Does steaming your clothes really sanitize them? We find out

Jolie Kerr, CNN Underscored
Mon May 18, 2020

CNN Underscored has interviewed experts to find the best options to help you cope during this uncertain time. Find all our coronavirus-related coverage here, and let us know your thoughts here.

Cleaning and disinfecting are on people's minds these days. We've been told to disinfect hard surfaces like doorknobs and countertops, and to wash our hands frequently, but less information is available about how, and how often, to clean textiles like clothing, bedding and upholstered furniture to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.

"The coronavirus is mainly transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. You can be infected by breathing in the virus if you are within 3 feet of a person who has covid-19, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands," Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, says.

While the novel coronavirus that causes covid-19 is very different from the flu virus, and experts are still learning what preventive measures are effective, we can extrapolate some lessons from what we know of the flu virus when it comes to washing fabric. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 degrees F (75 C). Steam, which is produced at 212 F, is known to kill the flu virus and has long been an alternative to cleaning textiles with detergent and water.

Patric Richardson, a laundry expert who runs the website The Laundry Evangelist, explains that steam works to disinfect and clean in two ways. (Disinfecting involves killing bacteria, while cleaning is the removal of dirt.) The first is through heat, which serves to disinfect, and the second is through moisture, which performs the cleaning function. "What moisture does is it causes the fibers to sort of open up," he says. Using a wool-blend work uniform as an example, he explains the effect of steam on the fibers: "That wool actually opens up with steam, it causes the fibers to kind of relax. Steam doesn't really force [the dirt] out, it just allows it to fall out."

If traditional laundering with detergent and water is an option, Richardson said that it is superior to steaming, because it's easy to miss swaths of fabric when using a steamer, while washing by machine or by hand, when done correctly, cleans every square inch of fabric. You should just wash clothes using the hottest water the garment can tolerate; check the care tag for that information. As for drying, just put it on the highest heat setting as well. "If I had to put my money on it, I'd put my money on soap and water," he says.

But when it comes to fabrics that cannot be washed, or items that are too bulky to wash by hand or in a machine, like a duvet or even a couch, steaming is an excellent alternative. Richardson offers a tip for those bulky items: "If you can throw it over anything so that you don't have to work on it flat, it's easier." He suggests putting the item in need of steaming over the shower rod, a bannister or a handrail — "even if you have to drag the sofa into the middle of the floor and throw it over the sofa so you can work on it vertically," he says.

When it comes to choosing a steam-generating iron or a steamer, Richardson recommends an iron. "I'd rather they bought a steam-generating iron, because it gives them a benefit of both." He adds, "if you feel that you need a steamer and you have $35, a $35 steamer will do it. I don't want anyone to feel like they have to buy a $500 iron to be safe."

Richardson recommends a steam-generating iron from Rowenta. For those looking for an upgrade, he suggests the Laurastar steam-generating iron or a Jiffy Steamer, which is a commercial-grade steamer used in boutiques and department stores. We've also included some of our own picks for steam irons, handheld or travel steamers and upright steamers that customers love.

Rowenta Eco-Intelligence Energy Saving Steam Iron ($82.10, originally $119; amazon.com)

Rowenta Eco-Intelligence Energy Saving Steam Iron

Richardson gives Rowenta irons high marks, and notes that choosing a specific model is less important than the brand. In that case, here's a handheld steamer option that's a bit cheaper from the brand as well.

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Jiffy Garment Steamer ($296.99; amazon.com)

Jiffy Garment Steamer

Jiffy garment steamers are commercial-grade, upright steamers designed for use in boutiques and department stores, and are increasingly popular for home use.

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Laurastar Lift Steam Iron ($429; amazon.com)

Laurastar Lift Steam Iron

Richardson describes the Laurastar iron as "the Maserati of irons" and says using it is like "heaven on earth." If you're serious about ironing and the price doesn't give you sticker shock, this is for you.

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PurSteam Garment Steamer ($64.97, originally $82.99; amazon.com)

PurSteam Garment Steamer

The PurSteam Garment Steamer heats up to 248 F and has a five-year limited warranty, which offers more protection against breakage or malfunctioning than its competitors. Customers also love this handheld option from the same brand.

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iSteam Handheld Steamer ($26.97; amazon.com)

iSteam Handheld Steamer

If a small, lightweight steamer is what you're looking for, the iSteam Handheld Steamer is a great buy. It weighs just over one pound, and measures 8 by 5.5 by 3.3 inches.

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Conair Travel Smart Garment Steamer ($23.09; amazon.com)

Conair Travel Smart Garment Steamer

The Conair Travel Smart Garment Steamer is smaller than the iSteam (4.5 by 4.5 by 9.5 inches) and features a folding handle for compact storage.

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Maytag Speed Heat Steam Iron ($46.02; amazon.com)

Maytag Speed Heat Steam Iron

If a fast-heating steam iron is what you want, the Maytag Speed Heat Steam Iron is for you — it heats up in just three seconds.

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Black+Decker Allure Professional Steam Iron ($33.22, originally $49.99; amazon.com)

Black+Decker Allure Professional Steam Iron

The Black+Decker Allure Professional Steam Iron gets high marks from the quilting crowd for the point of the soleplate (which is used for detail work) and for its ease of cleaning.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.