Clothing Care

How to wash a dress shirt

By on September 21st, 2014

A brand new dress shirt is one of life’s little pleasures, isn’t it? It’s so clean and crisp that you almost feel bad wearing it for the first time because you know it’ll get dirty. Whether it’s perspiration, grime from the city, or a food stain from lunch, that wonderfully pressed dress shirt is no more. But that’s life. Your dress shirt is meant to be worn, it’s meant to be lived in. Fortunately, you can return your shirt to its prior glory over and over again. You just need to know a few things about how to wash a dress shirt properly. And that’s exactly why we’ve written this guide.

We’re going to teach you everything you need to know to wash a dress shirt, keep it looking good over multiple washes, and be easy on your wallet. We’ll discuss your three options: Washing at home, having the cleaners do what’s called a “wash and press,” and dry cleaning. You’ll also learn some advanced tips on removing common stains like marks from an errant sharpie marker or oils from, say, salad dressing.

The science behind cleaning your dress shirt

Before we get into the specifics of how to wash your favorite dress shirt, it’s worth understanding a little bit about how detergents work and the effect that temperature has on cleaning. This will help you to make the right choices and get the best results.


A detergent is a chemical that we use to break up and remove grease and grime and all the things that get stuck to our shirts. As you can probably imagine, there are a lot of ingredients that go into modern detergents, but the most important ingredients are called surfactants, short for surface active agents.

Surfactants are interesting because they actively reduce the surface tension in water so as to more uniformly wet your clothes. Surface tension is what causes water to form droplets instead of uniformly covering a surface. In the context of cleaning clothes, surfactants allow the water to better wet the fibers in your shirt fabric – this means better enveloping a stain, for instance.

In addition, and this is really interesting, one end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water and the other end is attracted to stains. This is the mechanism by which the dirt and grime in your dress shirt is broken up and washed away. Meanwhile, the tumbling motion of your washer helps to break up the dirt into smaller, easier-to-remove chunks. The rinse cycle sweeps up all the water loving ends of the surfactant molecules and carries them away from your clothes and down the drain.


The water temperature is an important part of the equation because the hotter the water, the faster the chemical reactions. In other words, when you put lots of energy into heating the water, you can get away with a less effective detergent. However, then you’re paying more to run your washing machine. On the other hand, cooler water can prevent your clothes from shrinking or stretching. A cooler temperature also helps the colors in your dress shirt stay brighter.

The general rule of thumb is that whites and light colors do best in hot water while dark colors need cold water. We recommend that you do a little experimentation to find the right balance of water temperature and detergent for your own needs.

Black dress shirt

Option 1: Wash at home

Washing your dress shirt at home is our preferred method for all of your Bespoke Edge shirts. Even our finest cottons with mother of pearl buttons will do just fine in your washing machine. You’ll save time and money by cleaning your shirts at home versus heading to the cleaners. Plus, you can ensure that they are being cleaned right. This can mean getting those tough stains out and extending the life of your dress shirt by treating it gently.

Just follow these steps and your shirts will thank you.

1. Before it goes in the machine

Your dress shirt is about to be thrashed around inside a washing machine. Bearing that in mind, make sure you unbutton all of the buttons, even the cuff buttons and those on the collar if it’s a button down. Speaking of the collar, if you have collar stays that are removable, pull them out and put them someplace where you won’t forget. By the way, many of our BE dress shirts have collar stays that reside permanently inside the collar. They will wash just fine and your collar will hold up just the same as if they were removable.

Also, turn your dress shirts inside out before loading them into the wash. This will help to lift deodorant from the shirt’s underarm.

2. Pre-treat tough stains

If you have any particularly bad stains, it’s smart to spend a little time pre-treating them. Trust us, this can make a big difference. By pre-treating a specific area, you’re giving the detergent more time to dissolve the stain. What you’ll want to do is to carefully apply a little detergent on the problem area and gently rub it in. We don’t really like using the detergent pens because they can sometimes make things worse by applying too much pressure. But if you do use a pen, make sure that it is chlorine-free.

3. Choose the right wash cycle

Now it’s time to load the washing machine and choose the appropriate cycle. These days, it seems like there are more and more options showing up on that dial than ever before. Here’s a quick rundown on some of the standard options.

Delicate: As you may already know, if you are washing something particularly delicate like a cashmere sweater, use the delicate cycle. And if you’re unsure, use the delicate cycle!

Normal: For most of your shirts, you should be just fine using the normal wash cycle. This is the option on most modern washers that has the longest agitation time and it will nicely clean your cotton and linen dress shirts.
*BE Recommendation

Permanent Press (Casual): If there’s one wash cycle that’s widely misunderstood, it’s the permanent press cycle. In modern washers, you may see this cycle now rebranded as “Casual.”

Regardless of what it’s called on your machine, this is the cycle that you want to use for synthetic fibers like rayons and polyesters. These fabrics are much happier with a slow spin cycle so that less water is removed after the wash, thereby preventing excess wrinkling. Also, some synthetic fabrics have a problem with pilling and this can be made worse by a fast spin.

Temperature: As we discussed above, choosing the right temperature is important. Smart selection can help you avoid fading, enhance the lifetime of your shirt, and even save you some money on your utility bill.

Cold Water: Best for dark colors, anything delicate, and lightly soiled clothes.
*BE Recommendation

Warm Water: This is your best option for synthetic fabrics (remember the permanent press cycle?). Use warm water for any colors that are heavily soiled with oil or tough stains.

Hot Water: Best for your white cotton fabrics like underwear and bed sheets. If you have something that’s especially dirty, hot water is your best bet.

