How to Wash Dress Shirts

How to clean dress shirts

There’s washing your dress shirt and then there’s doing what you can to ensure that it’s clean while extending its lifetime. Dress shirts are meant to be worn, to be lived in and to be enjoyed. Perspiration, dirt, food stains and pollution are all inevitably going to end up on your shirts and getting that out without slowly damaging your shirts isn’t as simple as throwing them in the washing machine daily. But if you know how to wash dress shirts you can return them to their former glory time and time again, without reducing their lifetime and durability.

You have three options: Washing at home, taking them to a cleaner or using a dry cleaning service. The second and third are great, but they are also costly. In this article we’ll look at how to wash a dress shirt and compare it to dry cleaning shirts and other methods. Ultimately, we want to show you how to clean dress shirts without damaging them, which is what will happen if you wash them as you would your other clothes. Washing dress shirts requires a unique process to care for them and keep them looking fresh.

Detergents and Temperature

Before we can explain how to wash your clothes it’s best to cover the science behind the process. Doing this allows you to understand why we follow certain steps and will give you the ability to determine for yourself how you should wash not only your dress shirts but other clothes too. When it comes to washing there are two factors that we want to control, the temperature that the washing machine uses and the detergent.

Detergent is a chemical that we use to break up grease, oil and dirt that has embedded itself into our clothes. Modern detergents vary greatly in the ingredients, which is why some perform far better than others, but the key ingredients are referred to as surfactants, which stands for surface active agents. Surfactants reduce the surface tension of the water , preventing water from forming droplets, instead, forcing it to uniformly cover the clothes. In practice this means that your clothes becoming fully soaked rather than varying wetness across the fabric.

The surfactant allows the water and detergent mix to encapsulate a stain, breaking it up and allowing it to be washed away during the rinse and spin cycles. The temperature of the water is important because the hotter the water, the faster the chemical reactions can happen. Cooler washes need more detergent for this reason than a wash at a very high temperature.

However, as you heat the clothes the fabrics can become distorted which can cause shrinkage, while heat also tends to allow colors to run. For this reason cotton is best washed at a cold temperature because it shrinks easily in heat, and dark clothes are the same because heat causes the color to run.

Bottom line: Cotton dress shirts should be washed on a cold setting, always.

Washing dress shirts at home using washing machine

How to Wash Dress Shirts at Home

Taking your clothes to a local laundry spot or a dry cleaner is fine, but there’s really no need. You can achieve a great result at home if you know what you’re doing and it will save you a bunch of money. Plus, you can be more gentle with your shirts whereas a local cleaner might be careless.

Prepare for the Wash

Before you start piling your shirts into the washing machine you need to take a few minutes to prepare. When your shirts are in the machine they will be thrashed around and if the buttons are still fastened this will cause excessive pulling which will damage your shirt. Therefore you should unbutton everything, including the collars and cuffs. If you have collar stays that are removable you should pull them out too to allow the collar to flex and wash properly. If your dress shirts have permanent collar stays that’s okay, leave them be.

You’ll also want to turn your dress shirts inside out before you wash them, which helps to remove any deodorant or perspiration stains from the underarm. These stains tend not to wash quite as well because they are inside a corner of the shirt. By turning them inside out you give the machine a better chance of cleaning the stain.

Pre-treat Stains

Speaking of stains, if you have any that are particularly noticeable or large then you should consider pre-treating them with detergent . This method makes a significant difference to the effectiveness of the wash and it only takes a few moments. Wet the stain with a little water and then take a spoonful or detergent and pour it onto the damp stain. Rub it in very gently, only applying a little pressure. Do this for 20-seconds, you’ll see the detergent bubbling and setting into the dress shirt. You can also buy stain removal pens, but there is often no need, a little detergent and a gentle rub is usually enough.

Choose the Right Cycle

Modern washing machines have more cycle options than ever but most of us never use more than a couple. There’s no need, the vast majority of your clothes can either be washed on a normal cycle, delicate or permanent press.

Delicate: This setting is about as obvious as it gets, it’s designed for delicate clothes. The primary difference between the delicate cycle and the normal is that it usually spins slower and doesn’t have as long of a spin cycle at the end of the wash. For washing cashmere or other precious or delicate materials this is ideal.

Normal: As you might imagine, the normal setting is adequate for most of your clothes. It’s certainly best for cotton and linen dress shirts which need a thorough spin and are strong enough to handle a decent thrashing.

