Steam Clean: Using a Steamer Can Help Kill Germs and Bacteria, but Can It Kill Covid?

Tim Chan
·9 min read

Steamers have always been sort of an unheralded tool in a person’s closet, an “if-you-know-you-know” type of device that gets a decent amount of use if you’re trying to get wrinkles out of a suit or dress before a big event, but isn’t otherwise a “must-buy” like an iron, or actual washer and dryer.

But the rise of the coronavirus has suddenly spawned a surge in steamer sales, with the disinfecting properties of a steamer appealing to Covid-conscious customers. According to new research, the best steamers (also known as “steam cleaners” or “garment steamers”) can go a long way towards eliminating household germs and bacteria, while helping to refresh clothing, bedding, furniture and everyday accessories too.

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How Does a Steamer Work?

A steaming unit usually consists of a water tank, a hose and a steam head with some sort of trigger or steam release function. A steamer works by slowly heating the water from the tank until it becomes a super hot steam. The steam is then used to help release wrinkles, decontaminate fibers, refresh fabrics and clean surfaces.

What Can You Use a Steamer For?

There are many uses for a good steamer, and the best steamers can be used on everything from clothing to furniture to bedding. While the main use for a steamer is to get rid of wrinkles and creases on clothes, “You can use steamers on carpets, curtains, armchairs, blankets, pillows, ovens, tiles and even mattresses too,” says Frej Lewenhaupt, CEO and Co-Founder of the Stockholm-based steamer company, Steamery.

In addition to wrinkles and creases, the best steamers can help get rid of lingering odors, and steam can also be used to kill common pathogens, along with mites, mold and tiny critters. Some top steamer brands, like Conair, claim their steamers can actually kill 99.9 percent of germs, dust mites and bed bugs.

The best steamers can be used on clothes and curtains, to help restore volume and softness to fabrics, and to keep colors rich rather than faded when you toss things in the wash. Even if you are using a washer/dryer for your clothes, Lewenhaupt says switching to a steamer could be an eco-friendly alternative as well. “[Using a steamer] will allow you to wear your clothing more times in-between washes,” he says. “Washing your clothes less often will allow the garment to last longer, which gives you longer life to your favorite clothing and provides environmental benefits of doing less laundry.”

What Are the Different Types of Steamers?

The best steamers usually fall into two categories: standing steamers and portable (or handheld) steamers.

A good standing steamer can give you the power and flexibility to steam clean an entire room, with a larger water tank and longer hose. Pick up a standing steamer with wheels to easily roll it around from room to room. Park it by your bed and use the steamer to clean your mattress, instantly deodorizing and killing bed bugs and mites. Use it in the living room to clean your couch, directing the steam into those hard-to-reach cracks and crevices that a regular vacuum can’t reach.

The best portable steamers, meantime, are great for travel, helping to de-crease and de-wrinkle a suit, say, before a big business meeting, or a dress or shirt for a night out. As the name suggests, these travel steamers are small enough to throw in your suitcase or carry-on bag for your trip.

How Does a Steamer Work Against Covid?

We all know a steamer works well on clothes, and can help with germs and bacteria, but can steam kill Covid? The transfer of heat by steaming can help eliminate common germs and lingering odors, but its effect on viruses remains unclear.

According to a recent study done by Steamery, and the Research Institute of Sweden (RISE), using a high-heat steamer could help inactivate viruses on everyday clothing and accessories.

The study tested two methods of steaming, both using a pair of winter gloves (something with a high touch-point) as the test subject. The first method, using a steamer directly on the gloves, showed a “somewhat satisfactory effect in reducing viruses,” according to the report. The second method, steaming the gloves inside a heat-proof pouch, “showed that 99.99% of the viruses of interest were inactivated,” the report says.

“Steam can naturally deodorize and kill most germs and bacteria,” confirms Ari Hirsch, CEO and Founder of InstaSteam, whose unique hands-free clothing steamer uses a special garment bag and individual steaming “pods” to refresh clothing and linens.

Using a steamer, Hirsch adds, “is also a safer alternative for people during Covid, allowing a contactless solution to freshening up their clothing whether at home or traveling.”

Still, it’s important to note that while steam can be effective at disinfecting fabrics and surfaces, it won’t completely eradicate the coronavirus, and you should still heed CDC best practices and guidelines when it comes to safeguarding yourself — and your stuff — from Covid. Our suggestion: wipe down surfaces as much as possible with a good disinfectant, then follow it up with a blast of high-heat steam.

Steaming vs. Washing Machine

While tossing items into a washing machine will always be the most effective way of sanitizing your clothing and bedding, a steamer is a gentle alternative for things that can’t be soaked in water (I.e. furniture, pillows, and delicate shirts and sweaters). It can also be an alternative for items that can’t be rubbed and scrubbed.

