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A dirty iron has two culprits: build up and burns. It also has two problem areas: the soleplate and the reservoir.
The soleplate is the flat part of the iron you press against your clothes to smooth out wrinkles. It gets hot enough that it breaks down detergents, starches, and fabric softeners in your clothes, which then fuse to the soleplate to create a gummy layer. Dust in the air can also fuse — and if your iron is set too hot for the type of fabric you’re ironing, you can straight-up burn the fibers right onto the soleplate.
That’s what stops your iron from gliding along smoothly, and if left too long, that gummy layer itself will start to scorch. Cleaning it is just a matter of getting rid of that fused-on layer, not unlike brushing your teeth to get rid of plaque.
Depending on the type of water you use (tap vs. distilled) you may need to deep clean the reservoir too. That’s the part of the iron that holds the water it uses to make steam. Minerals in water build up, especially if you don’t drain your iron after each use (and, honestly, who does that?). Those minerals can clog the steam holes so no steam comes out, or contaminate the water so the steam shoots out streaky and white — even worse, rust-tinged.
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How to Clean an Iron
You use a lot of the same ingredients to clean both the sole plate and the reservoir.
Rock, kosher, or sea salt
A small bowl
A plain brown paper bag
Clean, soft cloth you don’t mind getting dirty
Step 1: Drain any water and heat up your iron.
At this stage, you want it piping hot, with no steam. Notch your iron up to the highest setting — it will likely be cotton.
Step 2: Run your iron over some salt.
There are two techniques that we like to clean a gummed-up soleplate. Both are effective and both use ingredients you likely have lying around your home.
The first is plain old table salt — the bigger the grains the better. Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of rock, kosher, or sea salt on a folded-up paper bag. Once your iron is hot, run it over the salt in circular motions for a minute or two. The gentle abrasion will start dislodging any melted fibers and gunky build-up, leaving it behind on the paper bag. This may take a couple of passes; replenish your salt as necessary.
Pro tip: If there is printing on the paper bag, flip it inside out so the ink doesn’t transfer to the soleplate and makes the situation even worse.
Unplug your iron, let it cool, and brush off any lingering salt granules.
Step 3: Coat it in baking soda and vinegar.
If your iron is particularly grimy, we recommend a one-two punch — the second punch being a paste of one part baking soda and one part white vinegar. Start with 1-2 tablespoons of each.
Once your iron is cool, coat the soleplate in the paste. (If you don’t want to use your fingers, a spatula will work just fine.) Let it sit for a good 30 seconds so the solution can do its thing. Then, wipe it down with a clean, soft cloth. Dip a Q-Tip in plain vinegar and use it to clear out any paste from the steam holes.
What about commercial cleaners? Sewing brands like Rowenta and Dritz make commercial hot iron cleaners. They are popular and effective, and can be used by essentially combining steps two and three: get your iron as hot as possible, squirt some of the cleaner onto a soft cloth, and iron back and forth until the build-up releases. Then, use a Q-Tip to get any of the cleaner out of the steam vents.
Step 4: Deep-clean the reservoir with vinegar and water.
Stir up a solution of one part vinegar and one part distilled water, and fill your iron’s reservoir. Turn your iron back on and heat it up to its highest setting. Once it’s hot, deploy the surge button to let out a blast of vinegar steam. Hold the surge for at least 15 seconds so it can dislodge any lingering paste clogs and break down any mineral or rust deposits.
Repeat five or six times, or until your water reservoir is empty.
Step 5: Rinse the reservoir with plain distilled water.
If you didn’t steam away all of the vinegar solution, drain the reservoir, the refill it halfway with pure distilled water. Just like before, give the steam surge button a few presses to clean out any lingering vinegar.
Drain any remaining water, and put your iron away. Your work here is done.
How to Clean Melted Plastic Off Your Iron
Sometimes it’s more than just starchy build-up that’s plaguing your iron. If you’ve legit melted something onto the soleplate — a plastic zipper, for example — the cleaning process has an extra step before you get to table salt.
A wide, shallow pan with a lip
A plastic pan scraper (an old credit card will also work)
Step 1: Freeze the plastic.
Place your iron, soleplate-down, in a shallow pan filled with ice cubes. (Your iron should be totally cooled off, not hot.) You’re trying to freeze the melted plastic so it will detach — a little like freezing a wad of chewing gum that’s stuck in your hair.
Step 2: Scrape it off.
Using your plastic pan scraper or the edge of an old credit card, chip away until the melted plastic pops off. Then, clean off any leftover residue with salt on a paper bag —Step 2 from earlier.
How to Keep Your Iron Clean
Cleaning an iron isn’t particularly challenging, and should be down every few months or so, depending on how often you iron. That said, there are a couple of tips that will keep those cleaning days few and far between, and prevent any unfortunate scorching/streaking accidents to your favorite clothes.
Use distilled water, and drain the reservoir after each use. Stagnant water — especially mineral-rich tap water — is a breeding ground for limescale and rust. Dumping your reservoir after each use, and letting the reservoir remain cracked open between uses, will help ensure thorough drying.
Use a pressing cloth. Typically made of cotton muslin or silk organza, pressing cloths are a sheer, resilient layer between a hot iron and the fabric it’s pressing. It does double duty of protecting the soleplate from gummy build-up, while also protecting delicate fabrics from scorching, melting, shiny spots, and streaky steam.
Step 1: Run a hot, dry iron over a couple tablespoons of salt
Step 2: Coat the cool soleplate in a baking soda/vinegar paste and wipe it down
Step 3: Unclog the steam holes with a vinegar-soaked Q-Tip
Step 4: Fill the reservoir with a mix of vinegar and water, and blast the steam surge a few times
Step 5: Re-fill the reservoir with pure distilled water, and steam surge to rinse