Cleaning Your Iron

When was the last time you cleaned your iron?  Cleaning an iron can be one of those tasks that is easily forgotten or put off.  That is, until the iron seems to be sticking to fabric, spraying dirty water, or leaving black spots on your clothing.  It is not uncommon for dirt, dust, lint, detergent, and spray starch to build up on the soleplate of the iron or for water inside the water reservoir used for steam to cause dirty spots.  For those who sew or do fabric crafts, there is often the sticky residue from fusible interfacings or other fusible/iron-on products.

The frequency with which an iron needs to be cleaned depends on frequency of use and/or how it is used.  At any rate, a cleaning or maintenance schedule that meshes with the frequency or use is important to keeping the iron functioning properly.  If maintaining a schedule is too much, then a good rule of thumb is to clean as soon as a problem is detected—iron doesn’t glide as it should or steam doesn’t come out or sprays or spurts out rusty or black droplets onto the cloth.  All are signs that gunk has accumulated on the soleplate, the steam outlets are clogged, or tap water mineral deposits have accumulated in the water reservoir.

Fortunately, cleaning an iron isn’t that difficult.  If you’ve ever Googled “how to clean an iron”, you will find many shared methods.  And if you have a method that works for you, by all means continue on as the bottom line is to achieve a properly functioning iron.  If you are new to iron cleaning or unsure of how to proceed with your iron, the best route is to consult the owner’s manual as there may be specific guidelines for the kind of soleplate (stainless steel, ceramic, titanium, or non-stick), water reservoir, or self-cleaning feature unique to your iron. (If a manual is lost, often times they can be found online.)

Cleaning the Soleplate

Various options exist for cleaning the soleplate.  I will review the three most common recommended by iron manufacturers.  In all cases, never use anything that could scratch the soleplate.

Hot Iron Cleaners.  Cleaning pastes are found almost anywhere fabric or laundry products are sold and usually restore the iron’s soleplate to perfect condition. They are nontoxic, nonflammable, and nonabrasive.  When the pastes are applied to a very hot iron soleplate, they quickly and easily remove starch, detergent, and fusing residue. These cleaners dissolve the residue either by ironing over the cleaner on an old towel or by squeezing the cleaner onto the soleplate and wiping off residue with an old towel or cloth.   (Rowenta offers a product specific to Rowenta irons for consumers who choose to use it.)  One must be careful to remove the paste from the steam vents as well. (Cotton swabs work great for vent cleaning.)

Iron Cleaning Cloths.  Cleaning cloths (usually in packs of 10) are designed to be disposable and as an alternative to hot iron cleaning pastes for quick clean ups.  They dissolve and remove any residue by simply running the cloth over a hot soleplate. They usually work best for less soiled soleplates or for very regular clean up.  Because there is no paste involved, they do not clog the steam vents.

Baking Soda and Water or Vinegar.  Both baking soda and vinegar are common household cleaners.  They also work wonders as a natural scouring agent to remove grime from an iron’s soleplate.  One begins by mixing baking soda with distilled water or vinegar to make a paste (approximate 2:1 proportions of soda to liquid).  Apply the paste with an old tooth brush to a cool, unplugged iron.  Scrub gently with the brush to loosen the residue; wipe residue away with a microfiber cloth until the soleplate is cleaned. Like the commercial pastes, the steam vents must be cleaned, too. 

Hot vinegar applied to a microfiber cloth works like an iron cleaning cloth if the residue is light.

After cleaning, fill the reservoir with water, heat, and run the iron over an old towel or cloth, pressing the spray button several times to insure the soleplate and vents are clean before ironing clothing. 

Cleaning the Water Reservoir

When cleaning the water reservoir, discretion is needed.  Steam iron reservoirs need to be cleaned out often to ensure that the appliance doesn’t leave rusty or black water marks on clothing or fabric, performs properly, minimizes build up that may damage clothing, and, thereby, extends the life of the appliance.  Whenever possible, follow manufacturer’s directions.

Distilled water is commonly and safely used for cleaning the reservoir and vents.  While there are many distilled water and vinegar recipes suggested for reservoir cleaning, most manufacturers caution against the use of vinegar.  In a previous blog, AnswerLine suggested a method of filling the reservoir with distilled water and allowing the iron to self-steam out the minerals, lint, and other accumulations in the reservoir and vents.

A commercial iron cleaner is another option to decalcify and remove lime and mineral build-up from steam irons and vents. However, some iron manufacturers will void the warranty if you use them as they can be harsh and cause additional damage.

Keep the Iron Working at Its Best

Here’s some tips to protect and keep an iron working at its best.

  • Whenever possible, use distilled water.  Tap water, even when filtered, contains minerals that can clog, corrode, or damage the iron resulting in rusty or black steam or spray.
  • Fill the iron with water before plugging in and while cool.
  • Empty the reservoir before storing the iron—especially if it isn’t used frequently.
  • Store in an upright position.  This will prevent water from leaking if water is left in the reservoir and avoid scratching the soleplate.
  • Avoid pressing or ironing over zippers, snaps, decals, pins, or any screen printing without using a pressing cloth to avoid scratching the soleplate or adhering paint or plastics to the soleplate.
Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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