After testing 18 models over seven hours, we think the Joy Mangano My Little Steamer is hands down the best of the clothes steamers we trialed. Inexpensive, easy to fill with water, quick to produce steam, reliable as sunrise—author Camille Perri has used one for the better part of a decade—and requiring nothing more than a hanger to use, it’s far handier than the ol’ iron-plus-ironing-board regime.
For under $40, the Joy Mangano My Little Steamer offers a tremendous performance at an affordable price. It removes wrinkles quickly and easily and features a precise, acutely angled steam outlet that lets you unwrinkle the tight corners inside collars and cuffs, and also has a secure, leakproof locking closure on the water tank. Its handle stays cool throughout long bouts of steaming and—unique among the models we tested—it has a retractable cord for compact storage. Plus, like few others we’ve found, it comes in a rainbow of colors. If you generally need to unwrinkle just a few garments at a time—like a shirt and skirt or pair of pants before work—it’s the one you want.
If your mission is to steam large swaths of fabric or many pieces of apparel at a time, a floor-standing steamer is the way to go. Of the many standing units we considered, we think the easy-to-use, streamlined form of the Jiffy J-2000 Personal Clothing Steamer (we tested the version with a plastic head) is just about perfect. With a steam head featuring six large, wide-set holes, it worked efficiently even on large garments. It’s a well-thought-out piece of pro-grade machinery, with multiple fine details like an easy-to-fill, see-through water tank and automatic shutoff. It’s built to last and well worth its hefty price tag for those who do a lot of garment care.
Most business travelers will probably find it easier to just use the in-room iron and ironing board, but if you’re looking for a steamer specifically for globetrotting, the Deneve Portable Garment Steamer is our pick in this crowded, junk-filled category. Although imperfect (it has small, narrow-set steam holes, for example), its good aspects—fast steam production, generous water capacity, leakproof design, and an on-off switch—still outweighed the bad.
I traded in my iron for a handheld steamer a decade ago and have never looked back. This was no minor decision as the daughter of an Italian tailor, raised to believe that leaving the house in a wrinkled shirt was the eighth deadly sin. (And I almost always leave the house in an oxford and crisp jeans.) In our house, the iron was king, but I’ve come to appreciate and champion the ease and efficiency of daily steamer use. And I do steam daily, everything from dress shirts to pants to T-shirts to silk scarves. I know a good steamer when I see one.
To supplement my personal experience and steaming knowledge, seasoned product tester and The Sweethome editor Tim Heffernan and I researched the available models and scoured online reviews to distinguish the most popular models in each category—floor-standing, midsize handheld, and travel. We tested 18 different steamers on various fabrics, both natural and synthetic.
A clothing steamer is a super-handy alternative—and in many cases an upgrade—to an iron. Irons need ironing boards, and in a small apartment, an ironing board may take up space you can’t afford to part with. But even in a large home, clothes steamers may prove more desirable than irons. They’re fast, and exceptionally effective on woolens and linens—suits, pantsuits, sweaters, sheets, and tablecloths. With just a steamer, a hanger, and something to hang the hanger on (a doorknob/coatrack/shower-curtain bar), you can unwrinkle anything from a blouse to a quilt. And given their speed—most produce steam in less than two minutes, and many in less than one—steamers are ideal for for the morning rush. Last night’s unfolded laundry becomes today’s outfit in a trice.
There are three basic types of steamer: handheld/midsize, floor-standing/full-size, and handheld mini/travel. For everyday home use—a shirt and skirt or pair of pants before work, for example—a handheld/midsize is right. Intensive users will want a floor-standing/full-size—these are for people who need to unwrinkle a lot of clothes each day, or crafters who work with large textiles (e.g, quilters). Frequent travelers to places where an iron isn’t a standard accoutrement in a hotel room may want to look into travel-size steamers.
There’s considerable debate in the fashion community—especially men’s fashion—over the use of steamers to unwrinkle clothes, particularly fine suit jackets. Detractors say steamers can cause the layers of glued canvas that shape suit jackets’ shoulders and chest to delaminate; the combination of heat and pressure that irons deliver, they argue, is the only way to prevent this problem.
On the other hand, steamers are praised by many people—style hounds and professional tailors alike—for their ability to unwrinkle suit jackets and pants quickly, effectively, and without the fuss of an ironing board and the abrasion (however minor) of an iron’s sole plate.
