing and a lot of force and you'll likely go through a magic eraser or a few, but in the end your cooler will come out looking clean and basically brand new.

Click here to get a Magic Eraser at Amazon