Sizing up garment steamers
Garment steamers are touted as a substitute for steam irons and as a way to freshen clothes between trips to the dry cleaner. They come in two styles: upright floor units and handheld steamers. Both have refillable water tanks. Full-size standing steamers resemble canister vacuums, with a water tank that is connected to a steam nozzle with a long hose; handheld steamers look similar to a pitcher, with a nozzle in place of the spout. Garment steamers are useful for removing wrinkles from difficult-to-iron items, such as drapes and bed skirts, and unlike an iron they can be used on delicate fabrics like velvet and silk. Upright floor models take up more space, but they have large water tanks so they can produce ample steam for big jobs. Handheld steamers are useful for travel and quick touch-ups, but will require refills more often.
Comparative, objective reviews are hard to come by, and most reviewers focus on handheld and travel steamers. We found older reviews that compare several models head to head at a few reputable sites. One of the best reviews is found at Slate.com, where Laura Moser tests six travel-size steamers on a variety of fabrics. Other useful reviews include Good Housekeeping, where editors test seven garment steamers, and The Wall Street Journal, whose reviewer focuses specifically on travel irons and handheld steamers. All reviews pre-date 2010, meaning some products now include slightly different features or are sold under a different name. For this reason, these older reviews are not given as much weight as if they were more recent in the Our Sources section of this report.
Garment steamers are frequently part of a stylist's toolkit, and several fashion bloggers, such as Lesley Kennedy for More.com, recommend favorite models. Other magazines and websites, including InStyle and SheKnows.com, recommend specific garment steamers, though it's unclear whether any comparative testing was done. Bestcovery.com features a roundup of the best full-size garment steamers and travel steamers, but it doesn't appear the picks are based on any testing.
While professional reviews may be lacking, user reviews are very plentiful, though most are single-product recommendations with little (if any) discussion of how they were tested or if they were compared to other steamers. Garment steamers are reviewed on Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Macys.com and Viewpoints.com, where single models may get several hundred reviews. In total, we considered thousands of user reviews.
Most experts agree that a garment steamer cannot replace a steam iron, though it can be a useful appliance. Steamers "can refresh garments between dry cleanings, perk up creased coats taken out of storage and smooth wrinkles from a rarely worn cocktail dress," say editors at MarthaStewart.com. They also damage fabric less than frequent pressing. However, as Good Housekeeping editors note, garment steamers usually struggle with "sharp creases and stiff fabrics, like dress shirts." They're also not the best for detail work like collars and cuffs.