How to Clean and Care for Cotton Clothes

Stack of cotton shirts

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Cotton fabric is made from natural plant fibers and is widely used in clothes and table linens and everything from delicate baby onesies to denim blue jeans. The fibers can be woven or knit to produce comfortable, breathable fabrics. Cotton clothes are affordable and durable but should be handled correctly to keep them looking their best and lasting for years.

One hundred percent cotton fabrics are washable. However, always check the care labels in garments before tossing clothes in the washer. While cotton is washable, some clothes or accessories may have materials that provide structure and shape― like interfacings in structured jackets and blazers―that are not washable. So, if you are a novice at doing laundry and see a dry clean only tag, pay attention. As you gain more experience, you may find that some "dry clean only" items can actually be hand washed. 

How to Wash Cotton Clothes
Detergent High Performing Detergent (Tide or Persil)
Water Temperature Cold for colored cottons, hot for bed linens and undergarments
Washer Cycle Normal
Drying Cycle Permanent Press for clothes, Regular for linens
Special Treatments Pre-treat stains
Ironing Setting Cotton Setting or 400 F/ 204 C

What You'll Need

Supplies

  • Laundry Detergent
  • Stain Removers
  • Chlorine or Oxygen Bleach
  • Laundry Starch or Sizing
  • Fabric Softener or Dryer Sheets (optional)

Tools

  • Washer or Large Sink for Hand Washing
  • Automatic Dryer, Outdoor Clothesline, or Indoor Drying Rack
  • Iron or Clothes Steamer

Instructions

  1. Find and Pretreat Any Stains

    As with any type of fabric, treat stains on cotton clothes as quickly as possible following stain removal guidelines to avoid permanent staining. Follow the stain remover instructions and for best results, let it work for at least 10 minutes before tossing the garment in the washer.

    Tip

    Fibers in garments each react differently when treated with stain removal products and during laundering. When using a stain removal product for the first time on colored cotton fabrics. especially dark colors and khaki, test it on an inside seam or hem to make sure the garment is colorfast.

  2. Choose Your Detergent and Fabric Softener

    Selecting a heavy-duty detergent, like Tide or Persil, is your best option for removing body soil, odor, and most stains. However, if your clothes are only lightly soiled, any detergent is safe to use on cotton fabrics.

    Fabric softeners will make the cotton fibers feel softer and may reduce some wrinkling. However, it is not essential to the care of cotton clothes and the use of fabric softener is optional.

  3. Select the Water Temperature

    Unless the cotton garment is worn close to the body, like underwear, socks or sleeping attire, warm or cold water is the best washing temperature to prevent shrinkage and stretching. Cooler water temperatures will also help prevent fading in bright or darker colors.

    Underwear, socks, pajamas, bed linens, bath towels, and kitchen towels should be washed in hot water to remove bacteria, body soil, and bodily fluids. This is especially important if someone in the household is ill, very young, very old, or has a weakened immune system.

    Tip

    High temperatures like hot water washing are not friendly to cotton and can cause the fibers to shrink. The amount of shrinkage depends upon the weave of the fabric and how the fabric was finished and sized at the textile plant. You can't change the fabric finish, but you can make the best choices to prevent excessive size changes.

  4. Choose the Wash Cycle

    Cotton can be washed on just about any cycle. Normal works well for most garments and linens. Opt for the gentle cycle if the cotton garment is made of lace or embellished. Washer cycles can run from 10 to 45 minutes depending on the cycle chosen and the size of the washer.

  5. Select the Drying Time

Overdrying not only causes some cotton clothes to shrink from the high temperature, but it also causes excessive wrinkling. Select the permanent press setting for cotton clothes or use a lower dryer temperature setting. Sheets, towels, and kitchen linens can be dried at a higher temperature to speed up the process. Drying time depends on the size of the load.

Most cotton fabrics need very little ironing if the clothes are removed from the dryer while slightly damp. Hang clothes to finish drying to prevent excessive wrinkling. 

Cotton fabrics do not usually suffer from static cling nearly as much as synthetic fabrics. The use of dryer sheets is optional.

Cotton can be dried on an outdoor clothesline or indoor drying rack. While the ultraviolet rays of the sun will help whiten clothes, hang colored cotton clothes away from direct sunlight to prevent fading.

How to Restore Dull and Dingy Cotton Clothing

While many people use chlorine bleach to whiten white cotton clothes, cotton fibers can actually be weakened by chlorine bleach. Undiluted chlorine bleach should never be applied directly to the fibers and can cause holes. Dilute solutions can be used safely on cotton or cellulosic fibers for stain removal and whitening. Always follow the directions on the bleach label carefully. However, even dilute solutions will weaken fibers causing them to rip and wear out if used too often.

A better option for whitening and brightening white and colored cotton fabrics is to use an oxygen-based bleach (some brand names are: OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite). Oxygen bleaches work more slowly than chlorine, so allowing the fabrics to soak for at least one hour will give the best results. Read the product labels and follow the recommendations.

Ironing Cotton Fabric

Some cotton fabrics wrinkle excessively when washed and will require ironing. Use a medium hot iron and always iron on the wrong side of the fabric. For extra protection, use a pressing cloth between the iron and the fabric. Extremely high temperatures when ironing can scorch cellulosic fibers. The scorching or yellowing occurs as the fibers begin to burn.

For a crisp finish, spray with laundry starch or sizing while ironing. For stiff-laundry-starched shirts, you will need to use liquid starch.

You can also use a clothes steamer or hang cotton clothes in a steamy bathroom to help remove wrinkling. This will not give you a crisp finish but will remove big wrinkles.

Should Cotton Be Dry Cleaned?

If you have dark cotton jeans, slacks, or blazers that you want to keep from fading, dry cleaning is a good option. A professional cleaner will know how to handle the fabric properly. Or, you can use a home dry cleaning kit to freshen dark-colored cottons and protect the color.