Garment steamers have less chance of burning clothes than irons do because they never touch the fabric. When ironing, fabrics are sandwiched between an ironing board and a hot metal plate, which can leave burn marks, staining or discoloration on fabrics if left in place too long. Hand-held steamers and wand steamers require that you hold them a small distance from the fabric. But that doesn't mean steamers don't have drawbacks too, as they can ruin the structure of carefully shaped garments and cause them to go limp. Each appliance has its advantages and disadvantages. Use them both cautiously.

Unplug the iron when not in use.
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Don't leave an iron on and unattended.

How Steamers Work

Garment steamers -- handheld units or steamers with a hose and a wand -- usually have a separate water container with a powered element that heats the water beyond boiling and turns the water inside into steam. Once the unit produces the steam, it jettisons out the front of the handheld unit or the wand attached by a hose to the steamer. When the unit is run the length of a hanging garment or drapes, for example, the steam removes the wrinkles without the device ever having to touch the fabric.

Steamer Disadvantages

Items that can't take hot water should never be steamed. Woolen items will shrink when exposed to the hot steam. Garments carefully pressed and fitted with fusible interfacing to give them form can lose their shape when steamed; this is particularly true with expensively tailored clothes. Before steaming any garment or drapes, review the item's care tag. When the care tag indicates to avoid hot water, it's a good bet that steaming it is out of the question as well.

How Irons Work

Irons transfer the heat from the heating element inside it directly to its metal plate on the outside -- often covered with a special coating -- and onto the fabric, as it sits directly upon the fabric when ironing. To remove wrinkles with an iron, you move it, when it is hot, across the fabric. Irons have multiple settings designed for specific fabrics and some come with steam options if you have a steam one.

Iron Disadvantages

If you leave an iron on face down on the fabric and walk into another room to answer a phone -- and forget about it -- the iron can cause the fabric to burn and even catch on fire. When you don't pay attention to the settings, you can ruin certain garments if you burn them or overheat them with an iron.

Steamer Vs. Iron

Both appliances have their place in the home -- when you thoroughly understand the pros and cons of using them. Steamers can remove the wrinkles from hanging garments quickly, which makes them an ideal option for getting the wrinkles out of certain hot-water or steam-safe fabrics, such as drapes, some silk fabrics, pants or even linens. But unlike irons, steamers don't have multiple settings, so they don't work for all fabrics.

Hold steamers in an upright position when using. Otherwise, they can spurt, gurgle or send droplets of water directly onto the item being steamed. To avoid calcification in a steamer -- or in a steam iron -- use distilled or spring water instead of tap water. Irons can do the work of a steamer, but often take much longer because the ironing board's surface is limited, requiring you shuffle the item's position multiple times during ironing.

Dos and Don’ts of Steamers and Irons

  • Check the care tag of items being steamed or ironed before using either appliance.
  • Test an inconspicuous part of the fabrics without care tags with either appliance.
  • Never leave a garment steamer or iron unattended.
  • Turn off both appliances when not in use and unplug them from the wall.
  • Use distilled water in both items to avoid lime or hard-water buildup.
  • Hold steamers upright to allow water condensation to drip back into the unit.
  • Never leave an iron face down on fabric.
  • Do not allow children to use either device.
  • Hold the steamer facing away from you, as the steam can burn your skin.
  • Unplug both units when adding water to them.
  • Do not immerse either unit in water to clean.
  • Pay attention to the low-water light on a steamer; do not use it without water.