Permanent Press: Confusingly, this cycle doesn’t press anything. In fact, it’s a cycle that is often called a casual cycle because it’s great for removing wrinkles in clothes that you wouldn’t care about ironing anyway. It works by washing in a warm water and spinning slowly so that your clothes are wet when you pull them out so they can be hung and dry without wrinkles forming.

For dress shirts, presuming they are cotton or linen, a normal cycle on a cold temperature is ideal. This setting gives them a thorough wash to remove all dirty without the excess heat which can cause colors to run and shrinkage and damage of the material.

Use a Quality Detergent

As mentioned earlier, not all detergents are created equal and while you might save a few bucks by buying a cheaper brand it’s unlikely to work as well. With some premium detergents you often overpay for the brand, but the WireCutter found that Tide Ultra Stain Release Free Liquid was the best . Make sure that the one that you buy is right for your clothes, detergents for whites will often contain chlorine which will ruin any colored dress shirts.

Pull Your Shirts Out and Hang Them

As soon as the wash has finished you want to pull them out quickly while they are still wet. Untangle the shirt and grab it on either side of the collar and gently shake it out. Go ahead and turn the dress shirt inside out, so that it’s the correct way again, and hang it on a thick hanger to air dry away from any excessive heat. Avoid thin wire hangers or even small plastic hangers because these will distort the fabric along the shoulders and neck, causing the shirt to become damaged. By pulling the shirts out quickly after the wash you can ensure that they are still wet so that no wrinkles have formed.

Iron the Shirts

Preferably you can iron your shirts when they are still ever so slightly wet, but for many of us this is unrealistic because we have other chores or work to attend to. If this is the case you can take a small spray bottle of water and lightly mist it before you begin ironing. Preferably you should iron without steam, on a high heat and with a heavy iron. Ironing quickly you can prevent any burning or damage while ensuring a great press. However, if you are inexperienced feel free to use the cotton shirt setting on your iron which will use heavy amounts of steam to allow you more time.

Taking Your Shirts to the Cleaners

Many of you have no desire to wash your own shirts, we hear you, it can be a pain. If you’ve got the money then you might consider taking them to a laundry place that will “Wash & Press” your shirts for you. This method is very different to dry cleaning, instead, it’s practically identical to what you can accomplish at home.

In a “Wash & Press” they will first clean the garments in a washing machine with detergent, the same as you would by yourself. When it finishes they shake the garments down and lay them out on a specialized ironing board where they can be pressed. Rather than using a small iron they use humungous industry size presses that close over the shirt and press it, simultaneously ironing it and drying it stiff at the same time. Undoubtedly this can give a more crisp finish than you are likely to achieve with a lightweight iron, but that difference is going to cost you dearly. On average you’ll find that it costs around $1.50 or more per shirt.

Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning is incredibly effective for your suits, but it’s not ideal for shirts. Dry cleaning isn’t technically dry, the clothes get wet, just not with water. Instead, they are cleaned using a liquid solvent which is continuously filtered to remove dirt. However, because they don’t use water and water soluble stains like perspiration are not going to be cleaned as effectively as they would with a wash. But most importantly, dry cleaning is incredibly expensive which makes it unnecessary for dress shirts. Going to a “Wash & Press” is going to be just as effective and is unlikely to seriously impact the life of a cotton or linen shirt.

Is it okay to dry my shirts in the dryer?

We would highly recommend that you avoid using the dryer on any heat setting. Using it on a no-heat setting is unlikely to cause shrinkage, but you’re simply throwing the shirt around more which can cause a little damage after months of repetitive drying. But more importantly, by hanging your shirts to air dry they will be far easier to iron. There’s really no need to bother using a dryer.

Should I starch my collars or cuffs?

Starch gives you a unique look that is impossible to achieve with anything else. But it will cause your clothes to wear out quicker because as it breaks down you end up with small fragments inside of the clothing which will rub and cause damage to the cotton or linen fibers.

How can I remove a stain for a white or blue dress shirt?

Accidents happen, but acting quickly and with knowledge can help to avert a disaster. Ideally you want to move the excessive liquid or object quickly while avoiding smudging. Either brush it off with your hand or a brush, but avoid applying pressure onto the shirt which will only embed it further. Treat the stain with water or a stain remover within a few moments. Detergent, lemon juice or vinegar are acceptable substitutes in a pinch. Pre-treat the stain with detergent again and then wash on a normal wash. If it still exists you should repeat again.

About the author

Jack Prenter

Jack has been fascinated by fashion for decades and spent huge amounts of time researching it and becoming an expert. He's written for many well-known publications and is in the process of opening an online clothing store for men. Jack studied at the University of Nottingham and is now based out of Toronto, Canada.