We’ll say this: Tim and I worked at Esquire for years, and the magazine’s fashion editors used a steamer daily to prepare seriously fine suits, sweaters, and even silk ties for photo shoots. Want an unbiased source? Andy, founder of the men’s fashion bible Ask Andy About Clothes, specifically recommends the My Little Steamer—and chose it over the five steamers he had owned prior.
We’re confident that for most people, steamers will quickly replace irons for at least 90 percent of unwrinkling jobs. They work magnificently on woolens, quickly eliminating even deep-set creases on pants and jackets and, on knitted items like sweaters that are prone to “bagging” at the elbows and cuffs, tightening the fabric and returning it to its original shape. They are at least as quick on linen items; and if you’ve ever had to iron a linen tablecloth for a fancy dinner, you’ll appreciate how nice it is to be able to just hang the whole thing up on a clothesline and make it presentable in one pass with a steamer.
Cotton and cotton blends, common in shirts, take a little longer than wool and linen, but still neaten up faster and more easily than when using an iron and ironing board. And one thing a steamer won’t do—in fact, can’t do—is scorch an item of clothing the way an unattended iron can. The steam reaches a maximum of 212 degrees Fahrenheit (at sea level; less at altitude); no fabric will brown at that temperature.
All this said, there’s one thing clothes steamers aren’t great for: creating knife-edge pleats and “starched flat” shirtfronts. If you need to do that a lot, you’ll still need an iron and ironing board. But in today’s generally relaxed work environments, this is ever less a concern.
Early on in our research, we determined that fabric steamers fall into two main categories: standing and handheld. Handheld models can be broken down further into midsize, which are intended for home use, and travel size, which are small enough to fit in a carry-on suitcase but because of limited water capacity can steam only one or two items of clothing at a time. We decided to consider steamers from each of these three categories, choosing to test the best-rated and most popular models from a range of prices.
For midsize models, we considered only steamers with a minimum of 600 watts and a continuous steam supply of nine minutes or more. Personal experience and multiple reviews set these bars: Wattage is directly related to the speed and volume of steam production, and you need about nine minutes to unwrinkle a shirt and and a pair of jeans (or, by the same token, a suit or pantsuit). For floor-standing models aimed at heavy home users and hobbyists (quilters, for example)—which can be quite expensive—we set a maximum price of $200. For travel size, we considered models advertised as “mini” or “portable.” In this last category, especially, there are dozens of similar models of fairly obvious common provenance; we limited ourselves to those with wide availability and extensive review history.
First, we rummaged our closets for dress shirts, business suits, trousers, sweaters, and T-shirts—and our kitchens for dishcloths—representing a variety of fabrics. I brought my most-wrinkled items to Tim’s apartment, where we divided our steamer selections into the three separate categories. Then we tested each steamer on wool, cotton, cashmere, linen, and polyester. We noted how easy or difficult each steamer was to set up and prepare for use. Then we timed how long each took to reach first steam and then render a fabric wrinkle-free. And on the first point, no steamer took more than two minutes to reach full steam, so we tossed that as a differentiating measure.
During testing, we arrived at some general observations. On all models, ease of filling and a secure closure were key. Some midsize and travel units featured a design in which the top part twists off (so you can fill the tank,) then locks back into place for use. We preferred this design for the midsize handhelds because they generally have a wide mouth that’s easier to fill than those with a smaller screw-top. Conversely, we favored the more leakproof screw-top for travel-size steamers, even though they were harder to fill: Nobody wants to arrive at their destination with wet clothes. Floor-standing steamers generally have a large tank that separates from the machine’s body for filling; for these, a secure grip and ease of use were paramount considerations.
Speaking specifically of travel-size steamers, we were surprised by how many are plug-and-go—that is, they start heating up the moment they’re plugged in. We came to believe that’s a real liability: With their short run times, they’re too easy to plug in and then forget about (especially for business travelers answering calls and making plans), risking running dry and overheating. So we insisted on an on-off switch on all steamers.
On standing models, we initially thought features like built-in hangers and ironing panels were valuable; however, upon testing, we determined that they’re just encumbrances. The built-in hangers require you to put down the steam head, and possibly lay it on the floor, while transferring the steamed clothing item to a separate hanger. Simplicity in this case is a virtue.
