Red gingham fabric.

How to care for cotton

Cotton is the most widely used natural fabric in the world. But what's the best way to look after it?

Washing cotton

It is difficult to give guidance on washing cotton as there are so many types of cotton fabric available and so many uses for it. To be safe you should always refer to the care label for your cotton item before washing.

  • Cotton T-shirts can be prone to shrinking when they are washed and dried. To try and stop this happening:
  • Wash in cold (30°C or below) water, whether using a washing machine or washing by hand.
  • Give garments a gentle stretch when they come out of the wash to get them back into shape.
  • Always air dry: dry clothes flat and out of the sun if possible.
  • If you have an item that you know is prone to more than 10% shrinkage, hand wash it in cold water.

A suitable temperature for washing towels and sheets is 40°C. However, to prevent the spread of germs (eg if someone has been ill), it is advisable to wash underwear, towels and household linen at 60°C using a bleach-based product, such as washing powder. You need to combine your 60°C wash with a good washing detergent to attack bacteria, as some bacterial spores and viruses are resistant to washing at 60°C.

Ironing cotton

Cotton is very prone to creasing so it is often necessary to iron it. However, to try to avoid too much ironing:

  • Buy cotton clothes that have been treated with a wrinkle resistant finish eg on men’s work shirts and children’s school uniforms. The care label will tell you if this finish has been applied.
  • Items like T-shirts and jeans often don’t need ironing if you gently stretch them when they come out of the washing machine and then air dry them flat. Also use the ‘reduced creases’ setting on your washing machine if available.

If your garments do need ironing:

  • Refer to the garment care label to know what iron temperature setting is safe.
  • It is best to iron cotton items while they are still slightly damp or alternatively use the steam setting on your iron.
  • Make sure the items are dry/aired before folding and putting away.

Find out more about cotton: how it's produced and how to ensure what you buy is environmentally friendly.