How to Wash a Dress Shirt

Shirts are made to be worn, not worshiped. This means they get dirty. However, with proper care, a high quality dress shirt can last for several years and continue to look great. In this post, we’re going to break down three of the most popular washing methods and detail how you can keep your dress shirts looking great for years to come. We’ll also outline how to deal with special emergencies as well as provide some other cleaning tips.

Clean Dress ShirtMethod 1: “Wash and press” at the cleaners

Wash and press is the “normal” way to clean dress shirts when you take them to the cleaners. (Don’t be too confused by this.  Even though you take your shirt to the “dry-cleaners”, they are most likely doing wash and press unless you are expressly asking them to dry clean ). This is our first choice. At around $1.50/shirt, this cleaning method is relatively cheap and easy and it keeps the shirts looking great.  At most cleaners, here’s what the process involves:

  1. They wash your shirt in a normal washing machine using water and detergent.
  2. They remove most of the water from the shirt with the spin cycle in the washing machine.
  3. They pull the damp shirt onto an industrial shirt press that closes over the shirt and simultaneously irons the garment while removing all of the moisture.

Pros: Convenient, (relatively) inexpensive.

Cons: Some cleaners will be too hard on the shirts.  The slamming of the press over the front of the shirt can cause  buttons to chip or shatter. If the shirt torso or sleeve is stretched over the press when it is steamed dry it can cause this part of the shirt to become wider in these areas.  Finally, in the process of bringing the shirts from the cleaners to your closet collars will often be smashed in some way, requiring additional ironing for optimal appearance.

Method 2: Wash the shirt yourself at home

If you don’t trust your dry cleaner, or if you’d just like a little more control over how your shirts are washed, you may want to wash your dress shirts at home.  We really like this option, but to do so properly requires a bit of time and care on your part. Follow these steps for optimal results:

  1. Start by preparing the dress shirt.  Unbutton all of the buttons, including cuff buttons and any collar buttons.  Remove any collar stays if it has them and put them in a safe place.
  2. Pre-treat any stains by carefully working a little detergent into them, or better yet spot-cleaning them with a stain remover pen.
  3. Set up your washing machine: To minimize wear on a fine or lightweight dress shirt, use the Delicate cycle.  If the shirt is made from a heavier duty fabric, or is particularly dirty you may opt for the Normal cycle.  Whites and light colors can use hot water.  Dark colored shirts that you don’t want to fade should be washed with cold water. Take care not to include other laundry items with bold colors that may bleed into your shirts.
  4. Use a high quality detergent, like Woolite Complete, that is appropriate to the color of the shirt.  Be sure not to use any detergents or cleaners that are chlorine based as these will cause discoloration to many shirt fabrics.
  5. Wash the shirts in the washing machine, and then let the spin cycle wring most of the water out of the garment.
  6. The shirts will be tightly crumpled in the washing machine so you’ll want to remove them promptly before these intense wrinkles will dry into the shirt. Hang the shirts up or lay them out so that they can air dry.  Be careful about hanging the shirts on a sharp hanger or with tight clothespins as this can distort the fabric or leave a mark on the shirt.
  7. Next you’ll want to iron the shirts.  You don’t need to wait for the shirts to be completely dry to begin this step, but they should be mostly dry.

Pros: Gives you the most control to treat stains, protect buttons, and iron collars carefully.

Cons: Takes time and attention.

How to wash a shirtMethod 3: “Dry clean” at the cleaners

While we don’t really recommend dry cleaning cotton dress shirts, some folks like to take their shirts to the cleaners and have them dry cleaned. While this cleaning method will certainly not damage the shirt and minimize shrinkage, it does have some downsides. The first is that it can be expensive – usually over $5/shirt. Another is that water soluble stains such as perspiration are not removed. Dry cleaning solvents contain very little to no water so perspiration based dirt can be left untouched.  Washing dress shirts in water is better for removing water soluble dirt and stains from sweat.  That said, if your dress shirt has an oil based stain on it you may have better luck getting it cleaned by a dry cleaner than in a washing machine.

Pros: Convenient.  Minimizes wear of the shirts.  Removes oil-based stains.

Cons: Won’t always remove water soluble dirt or stains. Expensive. Your shirts are at the mercy of a potentially abusive shirt cleaner.

Question: Is it ok to dry shirts in the dryer?

We recommend avoiding the dryer and letting the shirt air dry on a hanger, although (depending on the size of your house) this is not always practical. If you must put the shirt in a dryer, avoid high heat or over-drying the shirt. Use the dryer to get most of the moisture out of the shirt, and then iron the shirt immediately to remove the rest of the moisture and any wrinkles at the same time.  If you dry your shirts completely in the dryer you’ll  find the shirt a bit harder to iron perfectly.

One exception to this recommendation is heavy duty casual shirts.  For example, if you’re washing a heavy oxford cloth or chambray shirt, the fabric is going to be hearty and will easily handle any wear from the washer and dryer so drying it in the dryer is no problem.

Question: How to remove a stain from a white shirt?

In the unfortunate event that you get spill some wine or spaghetti sauce on your shirt, some quick action could minimize any stains that result.

  1. With a brush or comb, carefully swipe or lift away any large pieces such that you don’t smear them worse into the garment. 
  2. Immediately treat the stain with water or stain remover solvent.  The sooner the better.  If you can’t get your hands on a stain remover pen, we recommend a Tide Pen, try dishwashing detergent, lemon juice, vinegar, or seltzer water. 
  3. Dab solvents on the stain with a light touch. Pressure can force the stain deeper into the fibers of the garment. 
  4. Rinse and repeat. 

Question: Should I use starch when the shirt is pressed?

While many people do like to have their shirts starched, our suggestion is to avoid starch completely.  While starch can help a broadcloth or oxford shirt appear more crisp it can also cause shirts to wear out prematurely.  When the starch material gets embedded in the shirt fibers it acts like a million little knives that break down the fibers over time.

Three tips to maximize dress shirt life

  1. Don’t leave dirty white shirts in the hamper for too long before washing. This can lead to premature yellowing of the collar band as any sweat and oils will have more time to set into the fabric of the shirt.
  2. Always remove the collar stays from the collar before washing and ironing.  If you don’t they will become warped causing the dress shirt to collar points to curve awkwardly.
  3. Don’t count on your cleaner to find and remove stains. If you know there’s a spot on your placket or sleeve, point it out so that they know to spot clean it.