How to Clean a Moldy Cooler: Quick & Easy Methods

There’s nothing worse than going to pack a cooler only to realize there is mold inside. Mold will grow nearly anywhere, and the dark, damp inside of a cooler is one of its favorite places to flourish.

Many times I've brought my cooler back from a trip away and leaving it too long before emptying it thinking “I'll get around to it later”.

When I open it and it's full of mold I then have to tackle the task of removing the mold and cleaning the cooler. But how exactly do you remove mold from a cooler?

To clean a moldy cooler first rinse the cooler with a hose to remove residue and clean thoroughly with warm soapy water. Use a high-pressure hose to remove mold or use bleach or vinegar to completely kill mold and remove stains.

What Is Mold?

Mold is any fungus that grows in the form of multicellular filaments. 

In appearance, mold is a fuzzy looking growth that can be white, black, green, blue, or gray in color. While mold does look fuzzy, you should never touch it.

The fuzzy texture may be tempting, but if you touch it, you will disturb the mold, causing spores to be released into the air. These spores are how mold can make you sick.

Many people are allergic to mold and experience allergic reactions after coming into contact with the fungi. Even those without a mold allergy will experience discomfort after being exposed to mold.

When mold spores enter the air, they are easily inhaled by humans via the mouth or nose. The mold spores then travel along the airways until they make a home in the lungs.

In the lungs, mold causes irritation that leads to inflammation, chest pain, wheezing, and coughing. Repeated exposure to mold can lead to permanent lung damage that causes respiratory illnesses.

There’s Mold in My Cooler

If you’ve opened your cooler to find mold, don’t panic. You don’t need to throw the whole cooler away.

Take the cooler into an area with adequate airflow. For instance, if the cooler was in your garage, take it out into the front yard. 

Before we get down to business killing the mold and the stains it leaves behind we first want to remove any big bits of mold or residue from your cooler.

Rinse Your Cooler Well

After emptying your cooler and discarding anything you left inside there (those moldy sandwiches need to go in the bin) you'll want to give your cooler a good rinse.

I like to take my cooler outside and spray it with a hose. The high pressure of the hose will break away big buildups of mold so when it comes to scrubbing your cooler you won't have as many big bits of mold floating around in the water.

Wash Well

Once you've rinsed your cooler you'll want to go ahead and give it a good wash.

I'll partially fill up my cooler with warm soapy water and use a rough sponge in order to scrub the cooler clean and scrub away any mold residue.

This isn't the only way to wash your cooler well. I've also done an article on the many ways to clean a cooler properly so check that out if you want more general cleaning tips.

Often this is going to be enough to clean away mold in your cooler and all you have to do is leave your cooler out to dry. But sometimes you'll need to take the extra step to completely kill the mold and the stains it leaves behind.

Use a High Pressure Spray

This is probably the easiest and quickest way to clean mold from a cooler.

You can either buy or hire a high-pressure hose for doing this at your own home or do what I do and head down to the local self-service car wash where they have high pressure sprays to clean cars.

For a couple of dollars I can run the high-pressure soap spray and use it to clean all over my cooler and remove any mold residue.

I start from further away and give it a quick once over rinse and then I'll take my time and put the hose close the cooler focusing on areas of mold making sure to blow away and residue left behind.

I also take my time to get into the cracks and crevices to make sure I've given my cooler a complete thorough clean.

Bleach

Everyone’s favorite antibacterial cleaner, bleach, is a surefire way to kill mold and bacteria. 

One of the most effective ways to kill mold with bleach is with a foam or gel cleaner containing bleach. Bleach cleaners are already properly diluted, so you don’t have to do the guessing work. 

If you don’t have bleach cleaner, don’t fret. When all you have is straight, liquid bleach, dilute it in a spray bottle with water. 

The usual bleach to water ratio is 1 to 10, and this should be effective at killing mold. Feel free to increase the ratio if it will give you peace of mind, just don’t pour straight bleach into your cooler.

Doing so will do more harm than good. Spray your homemade bleach solution or your bleach cleaner on to the mold.

Allow the bleach to sit for at least 10 minutes. Thirty minutes is the ideal time frame.

If you allow the bleach to sit for longer than 30 minutes, you run the risk of it drying out. Then, you’ll have dead, crusty mold stuck to the inside of your color.

When the time is up, use a paper towel to wipe away the bleach. Immediately discard the paper towel. 

Then, clean the cooler with hot, soapy water to finish. This will remove any remaining fragments of the mold and all traces of the bleach. 

Once clean, towel dry the cooler. If you need to use it right away, it’s ready to go once dried.

If you don’t need it within the next 24 hours, store the cooler upside down with the lid open so that it can air dry completely.

Click here to get some bleach from Amazon

Vinegar

If you or someone you love is obsessed with keeping things natural, you’ll be happy to hear that vinegar is extremely effective at killing mold. Vinegar is acetic acid, and it’s commonly used as an all-purpose cleaner. 

Distilled white vinegar is the type you’ll be employing to clean your cooler. Apple cider vinegar may taste better, but it’s just not as effective at killing pathogens.

Unlike bleach, you’ll want to use the vinegar undiluted. You need all the strength of that acetic acid to kill the mold in your cooler.

Pour some vinegar into a clean spray bottle. Spray the vinegar on to the bleach.

Allow the vinegar to sit for at least one hour. While vinegar will start killing the mold on contact, you want to give it enough time to penetrate the mold and completely annihilate it. 

Once your hour is up, wipe away the vinegar and newly deceased mold with some paper towels. Immediately discard the paper towels. 

Vinegar is nontoxic, so you don’t have to do a big clean-up job after the mold is gone if you don’t want to. Simply rinse it out with water and towel dry to the best of your abilities.

The vinegar’s odor will linger if you only rinse out the cooler, and if you’re not used to the smell, it can be quite pungent. If you hate the smell of vinegar, give the cooler a proper washing with hot, soapy water after you’ve rinsed the vinegar out.

Click here to get some vinegar from Amazon

Don’t Mix it

You have to choose whether to use bleach or vinegar, you cannot combine the two. While that may sound like a way to make a really efficient cleaning solution, it’s actually the way to produce toxic fumes that could potentially kill you.

Coolers do have a slightly porous surface, so any cleaner you use may not be 100% gone after you clean the cooler. For this reason, pick one of the above methods and stick with it. 

For Tough Stains Use a Magic Eraser

If, after following the steps above, your cooler still has stains left behind from mold or old food then a magic eraser can remove those hard to get stains.

They are made from a micro-abrasive foam and with a good amount of pressure and rubbing it'll be able to remove those super tough stains.

It'll take some elbow grease and time, but by the end of it your cooler will be looking brand new.

Click here to get a Magic Eraser at Amazon

How to Prevent Mold in the Cooler

The best way to get rid of mold is to never have to deal with it in the first place!

To prevent your cooler from becoming home to fungus, you should always empty out your cooler when you are done using it. This includes removing any remaining ice, drinks, or food.

Drain your cooler completely when you are finished using it. Leaving water in the bottom of the cooler will give mold more than enough moisture to begin growing in the dark space. 

When possible, leave the lid off of your cooler or at least leave the lid open. Whenever your cooler isn’t in use, leave the lid off and/or hang it upside down. 

This will allow the cooler to get adequate air flow to dry out completely. Without moisture, mold won’t grow.