Steamer vs. Iron: Which Is Better for Your Clothes?

In the steamer vs. iron debate, the decision comes down to fabric. Here is everything you need to know about how to remove wrinkles from your clothing and textiles.

Iron And Steamer Side By, Getty Images (2)

Silk, linen, chiffon, and cotton are some of the most gorgeous fabrics. But unlike synthetics—think polyester, spandex, nylon, and rayon—they are prone to wrinkling and generally require a little TLC when it comes to laundering. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the fine print on clothing tags, not only the instructions pertaining to how to do laundry but also those that explain how to get wrinkles out of clothes. Then the debate comes down to steamer vs. iron.

Many clothing items can sustain the heat of an iron, but delicate pieces may require the use of a clothing steamer. The difference has to do with the type of heat and whether there’s pressure on the fabric, says Mary Gagliardi, aka “Dr. Laundry,” Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert.

A steamer is a device that uses heat and moisture (from the hot water vapor) to remove wrinkles and smooth the surface of the fabric. An iron, on the other hand, is a device that uses heat and pressure (from the weight of the iron and applied pressure) to remove wrinkles from fabric. That’s why it’s sometimes called “pressing.” It can also aid in forming sharp fold lines, such as cuffs, pleats, and creases. Here’s where it’s a little confusing: Modern irons include a water reservoir, which allows users to introduce steam to the process. But there’s always pressure involved as well. So, when should you use a steamer vs. iron? Read on to find out.

When to use a clothes steamer

Woman steaming shirt on hanger at homeLiudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

Generally speaking, fabric type will guide your use of a steamer vs. iron. Gagliardi explains that fabrics with a nap or pile (like corduroy or velvet) have always been tricky to iron because the pressure can crush the pile and distort the fabric’s appearance. A steamer will allow the fabric to fall as intended.

A few other fabrics are prime candidates for steaming as well. “Synthetics respond well to gentle steam and are less likely to melt,” she says. Delicate fabrics, such as silk or chiffon, also are less likely to be damaged with a steamer. And trust us: Once you learn how to wash silk the right way, you’re going to want to remove wrinkles without risking damage.

That said, you should always read the tag of your clothing or textile—you know, the place where it explains that you need to hand-wash clothes or avoid bleach—to see if there are any special instructions.

Pros of steamers

  • Newer handheld steamer models allow you to easily smooth large, harder-to-iron items like draperies. “You can treat them without taking them down,” she points out.
  • You don’t need an ironing board.
  • You are less likely to damage a clothing item.

Cons of steamers

  • Steamers may not be as effective at producing crisp pleats, cuffs, creases, and hems.
  • It takes longer to get wrinkles out of stronger fabrics like cotton when using a steamer vs. iron.

When to use an iron

close up of man ironing clothing on ironing board at homeWestend61/Getty Images

You’ve learned how to wash white clothes to avoid dingy dress shirts and have reached expert level when it comes to removing pilling on clothes. Add in some wrinkle-free garments and you’re good to go, right? It’s true, wrinkle-free items may help you avoid ironing. Technically speaking. But it probably won’t leave your clothes looking crisp and sharp. That’s where ironing (or steaming) comes in.

The majority of textiles can withstand ironing. “Heavy-duty cottons and linens will respond well to the pressure, high heat, and moisture an iron can provide, especially when the iron can also provide some steam,” says Gagliardi.

Of course, double-check the clothing label first. The laundry symbols will indicate if an item should not be ironed, or if it can be ironed but shouldn’t use the iron’s steam function.

Pros of irons

  • It works better on heavier fabrics, like cotton, denim, and canvas, than steaming.
  • Ironing produces crisp pleats, cuffs, creases, and hems.
  • An iron is better for sewing (quilting and tailoring) because the pressure presses seams open, which will give you a better finished product.

Cons of irons

  • If you select the wrong temperature, you can melt or burn fabric with an iron.
  • An ironing board takes up extra space. In the market for a new one? These are the best ironing boards around.

How to iron or steam your clothes

Regardless of whether you are ironing or steaming, Gagliardi warns against using tap water to fill your device. “Tap water includes calcium and magnesium, minerals that will cause a crusty buildup that can clog the iron or steamer. Instead, use deionized, distilled, or demineralized water,” she explains. “This will prolong the life of your iron or steamer.”

If you do see mineral buildup in your steamer or iron, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for removing it. “It may be as simple as a vinegar-and-water solution, or the warranty may require you to use their recommended cleaning product,” she says.

How to iron your clothes

It’s not enough to know when to iron your clothing and linens. In order to avoid destroying your items, you need to know how to iron properly. Thankfully, the process is relatively easy. Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to perfectly pressed.

  1. Check the tag. Always begin by reading the clothing label to see if there are any instructions as to which temperature setting to use.
  2. Use a press cloth. To reduce the chances of scorch, light burn marks on cotton fabric, place a press cloth (lightweight plain-weave fabric like muslin) between the iron and the fabric you’re ironing, suggests Gagliardi.
  3. Keep moving. Don’t let the iron rest in the same spot while you press the fabric. “It should always be moving,” Gagliardi says.
  4. Iron damp clothing. The best time to iron clothing is when it’s still a bit damp after machine washing. “You don’t need to get it all the way dry—just get any wrinkles out then hang the garment to finish drying completely,” Gagliardi says. “This is great if you like to air-dry your clothing to prevent shrinkage but don’t like the wrinkles that come from a high-speed spin cycle at the end of the wash.”

How to steam your clothes

Steaming is simple. Still, you should always follow the directions in your steamer’s user’s guide. “It will show you the recommended way to hang a garment before steaming and should include helpful tips, like pushing the steamer head against the fabric while you apply the steam,” says Gagliardi. These are the basic steps to steaming fabric:

  1. Pull the clothing item taut before steaming.
  2. Hold the steamer one inch from the fabric.
  3. Slowly move the steamer up and down the garment.
  4. Repeat, if necessary. Heavier fabrics may require multiple passes with the steamer to get out severe wrinkles.

What to look for when buying a steamer

Depending on how you intend to use a steamer, you’ll want to first look at the size. “If you want it for travel, get a compact one,” Gagliardi explains. If you don’t do much traveling, you can safely go larger—provided you have the space to store it.

Plan to steam a lot of items at once? “Look for a steamer with a larger water reservoir so you don’t have to refill with water as frequently,” she says. This feature will allow you to steam more items.

Depending on your needs, an attachment for delicate fabrics or upholstery could be useful. Here are some of the best steam irons to buy.

What to look for when buying an iron

Look for an iron that includes specific fiber types on the temperature gauge. “Nylon and polyester must be ironed at much lower temperatures than cotton or linen, and it helps to have the fiber types listed,” Gagliardi says. Because while nobody likes finding out their best dress is now fit for a toddler, you can unshrink clothes. But accidentally scorch your favorite top after using a too-high iron setting, and you’ll be in the market for a new fave.

Next, learn how to clean an iron so it doesn’t damage your clothes.


  • Mary Gagliardi, scientist and cleaning expert with Clorox

Leah Groth
Leah Groth covers everything from cleaning hacks and consumer products to travel and pets for Reader’s Digest. When she isn’t working on a piece, you’ll find her chasing after her four children (two humans, a Vizsla and a German Shorthaired Pointer) or working on her 100-plus-year-old home outside Philadelphia.