Steamer vs. iron: How to know which to use on wrinkles

A garment steamer and iron are shown together.
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Maintaining clean and tidy clothing is a component of a healthy lifestyle and fostering self-esteem. Ensuring that your clothes are neat and smooth is part of this equation. Of course, you could press your garments with an iron or use steam to remove wrinkles, but which is better?

Some irons have a steam function, but garment steamers and irons have unique features and perform in distinctive ways. Learning the difference between a steamer and an iron can help you determine which might work best for you in different situations.

How Clothes Steamers Work

Not unlike most modern irons, clothes steamers have a tank that you fill with water. The steamer then heats the water to create steam, which can then be let out with the press of a button or lever. This allows for accurate control of the flow of the steam.

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When you lightly apply the nozzle of a steamer to wrinkled material, the steam relaxes the fibers of the fabric and eliminates the wrinkles.

How Irons Work

An electric iron has a flat, triangular metal plate on the bottom. This plate heats up when you plug the iron into an electrical outlet and turn it on.

The metal becomes extremely hot. When applying the iron to wrinkled fabric, the heat weakens the material’s molecular bonds. As you put pressure onto the fabric and move it around on the clothing, it presses the wrinkles out of the temporarily weakened fabric. The pointed end of the plate allows you to press small areas that would otherwise be hard to reach.

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Most irons have temperature gauges and various settings for specific fabric types. For instance, heavier material requires more heat. Many irons also include a steam option, which require you to pour a little water into a reservoir.

When To Choose a Steamer Vs. An Iron

Deciding whether a garment steamer or an electric iron is best for you will largely depend on the type of fabric you want to de-wrinkle. As with other laundry tips for keeping your clothes looking new, various materials require different treatments.

The good news is, most common fabrics can tolerate ironing.

“Heavy-duty cottons and linens will respond well to the pressure, high heat, and moisture an iron can provide,” Mary Gagliardi, Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert, told Reader’s Digest, “especially when the iron can also provide some steam.”

Stiff or thick fabric often demands ironing to remove wrinkles. These textiles, such as wool or denim, require applied pressure to smooth them out. Also, if you want a crisp crease or pleats, you will probably need to use an iron.

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While an iron often tackles its job with sheer power, a steamer is often the better choice for delicate jobs. For instance, an iron can crush the pile of textured fabrics like velvet and corduroy, but a steamer can smooth those materials without damage. Similarly, it’s typically safer to steam sensitive fabrics and synthetics than iron them.

The best way to determine whether you should use an iron or a steamer is to check the garment’s label.

The best clothes steamers for everyday use are compact and upright. This makes them lightweight, easy to use and simple to store. In addition, because of their size, you can use them to smooth large areas of fabric, such as window treatments, without taking them down or maneuvering them on an ironing board.

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Another benefit of garment steamers is that you can use them to freshen fabric. For instance, when you unpack seasonal clothes, they may smell musty or stale. As the heated steam loosens the fibers, it can also kill odor-causing bacteria and germs as well as allergens caused by dust mites.

The best upright steamers have larger reservoirs. These powerhouses can be ideal if you often have many items to care for, such as drapery in a large home or stored clothing, and don’t want to keep stopping to refill.

Fortunately, clothes steamers and irons tend to be very affordable. Therefore, buying both can be an inexpensive yet wise investment in caring for your clothing for a long time.

About the Author

Tricia Goss

Tricia is a professional writer and editor who lives in North Texas with her family and one smelly dog. She is a wannabe problem solver, junk food maven professional coffee practitioner, web guru and general communicator. Learn More.