What Does a Steam Feature on a Washer Do?

person selecting the steam cycle on a washer

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

If you've shopped for a washing machine, you may have noticed that some models offer a "steam wash" feature as an option. Manufacturers say this feature can help your clothes get extra clean and sanitary while reducing wrinkling and ridding your clothes of allergens. Learn about the steam wash feature, how it works, and the cost of this option.

What Is a Steam Feature on a Washer?

An appliance marketed as a "steam cleaning washer" is typically a high-end clothes washer that offers a steam-clean option, in which you can choose to add steam to specified cycles on the machine. These cycles use a combination of steam and water to clean fabrics. The steam may help to remove wrinkles, make detergent work more efficiently, and sanitize fabrics.

What Does the Steam Feature Do?

Different manufacturers have different methods of creating and delivering steam to the wash tub, but most operate with an internal heater that heats the water into steam that is then injected as a mist into the tub during prewash, wash, and post-wash cycles. In most cases, this steam option can be chosen when you are washing using the machine's normal wash cycle, but some appliances use the steam feature for other cycles, such as "sanitize" or a "tub-clean" cycle.

Manufacturers list a number of benefits to the steam feature. During the prewash phase, it is claimed that the steam works with the water to soak fabrics more thoroughly. During the washing phase, the steam may help dissolve and activate the detergent more quickly. During the post-wash phase, the high temperatures may help sterilize the clothes and soften them to remove hard wrinkles.

The Argument Against the Steam Option

There is some disagreement on the practical value of a steam feature on a washing machine. Many homeowners and appliance manufacturers tout this feature, claiming that this feature is especially valuable if you frequently wash clothes with lots of heavy soil and stains. Another claimed benefit is that adding steam to the wash cycle helps remove allergens, and is more effective at sterilizing clothes and killing pathogens.

But other users, as well as the highly regarded consumer testing agency, Consumer Reports, find that the steam feature is something of a gimmick, citing tests that show virtually no improved cleaning ability when the steam feature is activated. Other possible drawbacks include:

  • Added appliance cost: Machines that offer steam cleaning options usually also include a variety of other features that may or may not be of any value to you. A steam cleaning option will add at least $200 to the cost of your washing machine, and possibly much more.
  • Higher water use: Most machines use considerably more water when steam is added to the wash cycles. This actual finding runs contrary to what is proclaimed by some appliance manufacturers.
  • Longer wash cycles: The time it takes to run a load of laundry can be as much as twice as the same load run without steam.
  • More energy use: The energy required to heat water into steam can be as much as 600 percent higher than cleaning without the steam feature.
  • Works only with "hot" water cycle: Permanent press clothing made from synthetic fibers may not be compatible with the high temperatures generated by a washing machine running on the steam cycle.

And you should not view your washing machine as a guaranteed safety measure when it comes to killing germs. The temperatures generated in the tub by the steam option are considerably lower than those obtained when you boil water on a stove, and because the clothes are already soaked or submerged in water, there is no guarantee that the steam mist added will sterilize any better than washing in hot water alone and drying at a high temperature.

Who Should Consider the Steam Feature?

A washing machine that includes a steam feature is best suited for consumers who don't need to be budget conscious and who are extremely concerned with soil, or who have family members with serious allergies. Another touted advantage that is demonstrably true is that the steam feature can reduce the wrinkling of clothes, reducing the need to iron clothing that can tolerate the high temperatures of a hot washer cycle. The steam option might also be helpful for reliably killing household pests, such as bedbugs, though high dryer temperatures alone usually do this without a problem.

the steam feature can be considered for sanitizing bedding and towels

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

Bottom Line

When considering a washing machine with a steam-cleaning option, you will need to weigh the added cost of an appliance with this feature against the advertised benefits.

Most washing machines with a steam option fall at the higher end of the price scale, though a few are available for less than $1,000. You can easily pay $1500 or more for a machine that includes a steam-cleaning option among its list of added cycles and features. Some of these are "smart" appliances, for example, which you can control with a smartphone app. If these other features are valuable to you, it's likely that the steam clean option will be part of the array of added features. It's now possible to spend $3,000 or more on a washing machine that contains all the possible features.

The steam feature on consumer washing machines is advertised as offering:

  • Improved cleaning and stain-removal performance
  • Better germ- and pest-killing ability
  • Fewer wrinkles in clothes
  • Better allergen removal

But keep in mind that the advertised benefits of a steam option are questioned by some testing agencies and by some consumers who have used these washing machines. Do your research, and talk to others who own and use washing machines with the steam option. The best recommendation will be from trusted acquaintances who can verify that the steam cleaning option is worth paying $200 to $500 more for the appliance.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The (Dirty) Truth About the Steam Setting on Washing Machines. Consumer Reports.

  2. The (Dirty) Truth About the Steam Setting on Washing Machines. Consumer Reports.