After testing all of the various models, we agreed that most people would do best with a midsize handheld steamer due to its overall versatility. We learned right away that standing models aren’t for everyone. Not only are they pricey, but even the most compact models take up way more space than many people can afford—they’re the size of a canister-type vacuum cleaner. For apartment dwellers, especially, that’s just too much. They also didn’t work any better on clothing than the handheld models. This said, they’re worth the investment for people with a lot of unwrinkling to do or those who need to unwrinkle large textiles that a handheld just can’t handle, like curtains or tablecloths. In the latter case, they’re much more efficient than an iron-and-ironing-board setup: Hang a large textile on a curtain rod, clothesline, or the willing hands of a pair of assistants and you can unwrinkle it in just a few minutes, without having to shift it or retread your work.
Finally, any model with parts that got uncomfortably—if not outright dangerously—hot were struck off our list.
After testing 18 steamers, we determined that the handheld midsize Joy Mangano My Little Steamer is the best. For under $40, it offers tremendous performance at an affordable price. And of all the models we tested, the My Little Steamer had the most streamlined design and was the quickest and easiest to fill, use, and put away.
We loved the My Little Steamer’s easy-to-fill wide mouth, as opposed to the smaller fill hole we found on the Steamfast. Its water tank has a nice min/max fill line, a logical and extremely useful feature that was inexplicably absent on some models we tested. It was also easy to see when the tank was getting low thanks to its transparent tank window—again, a no-brainer feature absent on other models. Comparatively, the Rowenta handheld suffers from a tiny, hard-to-fill tank, and the Shark from a tiny, hard-to-drain tank.
The My Little Steamer’s secure closure was a major deciding factor for us. It was easy to lock in place and fastened tightly enough to prevent leaks. Other models just didn’t feel as safe against leakage. Even the handheld Jiffy Esteam’s closure, which has the same basic design as the My Little Steamer’s, didn’t lock into place as surely and it was more difficult to tell if it was properly closed and sealed.
We also liked the My Little Steamer’s on-off switch, which has a bright indicator light—a necessary safety feature, as far as we’re concerned; machines without a switch turn on the moment you plug them in and if you get distracted, even for a few minutes, they can run dry and overheat. The Esteam lacked an on-off switch entirely, as did the Steamfast. The Rowenta and Shark had switches, but came with their own problems.
Performancewise, the My Little Steamer removed wrinkles quickly and easily thanks to its high steam output and precise, acutely angled steam head that lets you unwrinkle the tight corners inside collars and cuffs. With 900 watts of power, it also builds up steam quickly—in under two minutes—though the same can be said of most handhelds.
The My Little Steamer was the only model we tested to feature a triangular-shaped steam head with 10 wide-set holes arrayed in a grid, which we believe contributes greatly to its enhanced performance. For one, the holes are arrayed in three levels, meaning each pass of the steam head delivers three bouts of steam to the fabric; every other steamer we tested has the holes in a horizontal line, meaning one steaming for each pass. For another, the triangular steam head can get into tight corners (like the insides of collars), and doesn’t have the wide steam-free rims that the Rowenta and Shark suffer from.
We also liked that the My Little Steamer’s handle stayed cool throughout long bouts of steaming, unlike the Esteam’s, and certainly unlike the Shark’s, which had a dangerously exposed heating element that actually caused an injury during testing (see “The competition,” below).
Unique among the models we tested, the My Little Steamer has a retractable cord for compact storage. This feature makes putting it away in a minimal space as simple as the press of a button. We also like that the easy-to-fill wide mouth is just as easy to empty. This means not having to worry too much about accidentally leaving water at the bottom of the tank to fester until next use.
Overall, the My Little Steamer is a well-thought-out product that does what it claims it’ll do, and it does it well. And the fact that it comes in 10 bright colors is icing on the cake.
The competition (midsize)
The Jiffy Esteam Handheld Travel Steamer lacks an on-off switch and its handle got hot while steaming. And at 600 watts it fell short on power, taking more than two minutes to produce first steam. It performed fine, not great.
The Steamfast SF-435 Compact Fabric Steamer lacks an on-off switch and has a small screw-top fill hole that was difficult to fill. At 800 watts it had 25 percent more power than the Jiffy Esteam, but it didn’t perform much better.