Red plaid dress shirt

4. Don’t skimp on cheap detergent

Whatever your favorite detergent is, make sure it is a high quality brand. If your washer is relatively new and designated as a high efficiency (he) washer, find the corresponding version of detergent and you’ll save yourself some money. Regardless, make sure the detergent is appropriate to the color of your shirts. Nothing will ruin your closet faster than washing your favorite dark dress shirts with a chlorine-based detergent.

5. Skip the dryer

Wash your shirts and be sure to let the spin cycle wring them out. No one likes taking out nice dress shirts that are dripping wet. Once the spin cycle is complete, gently take out the shirts, making sure that the sleeves aren’t tangled amongst one another, and shake the tightly crumpled shirt once or twice. Go ahead and leave the dress shirt turned inside out because it will be easier to fix when dry.

Then hang it on a plastic hanger to air dry. We like using a plastic hanger because the radius of curvature will be large enough so as to not distort the shirt fabric. It’s the same reason that you don’t hang a suit from a thin hanger, but rather a great big one.

We want to stress taking the shirts out promptly when the wash cycle is complete because all of those wrinkles will only get worse if they dry in place.

6. Iron your dress shirt

When your shirt is dry, or very nearly dry, you can press it with your iron. Ironing takes a little bit of practice. If you’ve never ironed before, we recommend just queuing up two or three shirts and diving in! Practice starting in different areas and see what works for you as we all have a different strategy when it comes to ironing our dress shirts. Iron two or three shirts the next day and practice, practice, practice!

What we recommend is starting on the back of the shirt, then iron each of the front sides, the sleeves, the yoke, and finally the collar. Use the steam and don’t linger too long in any one area because yes, you can literally burn your shirt.

And if you are going to use a spray starch, use very little. Starch can be pretty hard on your dress shirt and shorten its lifetime.

Addtional considerations

Pick the right load size: Be honest with yourself about load size and don’t over do it. If you want those stains to come out you need to give your dress shirts some room to swim! Here are some rough guidelines:

25% full: Small setting
50% full: Medium setting
75% full: Large setting
100% full: Extra large setting (but really, we recommend you do two loads instead)

What about shrinkage?: It’s important to remember that all shirts are going to shrink to some degree the first couple of times that you wash them. When we take your measurements we always account for this minor shrinkage. For instance, sleeves will always shorten a little bit, but be sure to let your shirts air dry on a hanger after you wash them to help mitigate any additional shrinkage.

Oil-based stains: If you’ve ever spilled a little salad dressing on your shirt you know that it can be tough to clean. Sometimes normal detergent won’t do the job. This is usually because oil-based stains need oil-based solvents to break them up. The next time you have a tough stain, try using a different detergent because some of the biological detergents contain active chemicals like lipases which break up fats, like that vinegrette you spilled.

If you take your shirt into the cleaners for a wash, be sure to tell them what kind of oil stain you have and they will adjust their strategy.

What about steaming instead of ironing?: A steamer will take out the wrinkles without making contact with the clothing. The hot steam helps the fibers in the fabric to relax and straighten.

This can be a good thing when you have something particularly delicate because the direct heat of an iron can be damaging. A steamer is also a good idea when you have hard-to-iron garments like a suit or sportcoat. In fact, all of our Bespoke Edge suits are steamed prior to delivery so that they are 100% wrinkle free.

The major downside of a steamer is that without contact to the fabric, you can’t press it. Therefore, you’ll only get that nice pressed look in your dress shirts by either taking them to the cleaners or ironing them at home.

Green plaid dress shirt

Option 2: “Wash & Press”

When you take your dress shirt to the cleaners and ask for it to be washed, what they are going to do is to give it a wash and press. It’s important to understand that this is not considered dry cleaning. It can be a little confusing because we often say, very generically, that “we’re taking something to the dry cleaners to have it dry cleaned.” And it’s easy to believe that dry cleaning is all a cleaners does, but that’s not the case. In a wash and press scenario, here’s what your cleaners is going to do:

They are going to wash your dress shirt in a washing machine using water and detergent (sound familiar?).

The spin cycle shakes off the water and when the cycle is complete the buzzer sounds, just like at home.

But here’s where industrial cleaning really shines: They put the damp shirt onto a shirt press, it closes over the shirt, and presses it while it drys it. Your iron takes up considerably less space than this behemoth!

Professional cleaning isn’t cheap and it can certainly add up if you take in half a dozen shirts at a time, but it may be your best bet if you’re worried about shrinkage or a tough stain.

You’re going to learn over time which cleaners in your neighborhood is the best because some shops will be really hard on your shirts. For instance, those great big presses can sometimes knock off buttons if the operator isn’t being careful. Hopefully, you find a cleaners that loves your shirt buttons as much as you do!

Bespoke Edge recommended cleaners:

Denver metro: Revolution Cleaners
Northern Colorado: Burke’s Cleaners
Scottsdale and Phoenix: Delia’s Cleaners

Option 3: Dry cleaning

Simply put, we don’t recommend that you dry clean your dress shirts.This process can be very tough on your shirt fabrics and it can even shorten the lifetime of your bespoke shirts. That being said, having them dry cleaned is indeed a gentle option and they will be returned to you nice and pressed.

But the real disadvantage of dry cleaning cotton dress shirts is actually the cleaning itself. Because dry cleaning is just that, dry, water soluble stains, such as perspiration, are probably not going to be cleaned. Same for basic dirt and grime. That’s why washing dress shirts in water is better for removing the most common stains of daily life.

Then there’s the cost. Dry cleaning is your most expensive option of the three and in the case of cotton dress shirts, probably your least effective. Of course, for very delicate garments like fine cashmere sweaters and woolen suits, dry cleaning is the way to go.