Steamer vs Iron – Which is Better for Clothes

If you’re wondering whether a steamer you should buy a garment steamer or a clothes iron, this article will break down the pros and cons of each as well as which items should and shouldn’t be steamed.

Where talking here about the handheld type of steamer which (usually) doesn’t physically touch the garment versus a normal clothing iron which also produces steam but has to be placed on top of the garment to iron it flat.

Also see our review of the Best Clothes Steamers and the Best Irons.

Garment Steamer vs Irons

You may want to skip to which fabrics can’t be steamed or ironed as it could be a deal-breaker, no matter your preference.

1. Steam Production

A modern iron can produce massive steam bursts and can also be used for vertical steaming. You might even be thinking that you could use an iron as a two-in-one solution…

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Irons are much heavier than steamers so vertical steaming can be exhausting and you won’t get nearly as much continuous steam production as with a standing clothes steamer, which can go for up to 90 minutes in some cases.

2. Complex Fabric Shapes

Ironing works better on large, flat surfaces while steaming is better for curved surfaces like the shoulders of a suit jacket or pleated fabric. Sleeves are also tricky to iron and might require a sleave board or tailors ham. Wedding dresses are usually a nightmare to iron.

A steamer can simply hover around the odd shapes of the garment without introducing unwanted creases

3. Getting Rid of Wrinkles

Because an iron flattens the fibers and straightens them out, they are much more effective at getting rid of wrinkles. This becomes even more apparent with heavier fabrics like linen and denim. See how to get rid of stubborn wrinkles with an iron.

Steamers simply loosen and relax the fibers so wrinkles will sometimes still be visible unless you’re working with lighter fabrics. For example, you couldn’t really get away with not ironing a men’s cotton dress shirt but a lighter silk blouse will be fine.

The iron soleplate also has a tapered point that can be maneuvered around buttons and over collars to produce perfectly crisp, wrinkle-free results.

4. Risk of Damage

Because the hot soleplate makes direct contact with the fabric, there’s a much higher chance that it burns the fabric or leaves shine marks. See is ironing bad for clothes and how to avoid ironing shine.

Steaming is therefore much safer and often the only permissible way to remove wrinkles from more delicate items.

5. Ironing Creases

Trousers, and other similar clothing, will often require you to iron-in a crease. This is only possible with an iron.

6. Ease of Use

Steamers are definitely much lighter and easier to operate. They’re great for seniors and even occasionally college students. There’s less setup and less filling of water tanks too. You’ll just have to decide if they’re effective enough for you.

If you want less work, but still need an iron for stubborn wrinkles, we’ve reviewed some lightweight irons here.

7. Speed & Convenience

Irons and Steamers take about a minute each to warm up. The main difference is that irons remove wrinkles much faster due to their direct contact with the fabric.

Setting up the ironing board slows it back down though. If you working with very large laundry loads and uncomplicated clothing, ironing win hands-down.

8. Need for Ironing Boards

If you’re ironing, you need some sort of heat-resistant surface to work on. There are ironing blankets that you can lay over a dining table but you’ll still need the space and the setup. Either way, you’ll have an extra expense as well as extra things to store when not in use.

On the other hand, steamers need only a sturdy hanger to drape the item over while steaming. Some things like curtains or drapes can be steamed right there where they hang.

9. Storage

Handheld Steamers take up less storage space than a kettle or a blender while standing steamers are more similar to vacuum cleaners and will need quite a bit of cupboard space.

Irons are relatively small but you have to also consider the ironing board! There are space-saving solutions like over-the-door-ironing boards available.

10. Price

Portable handheld steamers start at around $30 while more professional standing units can easily reach $100. Cheaper irons (reviewed here) also start at $30 but higher-end models can go up to $180!

Ironing stations, also known as “steam generators” can reach many hundreds of dollars but will sometimes include a steamer accessory as well.

Focus on your needs rather than the price, to avoid wasting money on the wrong device.

Steaming Clothes vs Ironing

In summary, steaming is safer and it helps protect delicate garments from heat damage. Unfortunately, it’s less effective at removing wrinkles and some fabrics can actually be damaged by it.

Ironing is more effective at removing stubborn wrinkles in heavier fabrics. An iron can even be used in “dry” mode to avoid adding moisture if necessary. If used incorrectly though, the soleplate may damage the garment.

You’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons for each type of fabric individually.

Which Fabrics Should not be Steamed

Absolutely do not steam waxed jackets. In fact, stay away from any synthetics unless you’re really sure it’s safe. The nylon outer shell of “puffer” down jackets, for example, is very susceptible to heat and damage and should never be steamed or ironed. Crushed Velvet will also be pretty much destroyed.

Wools, on the other hand, prefer to be steamed. Here’s a list of fabrics and which method they prefer:

Always check the label, each fabric is different and may contain blends.

Steaming is Preferable

  • All types of Wool, like Cashmere and Merino.
  • Silk
  • Lace
  • Polyester

Ironing is Preferable

  • Linen
  • Cotton
  • Denim

Under extreme circumstances, the following might be ironed if it’s clearly stated on the label and a protective barrier is used.