The Rowenta X Cel Steam suffered from a tiny tank (listed at 200 milliliters; in fact, holds only 180) and fussy filling regime—the fill hole is exactly half the size of a US quarter. It’s also costly relative to other handheld models.
The Shark Press and Refresh (GS500) is one of the few products we’ve tested at The Sweethome that we feel compelled to mark with a “do not buy” warning. The reason: the metal “WrinkleEraser” heating element on its steam head. It’s the size of a tongue depressor, is fully exposed when the machine is on, and becomes blistering hot—literally: Tim brushed it with his finger and got a second-degree burn. Other steamers—and you’d think this would be a no-brainer—put their heating elements inside, out of reach. In short, the Shark is an accident waiting to happen, and a menace to curious children and toddlers. Adding to the design failures, its fill hole also has an internal lip that makes it impossible to completely drain the tank after use, and the unit is physically large (almost a foot high) but has a capacity of just 150 milliliters. It’s complete garbage.
The Jiffy J-2000 Personal Clothing Steamer was by far our favorite floor-standing model. (We tested the version with a plastic steam head; there’s also a more expensive metal version.) Its superior minimalist design blew us away, and it worked beautifully. It’s just plain simpler to use than the other units we tested—no extraneous gadgets or clips or built-in hangers, which we found to be more of a hindrance than a help on other models—just a simple hook on which to place your hanger.
When we first set out all of the standing models for testing, the Jiffy appeared oddly bare-bones compared with the other models that featured their own built-in hangers and various clips and attachments, and certainly compared with the fancy-looking Rowenta IS6300, which even has its own pull-down ironing panel. However, a few models in, we began to feel like these extra gadgets were ultimately a flaw, not a value. The squat, telescoping poles and garment clips and brush attachments that came on the Rowentas, Steamfast, Singer, and Sunbeam all added steps to the process (and more bits to potentially break), and in some cases were plain confusing to set up and operate. Plus, who really needs extra fiddly bits that will inevitably get lost? The built-in hangers also didn’t make steaming easier. Instead, we found it annoying to have to put down the steam head while transferring steamed clothing to a separate hanger.
Contrast this with the Jiffy. Its simple, solid pole (its two sections screw together tightly) was the tallest in our test at 5 feet 4 inches—almost a foot taller than the next competitor—meaning even the longest garments will hang free for steaming without brushing the floor. And you keep the garments on their own standard closet hanger while steaming—meaning you can hang up each garment the moment you’re finished instead of transferring it from a built-in hanger as you have to do with the other models.
The Jiffy’s water tank was another major plus. It was easy to fill and, thankfully, see-through, unlike those of the Rowentas. It also has a unique loop handle on the bottom of the tank that’s a huge help when filling the tank under the faucet—with all the other models you have to awkwardly balance the tank on your palm as you run the water. The Jiffy’s tank is big, too, at three-quarters of a gallon, offering a full 90 minutes between refills (though hopefully you’ll never need it to last that long).
We also liked the Jiffy’s steam head, which features six wide-set holes—fewer and larger than the Rowentas, the only comparably high-quality floor-standing models we tested—that produced especially copious, effective steam in under two minutes. And the Jiffy performed beautifully on all the fabrics we set it to work on, getting the wrinkles out of a crumpled cotton shirt, a wool suit jacket, and a linen towel in just a couple of minutes apiece.
The Jiffy’s outer housing unit is sturdy and streamlined—few corners to catch on furniture—and it had the best roll of all the models we tested, with four quiet wheels that were easy to maneuver. Its rubber hose is long and flexible, and its plastic handle stayed cool while steaming. We especially liked the added safety feature that automatically turns the unit off if it accidentally runs dry. And we have to give a shout-out to the detailed manual that accompanies the unit, which even contains a wiring diagram—because this is a piece of equipment that’s built to last and be repaired if necessary. Nothing about it is intended to be disposable. But the Jiffy doesn’t take itself too seriously either. Don’t believe us? Check out the model in rose pink.
The competition (standing)
None of the other standing models we tested came close to the Jiffy J-2000. The only real competition were the Rowenta IS6200 Compact Valet and IS6300 Master Valet, which are virtually identical to one another except for a “roll & press vertical support shade” on the Master Valet. The shade is a nice feature, but not worth the $50 price difference. And, once again, the fancy built-in hanger proved a hindrance, not a help. Here’s the bottom line: Using your own hanger, as you do on the Jiffy, saves time, effort, and hassle. You can flip a garment with one hand, and hang it up in the closet the minute it’s finished. It’s the KISS principle, perfectly illustrated.
