Food is vulnerable to temperature changes, bacteria, or rot, which could threaten one’s health. Therefore, your fridge must stay at the right temperature at all times. You shouldn’t forget to close your fridge door, but if you do, what can happen?

If you leave your freezer door open, your food will experience bacterial growth, mold, or other pathogens. Leaving your freezer door open will also ruin the consistency and edibility of items you have left there, even if they were frozen.

In this article, I’ll explore deeper into why freezer doors should stay firmly shut, how to protect food, and what to do when problems arise.

A Chill in the (Open) Air

I’ve experienced what leaving a freezing door open can do firsthand. It’s what led me to write this article. This is my story of appliance acrimony, which will hopefully help others avoid the demise of ill-fated frozen goods.

Earlier this year, I purchased a used freezer from a local classified site. I planned to stock up on groceries from wholesale stores, make plenty of meals ahead of time, and cut down on how often my family was eating out. It would be well worth the initial investment and the time it would take to organize meals.

The plan went well, for the most part. Only one problem: the door didn’t seal properly, a fact we missed on the first inspection upon buying it. It would’ve been impossible to tell without having it plugged in for at least a few hours. The magnetic strip seemed to be working fine, and we didn’t notice any gap when we shut it.

A couple of weeks later, we noticed some problems. First, we began to see fluffy ice build-up around the edges of the inside. Then, that spread to large, solid blocks over all of our items. Finally, we could smell something unpleasant that was barely noticeable over the scent of cleaning products and air fresheners we use in our home.

One morning, we woke up after a sweltering night, and the door was ajar. An enormous, disgusting puddle of liquid was on the floor – a slurry made up of blood, fruit juice, and who knew what else. Everything inside was ruined, and my hard work and money were wasted.

What Happens if You Leave Your Freezer Door Open?

Freezers have to maintain a surprisingly delicate balance to keep food at its best. The FDA recommends keeping your freezer at a perfect 0°F (-18°C). Putting a thermometer in your fridge is a good idea, so you can make sure you maintain that level at all times. Going any further in either direction is a bad idea.

If your freezer door is left open, it can disrupt the appropriate freezer temperature. Anything above 0°F and up to 32°F (0°C) will expose frozen food to bacteria, even as the temperature gets warmer. Your food doesn’t have to defrost entirely to carry dangerous pathogens.

On the other hand, anything down to -20°F (-29°C) is “safe” but will develop freezer burn. The texture, flavor, and overall suitability will degrade. You won’t be at risk of E.coli, salmonella, or other nasties, though the quality of your meal won’t be high.

How Long Can a Freezer Be Open?

An open freezer door is interfering with climate control. It takes 4 hours for your freezer to begin to get cold from when you plug it in when the door is closed firmly. It’ll be 12 hours before it reaches the correct temperature.

Each time you open the door, you’re setting it back by a few minutes, and prolonged exposure to open-air won’t allow anything inside to freeze or remain frozen at all.

Let’s break down what happens at different points in time when you leave your freezer door open:

  • 30 Minutes: At 30 minutes, your freezer will be leaking cold air and replacing it with temperate room air. Your food will slowly begin to defrost at this point, though ice crystals will still be present enough that it’ll be safe.
  • 1 Hour: Ice will begin to accumulate around the front of the freezer, building up into more significant amounts.
  • Overnight: At around the 8 to 12-hour mark, you may notice an ice build-up that may have spread to the point where the whole front of the fridge has blocks of ice on items that have to be chipped through or melted. The back of the interior may start to defrost, pushing more moisture forward to add to that ice.
  • More than 24 Hours: After a day, the ice build-up will have started to melt, and the freezer itself will warm more and more. Your food will be defrosted, and liquid from inside those items will have mixed with the water from the ice. It’ll flood the bottom, leaking onto the floor, and likely drip a small or large amount of the slurry into the fridge below.
  • 1 Week: Between 4 days and a week of a door being left open can cause damage to the appliance itself. The inner components struggling to cool the freezer will overheat, potentially breaking different parts or even causing a freon leak. If you experience symptoms like dizziness and nausea, unplug the freezer right away and open windows to begin airing your home. Contact your doctor for further instructions.

It’s usually never ideal to leave a freezer open for any extended period, but if your freezer door was accidentally left open for a short time, it is possible that its contents are salvageable.

A freezer can generally remain open for 30 minutes to several hours without causing too much damage. However, a freezer should not be left open for 24 hours or longer because the ice accumulation will begin to defrost and melt as it heats up, which can lead to more food waste and potential damage.

Cross Contamination and Health Risks

The primary risk that comes from melted freezer items is in the pathogens spreading from the liquid. Not only will putrid poultry, bacteria-laden beef, and vile veggies be disgusting themselves, but the cast-off will ruin anything it touches. This is called cross-contamination, which goes further than the initial defrost.

