Warm and hot water can shrink clothes made of natural fibers such as cotton, wool, linen, and silk. A process called thermal agitation causes the fibers to contract, making them prone to shrinkage.
You’ve been warned about how a hot dryer can shrink your clothes. But it’s easy to forget that your washing machine can just as easily turn your favorite shirt from a large to a small if you’re not careful.
Using a warm or hot wash cycle can cause your clothes to shrink, especially if they’re made from cotton, wool, and linen. Not to mention, hot water can fade the color in fabrics, reduce their elasticity, and make them prone to tearing or fraying.
Keep reading to learn how hot water shrinks clothes, which fabrics are most vulnerable, and (most importantly) how to clean your clothes without accidentally altering the size.
Pro tip: Always check the care instructions on your garments before washing them. If it says “machine wash cold,” don’t risk it by cranking up the heat.
Does Hot Water Shrink Clothes?
Yes, hot water can shrink clothes, especially if they are made of natural fibers like cotton, wool, linen, or silk. When these fabrics are exposed to water temperatures above 80°F (about 27°C), they may undergo a process called Thermal Agitation, which causes the fibers to contract and the fabric to shrink.
Clothing manufacturers often stretch fabrics to their max so that slightly less cloth is needed. But when you wash the garment, the fibers shrink back to their natural state. The warmer the water, the more severe the shrinkage.
In some cases, the shrinkage caused by hot water can be permanent. This is especially true for natural fibers that haven’t undergone a “pre-shrinking” process during manufacturing.
5 Types of Fabric That Shrink in Warm Water
Natural fibers are very susceptible to shrinking when exposed to hot water. Let’s break down the details:
Cotton is the most common fabric that people accidentally shrink in hot water. Typically, cotton fibers start to shrink at temperatures above 100°F (about 38°C).
Jeans and other denim clothes can easily shrink in hot water since the fibers are made from cotton. It’s best to avoid washing denim in temperatures above 86°F (30°C) to prevent shrinking.
Wool is more sensitive to high temperatures than cotton. Wool fibers can start to shrink at temperatures as low as 86°F (30°C). When you wash wool sweaters, socks, or scarves, always follow the care instructions and use cool water to reduce the risk of shrinkage.
Linen is made with fibers from flax plants, which can shrink when exposed to high heat. The exact temperature at which linen shrinks can vary, but it's generally best to use cold to lukewarm water when washing linen items—that goes for sheets as well as clothing items.
Rayon is a semi-synthetic fabric made from wood pulp. It can shrink when exposed to warm water, so its care instructions often recommend using cool or cold water.
How Long Does It Take for Hot Water to Shrink Clothes?
Generally speaking, hot water (130°F) will shrink items to their maximum shrinkage capacity after one wash. On the other hand, warm water (80-100°F), gradually shrinks items over multiple washes.
Does a Hot Dryer Shrink Clothes?
Putting your clothes in the dryer can definitely cause them to shrink. But contrary to popular belief, heat isn’t the main cause of shrinkage. Rather, shrinkage is caused by agitation as clothes tumble against the walls of the dryer. That’s why many fabrics (including cotton, silk, lace, and wool) have “do not tumble dry” on the care label. To minimize the risk of shrinkage, use one of these dryer settings:
- Low Heat
- No Heat
- Air Fluff
- Air Dry
Pro tip: Use wool dryer balls to minimize the agitation during the dry cycle and prevent static cling. By boosting airflow and reducing clumping, dryer balls reduce friction between your items in the dryer.
How to Prevent Clothes from Shrinking
The two most effective ways to prevent your clothes from shrinking are washing them in cold water and skipping the dryer. Let’s take a closer look.
Wash Your Clothes in Cold Water
Washing clothes in cool or cold water (below 80°F) significantly reduces the risk of shrinkage, especially for natural fibers like cotton, wool, and linen. Cold water washing also helps preserve the integrity of your fabrics, not to mention it uses up to 70% less energy than hot water.
It’s a win-win-win for your clothes, your energy bill, and the environment.
Many liquid laundry detergents require warm water to dissolve and get the job done. But high-performance laundry pods like Laundry Sauce are designed to clean your clothes in cold water just as well as they would in cold water. Bonus: Our bold, sexy fragrances put boring scents like “spring breeze” to shame.
Air Dry Your Clothes
It’s hard to argue against the efficiency of a dryer. But if you want to ensure you don’t accidentally downsize your favorite outfit, consider skipping the dry cycle altogether and air dry your clothes instead.
In addition to preventing shrinkage, air drying your clothes cuts down your energy costs and helps the fragrance of your laundry detergent last longer. Just make sure you use a drying rack or lay your garments on a flat surface to maintain their shape.
3 Techniques to Unshrink Clothes
If you just finished doing a load of laundry only to discover you shrunk something (or everything) don’t panic. It can be challenging to fully unshrink a garment, but there are a few methods you can try to restore its original size.
Soak with Baby Shampoo
- 1. Fill a basin or sink with lukewarm water.
- 2. Add a small amount of baby shampoo or hair conditioner to the water.
- 3. Let the garment soak in the mixture for about 30 minutes.
- 4. Gently stretch the fabric while it's in the water to help relax the fibers.
- 5. Remove the garment, gently press out excess water, and reshape it.
Stretch and Reshape:
- 1. Lay the damp garment on a flat, absorbent towel.
- 2. Gently stretch the fabric in all directions to restore some of its original shape.
- 3. Pay attention to specific areas that may have shrunk more, such as sleeves or length.
- 4. Leave the garment to air-dry in its stretched state.
Steam or Iron with a Damp Cloth
- 1. Hang the garment in a steamy bathroom or use a garment steamer to add moisture to the fabric. (Alternatively, dampen a clean cloth and place it over the shrunken garment).
- 2. Iron the garment through the damp cloth, using the lowest heat setting suitable for the fabric.
- 3. Gently stretch the fabric as you iron.
Does Hot Water Damage Clothes?
Shrinkage isn’t the only thing you have to worry about when you wash with hot water. High temps can potentially damage your clothes—especially if they’re made of delicate fabrics.
Here are some adverse effects hot water can have on clothing:
- 1. Color Fading: Hot water can make colors fade quickly, particularly with vibrant or dark hues.
- 2. Pilling and Fraying: Delicate fabrics like linen or silk can weaken, fray, or unravel when exposed to hot water.
- 3. Elasticity Loss: Hot water can break down the elastic fibers in stretchy materials, like underwear waistbands and sleeve cuffs
- 4. Stain Setting: Hot water can set tough stains like coffee, wine, blood, and other bodily fluids, making them harder to remove. That’s why it’s generally better to wash stains with cold water.
Colder Temps, Bolder Fragrances
Choosing the best water temperature makes a huge difference on laundry day—but so does choosing the best laundry detergent.
Be honest: Have you ever been impressed by someone who smells like “April Fresh” or “Spring Breeze”? Of course not. That’s why we made Laundry Sauce: the best-smelling detergent in a premium pod.
Whether you sauce your clothes with Australian Sandalwood, Egyptian Rose, or Siberian Pine, we guarantee better-smelling laundry or your money back.