How to Use a Clothes Steamer Properly, According to the Pros

Be warned: Once you’re a steaming pro, you might kick your iron to the curb!

August 22, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland

If you need to de-wrinkle a dress shirt but don’t feel like breaking out your ironing board, a garment steamer can get the job done just as well… if you know the right way to use it. Clothing steamers use hot steam—typically 200 degrees or more—to smooth out fabric and release wrinkles, and many people find them easier to use than irons, as there’s less risk of scorching your favorite clothes.

However, the best clothes steamers are only effective if you use them properly. If you don’t, you may end up with water splatter everywhere and just as many wrinkles as you started with. To ensure you get professional-grade results with your new garment steamer, we asked laundry experts Jonathon Reckles of CD One Price Cleaners and Alicia Sokolowski, president and co-CEO of AspenClean, for their best clothes steaming tips—here’s what they had to say.

The Perks of Steaming

If you’re wondering if you should steam or iron your favorite clothing, there are several benefits of garment steaming to keep in mind. “Steaming rather than ironing garments helps preserve the integrity of the fabric,” explained Reckles. “We have all ironed clothing at one point and noticed the fabric looks shiny—this is a result of crushing the fibers of the garment with too much heat.” Seaming is a more gentle process and won’t crush the material.

Steaming can also kill bacteria on your clothing, thanks to its high heat, and many handheld steamers are extremely compact, taking up less space than an iron and ironing board. Plus, they’re more versatile: “A steamer is not just for clothes—it can be used on curtains, fabrics and upholstered furniture,” Sokolowski said. “A clothing steamer can remove dust or dust mites from clothes or fabrics, which helps to alleviate allergies.”

However, there are still some times when ironing is the way to go—for instance, if you want to create sharp creases in your dress pants, an iron will get the job done better.

Hang Up Your Garment

One of the differences between ironing and steaming is the way you prepare your clothing. When ironing, you generally lay clothes flat on an ironing board, but when you’re using a garment steamer, it’s best to hang up the item you’re working on.

“For best results with a steamer, hang your garment on a glass shower wall/door and begin steaming the clothing from the top to the bottom,” Reckles recommended. “You can also hang the garment on a wooden or painted door, but use a towel as a barrier.”

Let the Steamer Heat Up All the Way

Many handheld garment steamers heat up in just a few minutes, and you might be tempted to start steaming your clothing as soon as the first tendrils of steam drift out of the nozzle. However, it’s best to let the steamer heat up all the way before putting it to your clothing. After you see the first bits of steam, give the unit at least 60 seconds of additional heating time. This way, the stream of steam—say that five times fast—is steady enough to remove wrinkles quickly, and it will reduce the risk of the steamer spitting on your clothes, which can happen if there’s water leftover in the nozzle from the last time you used it.

Use Distilled Water

Many people don’t read the user’s manual for garment steamers, as they’re quite straightforward to use, but it’s worth checking to see what kind of water is recommended for your steamer. The majority of garment steamers need to be used with distilled water—otherwise, you may end up harming the tool and your clothes! “Water from a well sometimes has a heavy concentration of iron or other minerals which can discolor your clothing during steaming,” Reckles explained. “Purified or distilled water are your best options.” Minerals can also clog up the inner components of your steamer, forcing you to deep clean it more often and even shortening its lifespan.

Keep Fabric Taut

One of the biggest mistakes people make while using garment steamers is simply letting their clothing hang loosely while steaming. Steamers work by relaxing the fibers in a piece of fabric, but if you just let the fabric hang there, the fibers may just dry back into their original wrinkled position.

“Place the steamer at the top of the garment and gently work your way down,” Sokolowski recommended. For best results, pull down on the bottom of your garment when steaming, ensuring the fabric is taut. This way, as the fibers are steamed, they’re pulled straight and will dry into a smooth, wrinkle-free surface.

Know Your Nozzle Placement

You can safely steam a wide range of fabrics, including cotton, linen, wool, silk, and synthetic materials like polyester and nylon. However, there are some materials that shouldn’t be steamed: “It is best to get suede, leather and waxed jackets professionally cleaned to restore the crisp feeling of the fabric,” Reckles said. “A steamer will melt these items and damage the look and feel of them.”

You’ll want to handle materials differently for best results. When steaming cotton, wool, synthetics, and blended fabrics, you can put the nozzle directly onto the fabric as you steam. This will ensure the steam penetrates the fabric as much as possible, helping to remove wrinkles faster.

However, if you’re working on a delicate material like silk or chiffon, it’s best to leave some space between the nozzle and the fabric: “It is important not to go too close to the fabric, especially if it is a delicate fabric,” said Sokolowski. Hold the steamer at least 1 inch away from the garment to prevent watermarks or streaking.

It’s also important to hold your steamer at the right angle: “A common mistake made by people while steaming is tilting the steamer too far forwards,” Reckles said. “Remember, it’s like a pitcher of hot water. If you tilt it too far forward, you will end up with wet clothes and hot toes.”

Clean Your Steamer Regularly

The beauty of steaming is that when you’re finished, you can simply empty the water tank and tuck it away until next time. However, you’ll occasionally want to clean your steamer to prevent limescale and minerals from clogging the wand and nozzle—and yes, you should do this even if you use distilled water. “To keep your steamer working at peak performance, you should clean it every two to four weeks,” Sokolowski said.

The good news is that it’s extremely easy to clean a garment steamer. All you have to do is fill the water tank with distilled white vinegar (one of our favorite cleaning products), then turn on the steamer like normal. Hold the steamer over the sink and run it until the tank is empty. Fill the reservoir with fresh water and repeat this process, then allow all the components to dry before storing it in your laundry room again.

More from Food52

This article was updated in August 2023 to include even more of our favorite steaming products.

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Freelance writer, product tester & baking enthusiast.

1 Comment

KO5258 September 19, 2022
Steamer all the way! Became familiar with steaming garments when I was in retail years and years ago, which is when steaming my clothes changed my life. I bought one to use in my closet and another one for my laundry room. The wrinkles literally melt away, which makes it quite fun. Only way to go! 🫶🏼