As the liquid drips into your fridge, it’ll touch anything you have inside and pass on bacteria. If those groceries are sealed, such as plastic milk jugs or soda cans, they can be sanitized. But produce, less protected containers and items wrapped in paper or previously open plastics are harder to guarantee. You can wash them, but some foodborne diseases are hearty; it probably isn’t worth the risk.

Another worry is the liquid spreading on the floor. If you have pets, they’ll be drawn to the blood and juice coming from meat. Even if it’s contaminated, they could lick it up. If it gets onto their paws or fur, they might clean it off with their tongues. Animals are less vulnerable to these dangers than humans but not entirely protected.

Babies and toddlers are another concern. Crawling or walking through even traces of the muck will get it onto their hands, feet and spread onto toys, binkies, etc. Young children love to put things into their mouths, a horrifying prospect for any parent.

How to Tell if Your Food Is Salvageable

Not every open freezer door will require a purge of its contents. A couple of hours of exposure is probably fine. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take every precaution. Enough dangers lurk in improperly stored consumables to make it worth checking each container.

Look inside and see if ice crystals are remaining on the majority of the food. Touch each item and see if they’re wet, and if so, whether they have started to defrost. It should be safe as long as the packaging isn’t soaked or the item is mostly frozen. If it contains any meat juice or unidentified liquid, toss it in the trash.

A rule of thumb: if you have any doubt, throw it out!

Cleaning Up After a Freezer Mishap

If you leave your freezer open and end up with issues like defrosted food or large sections of ice at the front, you should clean it promptly. That includes removing ice particles and sanitizing. Even if you don’t think your food has gone bad, it’s best to scrub down the freezer’s chambers to remove any baddies lurking inside.

Follow these steps on how to clean up after a freezer mishap:

  1. Remove everything from the inside of your freezer. If there’s ice build-up, use lukewarm water to gently remove it without defrosting it further. 
  2. Put items aside.
  3. Boil a large pot of water and place it inside the freezer. You can add a sliced lemon inside the water for odors. It’ll leave a pleasant citrus scent. 
  4. Stuff towels around the bottom of the freezer to catch drippings. 
  5. Keep the door closed and leave it until the ice has melted. If the water cools and there’s still build-up, repeat the process.
  6. Use a bleach-containing cleaner and scrub out the freezer.
  7. Dry thoroughly with a towel. Ensure no moisture is left. Pat dry all items from the freezer, as well.
  8. Replace items, making sure they are stacked so as not to press the door from the inside.
  9. Use a bleach-containing cleaner to scrub down anywhere that may have been contaminated by liquid coming from your freezer. If it got into the fridge, make sure you clean everything there, as well. Throw out anything that can’t be easily sanitized.
  10. Check the seal.

How to Ensure Your Freezer Is Sealed

When my freezer wasn’t closing, it wasn’t discovered all at once. I had ice build-up and had to conduct a full defrost first. After that, it seemed to work just fine for a while. It wasn’t until the fiasco with the door falling open during a hot summer night in a new house with a broken swamp cooler that we figured out what was going on. Don’t be like me.

To make sure your seal is nice and tight, you want to check the freezer door gasket. The fastest way to verify its functioning is to take a piece of paper, close it into the door, and wait to see if it slips. If it doesn’t, pull it out. There should be some difficulty removing it; something is wrong with the gasket if the paper slides free with no resistance.

The first step is to clean it. Put 1 part to 3 parts 70% isopropyl alcohol in water and wipe the gasket down along the entire door. Do the test again. If it still isn’t sticking, it’s time to replace it entirely. These cost anywhere from $100 to $500 and will depend on the make and model of the appliance.

Other Causes of Freezer Door Not Closing

There may be other reasons your freezer door won’t stay closed. The first is that the latch itself is broken. The second is something in the side of the door or main chamber that is pressing it open.

If it’s a faulty latch causing issues, I recommend installing an external one, like the EUDEMON Refrigerator Freezer Door Lock. It is easy to install and will force your door closed. It’s similar to babyproofing mechanisms and is also incredibly affordable. It’s definitely way cheaper than replacing your freezer and any damaged food inside of it!

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If you think the door is pushed from the inside, remove everything from the freezer and reorganize it. Avoid overstuffing the space. If you want to have more frozen foods, such as with batch cooking, consider getting a second, upright, or chest-style freezer for the task.

Final Thoughts

Your freezer is one of the most essential appliances in your kitchen. It allows your food to last beyond its expiration date, lets you cook ahead, and keeps items bought in bulk fresh until you use them. Unlike your fridge, having the door open for a short time is more an inconvenience than a tragedy, as long as you catch it in time.

If the worst does happen, make sure you defrost, sanitize, and check all inside items, taking special care to include surrounding spaces. So make sure you’re catching problems as they arise, not after they end in tears.

Related: Why Is My Fridge Leaking Water Onto the Floor?

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