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Does Cotton Shrink in the Dryer? Causes & Prevention

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One of the biggest concerns that people have about new clothes is that they will shrink in the dryer. Clothes shrinking has been a concern since the modern dryer was invented. The clothes most susceptible to shrinking are made from cotton. Everyone says that cotton will shrink in the dryer, sometimes to comical levels. So, does cotton actually shrink in the dryer, or is that an urban legend? How much does cotton shrink if it shrinks at all?

The answer is yes; cotton does shrink in the dryer. However, it does not shrink as much as it used to. The idea that cotton clothing will shrink to child-size after one dry comes from the old days when cotton was untreated, and dryers were relatively new. High heat can cause cotton to shrink by a lot, but that rarely happens today, thanks to a number of modern considerations.

If you have cotton clothes, you still need to be aware of their potential to shrink in the dryer. But why does cotton shrink at all?

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What Causes Cotton to Shrink?

When cotton clothes are made, a lot of energy is put into the clothes. This energy and the production process cause the cotton strands and fibers to take on a lot of tension. This tension keeps the clothes in shape and is why new clothes are stiffer than well-worn clothes.

When cotton is subjected to high heat, either from a dryer or from hot water, the cotton loses some of this tension which causes it to shrink. Cotton shrinks worse than other fibers because it requires a lot of tension to be applied during the manufacturing process. When cotton is heated, it is extremely likely to contract because of the level of tension applied.

Imagine holding a piece of string between two fingers. When you pull the string tight, you put tension into the line. That is what new clothes are like. What happens when you release one end of the string? The line contracts. That is the shrinkage. That is the best way to imagine how and why cotton clothes shrink when subjected to high heat.

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Image By: stevepb, Pixabay

How Much Does Cotton Shrink in the Dryer?

Modern cotton will typically shrink up to 3% in the dryer. Modern cotton is treated to prevent the massive shrinking that used to occur in the past. New clothes today should not shrink more than 3% because the cotton is either preshrunk or has a chemical component that helps the cotton fibers keep their shape.

Untreated cotton or raw cotton can shrink as much as 20% in high heat. A shrinkage rate of 3% is enough to be noticeable and annoying, but a shrinkage rate of 20% is ruinous and can render clothes unwearable. The only clothes at risk of major shrinkage are 100% cotton that is untreated, and that was never preshrunk. Clothes like that are not as common as they used to be.

If you are curious about your clothes’ cotton content and treatment, check the tag. All clothes should have a tag letting you know what is in them and how to best care for them to prevent shrinkage.

How to Prevent Cotton Clothes from Shrinking?

The only surefire way to prevent cotton clothes from shrinking is to wash and dry them by hand. Hand wash the clothes with cold water and then put them on a drying rack. Drying cotton clothes on a drying rack will keep the high heat away from your clothes. The heat is what causes the cotton to shrink, and air-drying cotton clothes will guarantee that they will not shrink.

You can reduce the risk of shrinkage by washing your clothes in cold water in the washing machine and then using the lowest heat setting on your dryer. Even with the reduced temperatures, there is still a small chance that the cotton will shrink. If you don’t want to hand wash and air dry your cotton clothes, then set everything to the lowest setting for the second-best results.

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Image By: Zivica Kerkez, Shutterstock

Not All Cotton Will Shrink

If you are worried about your favorite cotton clothes shrinking after they come out of the dryer, it is important to know that not all cotton clothes will shrink. There are various mitigation efforts that manufacturers employ to prevent new clothes from shrinking after their first wash.

Some cotton clothes are blended with other materials to mitigate the shrinkage that cotton sometimes suffers. Many clothesmakers also pre-shrink their clothes now. That means that before the clothes hit the store shelves, they have been run through an industrial wash designed to cause the clothes to shrink to their maximum limit before they are shipped out. That means when you go to dry your clothes.

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Cotton does shrink in the dryer but now that everyone knows that there have been numerous steps taken to prevent shrinkage levels from exceeding 3%. Cotton is often mixed with other materials like polyester to create a cotton blend that is more robust. Pure cotton is often treated or preshrunk to prevent serious shrinkage by the end user. The result is that cotton still shrinks in the dryer, but it does not shrink as much as it used to.

Featured Image Credit: brizmaker, Shutterstock


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