How to Clean and Care for Cotton Clothes

person holding a stack of cotton clothing

The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu 

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 30 mins - 1 hr
  • Total Time: 2 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Cotton fabric is made from natural plant fibers and is widely used in clothes, table linens, bedding, 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, and though cotton blends are typically ready to wear right out of the wash, 100% cotton clothes need a bit more care to keep them looking their best and lasting for years.

How Often to Clean Cotton Clothes

Clothing made of 100% cotton is washable and should be washed every two to three times it's worn, depending on how soiled the item gets. 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 linings and interfacings in structured jackets and blazers―that are not washable. Other cotton clothing may be fragile which requires the delicate cycle in the wash or hand-washing. So, if you are a novice at doing laundry and see a dry clean only tag, pay attention, and trust the tag's instructions.

If you have dark cotton jeans, slacks, or blazers that you want to keep from fading, dry cleaning is always 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 cotton and protect the color.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Washer or large sink for hand-washing
  • Automatic dryer, outdoor clothesline, or indoor drying rack
  • Iron or clothes steamer

Materials

  • Laundry detergent
  • Stain remover
  • Chlorine or oxygen bleach (optional for stain removal and whitening)
  • Laundry starch or sizing (optional)
  • Fabric softener or dryer sheets (optional)

Instructions

ingredients to clean cotton clothing
The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu 
How to Wash Cotton Clothes
Detergent High-performing detergent
Water Temperature Cold for colored cotton, hot for bed linens and undergarments
Washer Cycle Normal
Drying Cycle Type Permanent press for clothes, regular cycle for linens
Special Treatments Pre-treat stains
Ironing Settings Cotton setting or 400 F/ 204 C
  1. Pre-Treat Stains

    If your cotton item has stains, pre-treat them with a stain remover before tossing them into the washing machine or washing them by hand. The amount of time for letting the item set will depend on how fresh the stain is.

    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.

    pre-treating a cotton clothing item before washing
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu  
  2. Choose Your Detergent and Fabric Softener

    Selecting a heavy-duty, high-performing detergent 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, even if you are hand-washing the item.

    detergent and fabric softener
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu  
  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, stretching, and color bleeding. Cooler water temperatures will help prevent bright or darker colors from fading.

    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.

    choosing the correct water temperature
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu  
  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, or wash by hand, 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.

    choosing the wash cycle
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu 
  5. Select the Drying Time

    Over-drying cotton not only causes some shrinkage but also 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 can be dried on an outdoor clothesline or indoor drying rack. While the ultraviolet rays of the sun will help whiten white cotton clothes, hang colored cotton clothes away from direct sunlight to prevent fading.

    line-drying cotton clothing
    The Spruce / Ana-Maria Stanciu  

Ironing

Some cotton fabrics wrinkle excessively or develop curled hem edges when washed and will require ironing. Use a medium hot iron and always iron on the wrong side of cotton 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.

Storing Cotton Clothes

Cotton is quite a durable fabric and can easily handle daily wear. To keep cotton clothing in optimal condition, fold and store cotton pants in a dresser and hang cotton shirts in a closet to prevent wrinkling.

When storing 100% cotton long-term, you won't need to worry about moths or moth larvae eating the vegetable-based fibers (moths prefer animal fibers). You'll only need to worry about carpet beetles and their larvae eating cotton, but you can find natural repellants, such as cedar balls and cedar oil. Though airtight plastic containers work short-term for cotton items (and carpet beetles can't get into plastic), they need to breathe longer term, so choose fabric storage containers and place in cool, dry, dark spaces. Avoid storing cotton items in attics and basements where temperatures and humidity fluctuate.

Repairs

Despite its durability, cotton clothing is prone to rips, tears, and fading. If you're comfortable with sewing, repairing rips is a fairly simplyetask using a needle and thread. You can also take more complex repair work to a tailor.

Treating Stains on Cotton Clothes

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 washing the garment.

Avoid using undiluted chlorine bleach which can weaken fibers and cause holes in cotton fabric. You can safely use a dilute solution 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 cotton fibers causing them to rip and wear out if it is used too often to whiten clothing.

A better option for whitening and brightening white and colored cotton fabrics is to use an oxygen-based bleach. 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.

Tips for Washing Cotton Clothes


  • To prevent clothes from fading, wash garments inside out, don't overstuff your washer, and try to use cold water if possible.
  • High temperatures and hot water can cause cotton 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.
  • Try to wash cotton less frequently, especially denim, to maintain its shape, color, and quality.
  • Cotton fabrics do not usually suffer from static cling nearly as much as synthetic fabrics. The use of dryer sheets is optional.
  • 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.