Steam is a popular method to smooth wrinkles and refresh garments between washes. But does exposing your clothes to steam actually clean them? Or is it merely a temporary fix? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. While steaming has benefits, it cannot fully substitute for thorough laundering. Read on to learn the capabilities and limits of garment steaming.

How Does Steaming Work?

First, let’s review how steam machines operate:

Heat + Moisture

Steam combines very hot water vapor with moisture to penetrate fabrics.

Loosens Fibers

The intense heat swells and loosens fibers so wrinkles can be smoothed.

Releases Odors

Steam causes odors and perfumes to gassify out of clothing.


High temperatures kill bacteria and dust mites though not as deep as washing.

Relaxes Fibers

The moist heat allows fibers to move and stretching out creases.

In short, steam’s heat and moisture relax wrinkles and release some odors.

Benefits of Steaming Your Clothes

Used properly, steaming offers these advantages for clothing care:

Wrinkle Removal

Steaming provides a quick fix for wrinkled garments when needed. It relaxes fabric creases.

Odor Reduction

While not cleaning fully, steam does decrease embedded odors in clothing through gassification.

Dry Cleaning Alternative

Steaming lets you refresh delicates, silk, and suits at home instead of dry cleaning.

Less Wear and Tear

Steaming minimizes pilling, fading, and fraying from frequent washing and drying.

Freshens Stains

Steam can help release some fresh stains before laundering by loosening dirt.

Prevents Shrinkage

Delicates prone to shrinking can benefit from steaming over high heat drying.


Since no detergents are used, steaming avoids any allergic reaction to chemicals on clothes.

When used properly, steaming brings considerable benefits for clothes care.

Limits of Steaming for Cleaning

However, steaming has some clear drawbacks and limits compared to full laundering:

Doesn’t Kill All Bacteria

While steam reduces bacteria, it does not fully sanitize fabrics as thoroughly as detergent, bleach and high laundry heat.

Limited Odor Removal

Steam only removes loose surface odors, but cannot eliminate deep-set perspiration and smells from fabric.

Does Not Clean Stains

Steam alone does not have enough cleaning power to lift set-in stains. Laundry detergents are required for stain removal.

No Dirt or Grime Removal

Steam does not have the ability to loosen and extract embedded dirt, grease, grime, and sweat from fabric fibers.

Lint and Dust Remain

Steamers do not filter and capture pet dander, microscopic dust mites, lint and particulate soil.

Smooths Only Accessible Areas

Tightly packed clothes limit steam contact to outer surfaces. Inner layers remain unsteamed.

Zero Disinfection

Steam lacks the intense, prolonged heat of laundering needed to kill all microbes, viruses, germs throughout the full garment thickness.

While steaming has merits, it cannot truly clean clothes on a microscopic level.

When to Choose Steaming Over Laundering

There are instances where steaming makes smart sense:

Quick Freshening

When clothes are worn or used minimally and just need quick odor and wrinkle removal between wears.

Delicate Fabrics

Sheer, sequined, beaded, velvet, silk fabrics prone to damage and shrinking with frequent washing.

New Purchases

Brand new clothing may have deep creases from shipping and display. Steaming provides a safer initial press.

Reducing Laundering

Light garments worn for short periods without stains can refresh well with steam between washes.

Pre-Wash Spot Treatment

Steaming helps loosen some fresh stains before laundering for easier cleaning.

Travel Touch Ups

Steamers allow you to neatly refresh clothes on work trips or vacations away from laundry access.

Stubborn Wrinkles

For tough wrinkles unresponsive to ironing alone, steam can help relax the embedded creases.

Think of steaming as a garment care supplement between laundering when used wisely.

Maximizing Steamer Effectiveness

Follow these tips to get the most out of your steamer for garment care:

  • Inspect carefully – steam only clean looking garments, not visibly soiled items.
  • Use a wide nozzle steam head to distribute steam coverage evenly.
  • Hang garments properly on a rack to access all areas and prevent re-wrinkling.
  • Steam inside out for deeper steam penetration into fabric.
  • Use a press cloth to protect delicate fabrics from moisture and heat damage.
  • Pre-treat any stains first since steam alone cannot remove them.
  • Dry clean excessively steamed garments periodically to deep clean fibers.
  • Follow up with an iron on tough creases that need added pressing.
  • Adjust steam volume based on fabric type – use lower temperatures for delicates.

Adopting best practices ensures you get the most benefit from steaming.

Steaming vs. Washing FAQs

Here are answers to common questions about steaming clothes versus laundering:

Does steaming sanitize clothes?

Not nearly as well as washing. Steam reduces bacteria but does not fully disinfect garments.

Can you steam clothes instead of dry cleaning?

For some fabrics like wool suits, steaming can substitute for dry cleaning to save money. But it does not truly clean the garment.

Is it OK to only steam clothes and not wash?

For lightly worn items, steaming between wears is fine. But clothes still require regular laundering cycles to deep clean.

How often can you steam clothes before washing?

For delicate items, every 2-5 wears. But heavily worn shirts, jeans, socks, etc. still need washing after just 1-2 wears even if steamed.

Will steaming shrink or damage clothes?

If used improperly at very high temps, steam can damage fabrics. Follow guidelines for your fabric type.

Can you get rid of stains with a steamer?

Steaming can help loosen some fresh stains prior to washing. But it cannot remove set-in, dried stains without laundering.

What odors does steaming remove?

Light sweat and perfume, but not heavy body odors. Steaming provides surface-level odor removal only.

Is steaming better than ironing?

Steaming reaches wrinkles in areas an iron cannot. But for pressed dress shirts, an iron still works best. Use both techniques.

Can you put clothes in the dryer after steaming?

Yes, steaming simply relaxes wrinkles but does not saturate fabrics like washing. Dryer heat can set the smoothed fibers.

Unravel the power and limits of garment steaming for refreshed clothing between washes. Bring heavily wrinkled, delicately soiled garments into Laundry Pile in Austin, TX. Our professional steamers provide a deeper level of wrinkle release compared to home models. Trust your fine fabrics to our trained experts for the best results. We’ll return your clothes looking neatly pressed with odors and some stains reduced too. Contact Laundry Pile to experience the revitalizing magic of professional steaming for all your wardrobe.

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