How to wash a dress shirt?

Method 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. 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.  

  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.

Method 3: “Dry clean” at the cleaners

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. 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.