Steaming vs. Ironing

As opposed to ironing, which uses a flat surface (a.k.a. a “heat plate”) to press against fabrics, a steamer never directly touches your items, with the steam being released from a few inches away.

Steaming often takes less time than ironing too, as the heat and even dispersion of steam can get the job done much quicker than moving an iron back and forth.

Keep in mind that some fabrics, like a thicker cotton or even denim, will still require an iron to completely get the creases out. And not all fabrics and materials can tolerate the heat from a steamer. Before steaming, make sure that your garment can withstand the high temperature.

What Are the Best Steamers to Buy Online?

We’ve rounded up some of the best steamers to buy online, from full-sized standing versions, to portable steamers you can take with you on the go.

1. Steamery

This Swedish brand makes one of the most popular steamers on the market and for good reason – the Steamery Cirrus No. 2 Steamer combines a minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic with serious cleaning and disinfecting power, thanks to a 90 ml water tank, grippy handle and a long 71-inch cord (about six feet). It’s light enough to travel with too.

Steamery says its steamer is safe to use on all fabrics, from silk to linen. We also like using it on pillows, mattresses and in usually hard-to-reach areas like seat cushions and (non-leather) car upholstery.

Steamery Cirrus No. 2 Steamer, $130, available at Verishop

2. Hilife Handheld Garment Steamer

This portable steamer is one of the best-selling steamers on Amazon, with a 4.4-star review (out of five) from 36,000 reviews. Taking a more traditional shape (compared to the Cirrus above), this Hilife steamer also offers more cleaning options, with a 240 ml water tank (enough for 15 minutes of steaming), 700W of power and a nine-foot cord.

This set includes the clothing steamer, one cup, one brush attachment, power cable and instruction manual.

Hilife Portable Garment Steamer, $24.99, available at Amazon

3. Rowenta IS9100 Precision Valet Commercial Steamer

Few brands are as trusted in the steaming and ironing space as Rowenta, and this standing steamer is used by everyone from celebrity stylists to hotel laundry attendants to help get rid of wrinkles, creases and smells. The professional-grade device delivers up to two-and-a-half hours of continuous steaming, thanks to a massive one-gallon water tank. More than 1550 watts of power ensure you get the job done in one go.

Rowenta says the steamer can heat up water in just 60 seconds, and the steam head design allows for even, consistent distribution. Adjust the pole as needed, depending on what you’re steaming. A built-in wand holder is super convenient, while a foot switch lets you retract the cord without having to pull and tug. What we like: a safety feature automatically turns the steamer off when it’s not in use.

Everything slides down and packs up for easy storage. This set includes the commercial-grade steamer, an adjustable pole, fabric brushes, steam head attachments and wheels for easy movement.

Rowenta IS9100 Commercial Steamer, $129.99, available at Amazon

4. Conair Turbo Extreme Handheld Steamer

Another top-rated steamer, this one from Conair boasts a 4.5-star rating from more than 3000 reviews. Conair says its steamer is safe to use on everything from clothing and textiles to upholstery, while killing 99.9 percent of germs, dust mites and bed bugs.

For a small steamer, the Conair Turbo Extreme lives up to its name with a whopping 1875 watts of power. The water tank holds just over 215 ml of water, for up to 20 minutes of continuous steaming.

What we like: this set includes a special 3-in-1 attachment that features a silicone band to pull fabric taut for more even results, a delicate fabric spacer to protect trims and fine fabrics, and a bristle brush that helps the steam get into thick and heavy fabrics with ease.

Conair Turbo Extreme Handheld Steamer, $52.02, available at Amazon

5. InstaSteam

For something completely different (but surprisingly effective), we like the InstaSteam system. Unlike traditional steamers, which require a physical unit with a bulky and heavy water tank, InstaSteam uses individual mineral pouches, a garment bag and a minute of your time.

To use: hang your garment inside the garment bag, then add water to the InstaSteam pod and insert the pouch into the garment bag. Zip it up and let the pouch get to work, releasing steam into the bag and towards your item of clothing. The company says everything will be fresh and clean within just a few minutes.

“As the garment and the steam are both contained inside the garment bag, the steam and heat are able to be properly distributed on the clothing, allowing most odors, germs, and bacteria to be removed throughout the entire garment,” says InstaSteam founder Ari Hirsch. “In addition, it can also be used on things other than clothing as long as it can fit and be hung inside the garment bag”

Our tip: add a few drops of your favorite scent or essential oil to the pouch to release a light misting of fragrance onto your garment while it’s steaming.

InstaSteam (Three Pods and Garment Bag), $19.99, available at Amazon

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