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29 Nov 2019

Why you need to clean your iron regularly (yes, really!)

If you want to avoid spending more time than you need to at the ironing board, make sure your iron is in tip-top condition

Ironing is one of the nation's most-hated tasks and it doesn't get any easier when your iron becomes clogged up with limescale over time.

Even the best irons become less efficient after several months of use, producing less steam and making it harder (and more time-consuming) to remove stubborn creases.

If you live in a hard-water area, this could happen even more quickly - to the point you may think you need to replace your iron.

Fortunately, most irons will dramatically improve after a quick clean. So doing this regularly could save you time and money in the long run.

Take a look at our best steam irons to find out which models are better at withstanding limescale build-up.

Why do irons produce less steam over time?

If you've noticed that your iron is gradually producing less steam, it's probably due to limescale build-up blocking the steam vents.

Limescale (a white, chalky material) forms over time as a result of water evaporating from the inner surfaces of your iron. If you live in a hard-water area, you may find that this builds up quite quickly, especially if you fill your iron straight from the tap.

What causes hard water in parts of the UK?

Rainwater is naturally 'soft'. When it falls in areas with lots of porous rock, such as limestone, water passes through the rock, picking up minerals such as calcium and magnesium. By the time it, eventually, reaches our water supplies, it becomes hard.

If rainwater falls on non-porous rock such as slate or granite, it runs over rather than through the rock, meaning it stays soft.

Hard water has a high mineral content. As the map below shows, some parts of the UK have much harder water than others.

How we test for limescale build-up

Limescale will build up in even the best irons; what matters is how well their cleaning programs remove the scale.

In our steam iron testswe hook each iron up to our custom rig. The iron steams continually for two hours, then cools down for 40 minutes. We repeat this process for 48 hours, simulating a year's worth of use, and note the difference in the amount of steam produced at the start and the end.

We then descale the iron according to the instructions in its manual, and measure the steam rate again. This lets us know which cleaning programs are effective and which ones hardly make any difference.

In most cases, we see a massive decrease in steam output after our 48 hour test period, followed by an increase after the iron has been descaled.

With the best steam irons, steam levels are restored to their original output (or even higher). With lower-scoring models, we often see little-to-no difference.

Find out which models to avoid - see our Don't Buy steam irons.

The importance of cleaning your iron regularly

Cleaning your iron on a regular basis will prevent chalky limescale deposits from building up and blocking its steam vents.

Good levels of steam make ironing easier, enabling the soleplate to glide across fabrics rather than getting caught and snagging.

If you don't clean your iron frequently, you risk ruining delicate items or permanently staining clothes due to a build-up of sticky residue on the soleplate.

You could also end up with chalky white deposits on your garments, which can be difficult to brush out. These will usually require you to pop your clothes back in the washing machine before you can wear them again.

Taking a few moments to thoroughly descale your iron could save you a lot of time and hassle in the long run.

From the best way to clean your iron's soleplate to how to remove burn fabric - we show you the right way to clean an iron

The most effective ways to descale your iron

Self-cleaning programs

Most irons will come with some sort of self-cleaning program, but as our tests have proven, these aren't always totally effective.

If your chosen iron or steam generator does have a program, try it first and see if it works. Check the instruction booklet to find out exactly how to run the self clean - usually it's just a case of selecting the right program and leaving it to do its job.

Anti-limescale cartridges

Some irons come with anti-limescale (or anti-calc) cartridges, which help to descale the water in the tank as you iron. These aren't attached to the water tank and can be removed.

You'll need to replace these cartridges yourself, usually around every three months, to make sure your iron is producing the maximum amount of steam.

Check the instruction manual to find out exactly how to do this. You can usually buy spare cartridges direct from your iron's manufacturer.

Limescale collectors

A limescale collector is a small rod or container that absorbs the limescale inside your steam iron.

All you have to do is take this out and rinse it every few months to keep your iron free from limescale.

If you live in a hard-water area, or iron more than three times a week, you should rinse the collector once a month.

Manually descaling

You should only manually descale your iron or steam generator if it doesn't already use a descaling system, as otherwise you could risk damaging it.

Step 1: Empty the water tank, rinse it under the tap, then fill it to the maximum fill level with equal parts water and vinegar.

Step 2: Turn the iron on to the highest setting and leave it on for four minutes (pressing the steam button a few times).

Step 3: Switch the iron off and leave it for 30 minutes.

Step 4: Empty the water/vinegar mix out, rinse the water tank, then fill it again with clean water.

Step 5: Take a clean cloth, turn on the steaming function and iron the cloth for three minutes.

We reveal the best steam generator irons you can buy.

Tips to reduce steam drop-off

  • The best way to prevent steam drop-off due to limescale build-up is to stop using hard water in your iron - try a water filter if you live in a hard water area.
  • Empty the water tank regularly - ideally every time you finish ironing - and refill as needed. Otherwise, the water could turn stagnant and evaporate much more slowly, causing lime deposits to form.
  • Iron your clothes at the correct temperature. If the thermostat on your iron is turned up too high, small bits of dust can melt on the soleplate, blocking the steam holes and allowing limescale to form.
  • Wipe the soleplate down after every use. This removes any residue that could otherwise lead to scale formation.

Need a new ironing board? We'll help you choose the best ironing board.