steaming vs ironing dress shirts

Steaming vs Ironing Dress Shirts (+ Pros & Cons List!)

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Isn’t it frustrating?

Spending about what feels like an hour trying to iron your dress shirt perfectly. O, only to find that there are tons of creases everywhere (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect). 

Perhaps you blamed yourself for poor technique afterward (I know I have).

Or you’ve thought about that friend of yours that has sworn off ironing and now uses nothing but a handheld steamer.

Maybe you’ve even thought of joining the cult of the steamers.

In this article I’ll be taking you through just why this “cult” may not be so cult-ish after all, and why ironing can be pretty effective if you have the know-how. 

Choosing between ironing or steaming dress shirts depends on a few things such as personal preference, the time you’re willing to allocate, the fabric of your dress shirt, and how much space you have in your home.

How Ironing & Steaming Works

We’ll get here very soon: let’s just cover some ground so we know exactly why things are the way they are.

But First, A History Lesson

Ironing has been around for a lot longer than steaming. That’s part of the reason that, as humans, we’re a lot more familiar with it.

Irons used to be a lot heavier. They were made of metal and were usually heated on the stove, if not in a fire. 

Suffice to say, we’ve come a long way (and thank goodness for that). 

a very old iron on a stove

Steaming on the other hand is a much more recent invention, having been created at the end of the last century

It’s always been seen as a bit of a “niche” product, and not really for everyday use.

But, time has been kind to the steamer, and now it’s readily available for the average Joe (or Jill, Mark, and Jack).

How Irons Iron 

(It’s magic… which is what I would have liked to say.)

In reality: 

Ironing works by loosening the molecule bonds in fabrics. 

It does this through a combination of heat and pressure (both feelings I had during my high school exams). 

Through the use of electricity, the internal heating mechanism of the iron heats its metal plate. 

An electric iron normally runs at anywhere between 250-360° F. If you’ve ever touched a hot iron, you know this to be true, and might even have the scars to prove it!

The majority of modern-day irons are either polished aluminum or stainless steel. 

How Steamers Steam 

Steamers also use heat. But instead of pressing, you just use the steam and moisture to relax the fabrics.

Be careful though as these devices also push out very hot steam, normally anywhere from 200-400° F. Larger and more elaborate steamers should come with a temperature adjuster though. 

steaming an orange dress shirt

You might also be wondering: don’t many electric irons come with a steaming function anyways? 

Yes, but these irons don’t put out nearly as much steam and are not comparable to a traditional steamer.

Quick tip: when using either an iron’s steaming function or a regular steamer, always make use of distilled water. Dirty water can clog up a steamer. It can cause lime deposits in electric irons, which can damage clothes.

So, Should I Iron Or Should I Steam?

Both ironing and steaming have their benefits. It’s your choice as to what you find compelling, but let’s see if I can sway you.

The Good Stuff About Ironing & Steaming

The PROS of ironing:

  • Ironing works better for heavy fibers such as denim, linen, and wool as the heat makes direct contact with these tougher fabrics.
  • Ironing creates much sharper creases and crisper edges and works better for structured materials because you directly press the hot iron onto the shirt.
  • Ironing works brilliantly on smooth fabrics. 

That’s quite an argument, I must admit. 

But, perhaps you could call me biased (I try not to be) but steaming has a slightly more enticing argument in my opinion:

The PROS of steaming:

  • Works much better for softer fabrics such as silk, velvet, and synthetics. 
  • Highly unlikely to burn clothes and offers a much gentler touch.
  • A handy little garment steamer is so much easier to carry around (no need for a hefty ironing board).
  • It DESTROYS terrible odors and freshens up your dress shirt.
  • It acts as a bacteria-killer, dust-mite remover, and allergen-controller.

The Not-So-Good Stuff About Ironing & Steaming 

What’s wrong with ironing: 

  • You could burn or permanently mark your clothing by accidentally holding the iron in one place for too long, or by ironing a sensitive fabric. 
  • The challenging technique and time-consuming nature of it.
  • Ironing boards are BIG. 
  • Very hard to use on ruffles and sleeves. 

What’s wrong with steamers:

  • They may not offer as crisp a finish.
  • They’re somewhat less precise (yes, this is similar to the above).

So, Which Should You Use?

I’m a fan of steam cleaning and its many benefits (such as stain removal). But some may swear by ironing, and that’s not without merit. 

Even though steaming boasts countless benefits, it may not be ideal for certain dress shirts. This of course depends on the material, and how finicky you are about getting it perfect.

An electric iron will help you get to your meeting looking clean and sharp, but it may also leave some burn marks, and may not work well at all if you don’t use it right.

Steaming can work just fine if you have a decent steamer. It’ll also leave it much fresher and cleaner.

Bottom Line: Is It Better to Steam or Iron Dress Shirts?

Steam your dress shirt if you want a fresh shirt with a clean odor. It’s also great if you find that you’re in a bit of a hurry, and are okay with one or two creases here and there.

Iron if you want a perfectly pressed and straightened shirt, and it’s made of an iron-safe fabric. You should also have the time, expertise, and patience to get it just right. 

Frequently Asked Questions

a dress shirt and an iron

Can I steam non-iron shirts?

Yes, steam is much easier and safer on fabrics. It’s actually the alternative if a shirt can’t be safely ironed. 

What is the best way to steam dress shirts that are non-iron? 

These fabrics may be delicate so don’t hold the iron directly on the dress shirt. Hold it a few inches away and steam in circular motions. 

Can you steam cotton dress shirts on an iron board? 

Technically yes, but you may do better putting the shirt up on a hanger and steaming it from there. The thing is, steam often leaves some dampness behind, which is why it’s better to just ditch the board.

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