What is a Steam Iron?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A steam iron uses superheated water to eliminate wrinkles in clothes and fabrics which may not be suitable for traditional dry ironing. Distilled water is usually poured into a holding tank and special heating elements convert it to steam. This hot mist comes out through a number of holes in the soleplate (bottom heating element) of the iron. As the steam loosens the individual fibers of the clothes, the steam iron's pressing action smooths out wrinkles.

Steam ironing is a very efficient method of smoothing wrinkles from garments.
Steam ironing is a very efficient method of smoothing wrinkles from garments.

Many traditional dry irons contain a steam option. Water is poured into a small reservoir and superheated until it becomes usable steam. A mechanical switch on the handle of the iron allows the user to select the steam setting. The steam itself should come out of small holes located near the tip of the pressing plate. For most conventional ironing needs, this combination of dry and steam settings should suffice. The steam generated by a traditional dry iron may not be overwhelming, but it will loosen wrinkled fibers.

A steam iron.
A steam iron.

Some ironing jobs such as curtains or quilts require a much more generous supply of steam. This is where a true steam iron can be useful. Distilled water is placed in a larger reservoir in the iron. Users can push a button to receive a burst of steam when needed. More holes in the soleplate means a more generous supply of steam while ironing heavier materials like suits or curtains.

The bottom of a steam iron has holes to emit the steam.
The bottom of a steam iron has holes to emit the steam.

Advanced steam iron systems may also feature handheld wands which can direct clouds of steam in and around vertically-hung garments or curtains. The steam itself should eliminate wrinkles without the need for a pressing element. Consumer rating boards suggest that the ability to generate 'vertical steam' is a major plus for a steam iron system. Some irons that combine dry and steam functions can only generate steam when the iron is held horizontally over an ironing board. Good vertical steaming means the iron can be used to iron curtains and quilts in place.

Another important feature to look for in a steam iron is a means to control the level of steam. Some models only allow for an on/off situation--either the user has steam or not. Better models have a dialing mechanism which can adjust the intensity of the steam produced. Consistency of steam is also a consideration. Once the water has become superheated, the steam should be steady and have some power behind it. Effective steaming means penetrating individual fibers, not merely wetting the surface.

Steam irons are used to press out wrinkles and creases from shirts and other clothing.
Steam irons are used to press out wrinkles and creases from shirts and other clothing.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I am also using a steam iron and they are a much better option compared to a dry iron. I remember that once I was using a dry iron and there was some issue with the temperature adjustment and it burned my favorite dress. Another benefit for me of a steam iron is that they don't require as much pressure, since the steam is fully sufficient to get the wrinkles out of the clothes, especially when I am in a hurry.

A steam iron is a bit costly, but then it definitely pays for its price.


To all of you "scenters" out there, thank you in advance from the rest of us for doing it in moderation! I am glad that you guys have stated you are careful not to overdo it. So many people use scents and perfumes that are so heavy it nearly kills you.

There you are, going through your workday or shopping or eating in a restaurant or whatever then suddenly, *Boom*, the perfume bomb. It comes rolling over you leaving destruction in its wake.

If you have allergies, it's even worse. A nice light fragrance is great, but all things in moderation.


@letshearit - I've used a travel iron with some success, but I prefer a travel steamer. It will knock out the wrinkles just fine, and it's easier to use than the iron. Cools off right away, too, so you don't have the problem of finding someplace to put the hot iron in a tight space.

We have a bigger one at home too. That thing is great! The wand looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment and it puts out a ton of steam. Have to make sure nobody's using a hairdryer or the microwave, though, or it will pop a breaker.


@cloudel - I think modern irons are pretty safe, and they don't even heat the water all that hot until it is headed for the clothes. Otherwise, it would turn to steam inside the iron before you needed, it, and then there wouldn't be any left for the clothes.

We buy mostly Rowenta steam irons, not the very top of the line commercial irons but just regular, good quality home irons, and I have spilled some water out of mine before. It was warm, but not dangerous.

Of course, if you use a dry iron you could just keep a little spray bottle near you and spray the water directly on the clothes. Problem solved.


I'm a knitter and I often use steam to block my hand-knit garments. I have good results with this method. In fact, I like it a lot better than the wet-blocking method many knitters favor, where you submerse the knitted piece into water and then pin it out to try.

Steam blocking also works on acrylic, and wet blocking does not. Normally to steam-block a knitted item I pin it out to the shape that I want, and then I steam it. After allowing the piece to cool I unpin it and then I'm done!


I was very impressed the first time I used a steam iron. I have some pants that are very hard to get the wrinkles out of, and they yielded to this iron.

It has several settings that range from linen to cotton. I pour as much water as I will need for my particular garments and iron until the wrinkles disappear, which always happens before I run out of water. I like the warm, moist feel of freshly steamed-ironed clothing.

My steam iron even got the wrinkles out of my khaki button-front shirt. That is a feat that my traditional iron could not accomplish.


I get really nervous around heated things like ovens and irons, and steam irons with their hot water reservoir make me extra antsy. I’m always afraid I’m going to accidentally pour the hot water onto myself and end up in a burn unit. I know that the water is locked in place by gadgets on the iron, but I can’t shake the fear.

I use a conventional dry iron to avoid this. Though I don’t like being around the heat, at least I know it can only hurt me if I press it onto my skin. Nothing hot can fall out of the iron onto me.


@w00dchuck41 - You should always clean your iron after you scent it -- what if you want to use a completely different scent? I steam iron all of my clothes that I can -- my favorite scent is rose, but I like to change it around sometimes.

I tried peppermint oil in my iron, but I put too much and it ruin my shirt. I see what you mean by only a few drops -- the extract I was using is oil based like a lot of extracts.

Eucalyptus is another really refreshing scent and if you have a cold, it clears stuffy noses and reduces coughs. Brilliant!


@ElbowTickle - I did that with my cologne, but my girlfriend accidentally ironed her blouse with it -- she smelled like manly cologne all day. When you steam iron clothes, just remember to clean out the iron when you're done. Just rinse it a couple of times with more hot water – especially if you used a lot of the cologne.

I usually just add a drop or two of mint into the iron water. It's probably not that great for my clothes -- but I smell minty fresh and delicious all day. Mint is also a mental refresher, so it helps me stay focused at work.


@manykitties2 - I always scent my work clothes -- I just have to make sure I don't over do it. When you fill your steam press iron, just add a few drops of perfume or cologne. Not too much those, because you don't want to knock people over when you go by.

After adding it to the water, you just iron like you normally do. You'll smell nicely all day.


Has anyone tried ironing with scented water before? What did you use to perfume the water and how long did the smell linger on the clothes?

I have some clothes in my closet that are clean but seem to have taken on a bit of a stale smell from being squished in with my other clothes for too long. I would really like to just freshen them up with a quick ironing, instead of having to do my laundry all over again.

I remember my mother saying something about scenting the water when you iron if you just want to freshen clothes up, but for the life of me I can't remember exactly what she did.


For those who travel a lot and want to keep their clothes looking great you can actually buy miniature steam irons that will fit into your luggage. These irons come with a small head and a handle for ease of use, and can pretty much be used against every surface. This is great because most people won't have access to an ironing board. For myself I usually just put a towel down and iron on top of that.

Travel steam irons are usually quite cheap and some can be purchased for under $20. I managed to pick mine up on sale for 1/2 price, so it was a pretty great deal considering the convenience of them item.

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