We noticed while steaming that the handles on the Rowentas got warm—not terribly warm, but noticeably. And though this might seem like a minor detail, the fact that the tank is clear blue or gray, not transparent, made it difficult to tell when the water level got low. The Rowentas performed well, but their overall design just didn’t match up to the Jiffy’s. And at roughly the same price, the distinction is even clearer.
We eliminated the Steamfast SF-510 Fabric Steamer right off the bat on account of shoddy design. Its pole wobbled and its base and wheels felt flimsy, and just didn’t appear to be well-made.
The Sunbeam Supreme Garment Steamer (S1500) and the nearly identical Singer SteamWorks Pro (they’re clearly made in the same factory and re-badged) took nine full minutes to finish a button-down shirt. Their steam isn’t concentrated enough, and we found the hangers that come on both these models to be cumbersome, forcing you to unclip your clothing to turn it around—all while holding the steam head.
The Conair Fabric Steamer Ultimate (GS28) has an extremely short cord. You can’t use your own hanger with this model and its clips are difficult to open—again creating the issue of having to unclip and flip an article of clothing while holding the tool.
The Deneve Portable Garment Steamer is our pick in the crowded and junk-filled travel-steamer category. It’s not perfect by any means. It features nine small, narrow-set steam holes, which is not ideal; we’d prefer them to be wider-set. It also comes with a spectacularly useless suction-cup hanger. That is, it would be basically useless at all events—few hotel rooms lack a coatrack or closet with standard hangers—but the manual provides no explanation of what it is or how to use it; and beyond that, on our tester the hanger’s shaft was too big to fit into the suction-cup base, rendering the gimmick entirely void of value.
But its good aspects—fast steam production (under two minutes), on-off switch for safety, generous water capacity and steam time for the category, and top-fill design with a screw-in, gasketed plug—outweigh the bad. There are smaller travel steamers, and there are faster ones. But none that we tested—half a dozen of the top-rated, among scores available—offers the Deneve’s combination of leakproof storage in a suitcase or bag, its ability to unwrinkle at least a couple of clothing items on a single 250-milliliter fill, and its low cost and wide availability.
The Deneve is about the size of a basic dopp kit—the body is about 8 inches tall and 3 inches wide and deep (the nozzle and handle stick out a bit more, obviously). It weighs about a pound and a half. In other words, it’s easily packable. (For comparison, the body of the My Little Steamer is 13 inches tall and about 3.5 inches across, and weighs 2 pounds).
This said, frankly, most business travelers will find it easier to just use the in-room iron and ironing board, or the hotel’s laundry service. But if you’ll be traveling where you’re not sure an iron or laundry service is a standard amenity, a travel steamer is an inexpensive way to have peace of mind. In terms of performance, it’s solid enough; not nearly as quick and efficient at unwrinkling garments as the My Little Steamer, but it gets the job done. It’s just significantly smaller, especially in terms of water capacity and, thus, run time. A single tankful on the Deneve will net you only about six minutes of steaming, enough for a cotton shirt or a wool suit, but not both. That said, it’s easy and quick to refill—just twist it open and put it under the faucet. Still, though that’s acceptable for travel contingencies, for regular home use it would quickly become frustrating.
The competition (travel-size)
The travel-size models we tested were mostly unimpressive. The Conair Travel Smart had the weakest steam of any model we looked at and it has an annoying top with no max fill line. Its lack of a neck makes it essentially useless.
The PureSteam Portable Fabric Steamer felt flimsy and blasted steam. It also spit water and leaked a bit.
We wanted to like the Joy Mangano My Little Steamer Go Mini. It has the same secure lock as the midsize model, but at 900 watts it was actually too powerful for its size, causing it to spit water and steam only one shirt before needing to be refilled. Unlike the midsize model, this little powerhouse had a bit too much horsepower.
Two other models we tested appear to have been discontinued—a common issue in a category flooded by essentially identical, re-badged designs.
(Photo of the complete testing lineup by Tim Heffernan; all other photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: August 24, 2016