How to Air-Dry Clothes the Right Way, According to Laundry Experts

Updated: May 28, 2024

Want to keep your wardrobe looking brand-new? Step away from the dryer and learn how to air-dry clothes correctly.

When it comes to doing laundry, one of your most important decisions involves figuring out whether to air-dry an item or toss it into the dryer. After all, one mishap and you might be left with a sweater that’s shrunk to half its size or a gorgeous silk blouse that’s no longer recognizable. But air-drying isn’t as easy as it may seem: Do it wrong and you could end up with a smelly, wrinkled or misshapen garment. It’s essential to learn how to air-dry clothes the right way.

Reader’s Digest spoke with two laundry professionals—Jennifer Ahoni, a fabric scientist at Tide, and Rechelle Balanzat, the founder of Juliette, a dry-cleaning service based in New York City—to get the lowdown on this old-school drying method. Ahead, they’ll tell you exactly what you need to know about air-drying, from which items require this gentler method to the common mistakes to avoid, so your clothing stays in tip-top shape for as long as possible.

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About the experts

  • Jennifer Ahoni is a principal scientist at Tide. She specializes in fabric-care science and has a background in research and development.
  • Rechelle Balanzat is a dry-cleaning specialist with more than 10 years of experience. She’s the founder of Juliette, a dry-cleaning service based in New York City.

Is it better to air-dry or machine-dry clothes?

clothes in dryerSViktoria/getty images

Laundry-care experts generally agree that it’s better to air-dry vs. machine-dry. According to Balanzat, air-drying reduces wear and tear on your garments, prevents shrinkage, minimizes color fading and ultimately helps ease concerns about ruining clothing. In a dryer, on the other hand, garments are subjected to extended high heat, as well as the friction that occurs when they’re tumbled against one another in the drying barrel. Along with helping preserve your clothing, air-drying can also save on electricity, which is better for your wallet and the environment.

All that said, machine-drying often wins out because it’s so convenient. Machines reduce overall drying time (your clothes can be dry in less than an hour vs. a full day), often take up less space than clotheslines and drying racks, and don’t rely on weather or airflow to dry. Even if you do own a dryer and use it regularly, though, air-drying is required for certain garments.

Which clothes should always be air-dried?

sorting through clothesKinga Krzeminska/Getty Images

Your first step should always be to look at your item’s care label. The instructions you’ll find there aren’t arbitrary—they are determined by the manufacturer based on the garment’s fibers, weave and any finishes applied (as in the case of athletic wear or flame-retardant garments). But beyond that, the following garments should really stay out of the dryer.

  • Delicate fabrics: Silk, wool, cashmere and lace are prone to shrinking or stretching when exposed to heat. “Air-drying these fabrics helps preserve their shape and texture,” Balanzat says. While you can sometimes reshape a garment that’s been shrunk, it’s unlikely to feel or wear the same as it did before. And in some cases, machine-drying can irreparably damage the garment. 
  • Knitwear: “Items like sweaters and knits, which are prone to stretching, are often recommended to be air-dried,” Ahoni says.
  • Dark or vibrant colors: The heat of a dryer breaks down a garment’s dye, which will eventually result in color fading.
  • Activewear: “Performance fabrics like Spandex and Lycra found in athletic wear can degrade when exposed to high heat,” Balanzat says. “Air-drying helps preserve their elasticity and moisture-wicking properties.”
  • Embellished items: Sequins, beads or other embellishments may become damaged or detached in a dryer.

When in doubt—or if you cannot find guidance on a care label—both Balanzat and Ahoni recommend air-drying your garments.

How to air-dry clothes

Your air-drying technique will depend on your setup, but the supplies listed below will give you the flexibility to air-dry your clothes according to your space and needs. “Whether you prefer the convenience of a drying rack indoors or the freshness of outdoor air-drying on a clothesline, having the right tools makes the process efficient and effective,” says Balanzat. You may even want to change things up based on the item, the weather or the day. Here are some general supplies to keep on hand, along with step-by-step directions for how to air-dry clothes.

Supplies you’ll need

  • Clothespins
  • Hangers
  • Drying rack
  • Clothesline
  • Mesh laundry bag
  • Ventilated space

Step 1: Remove excess moisture

If you’ve hand-washed the garment or it’s very wet after a cycle in the washing machine, gently press or squeeze out excess water, says Ahoni. Make sure not to wring the garments too aggressively, since this can stretch or damage the fibers.

Step 2: Shake out wrinkles

A major way to prevent unwanted creases and crumples is to give your garment a gentle shake before hanging it or laying it flat to air-dry. “This helps clothes dry more smoothly and reduces the need for ironing or steaming afterward,” says Balanzat. Simply hold up the garment with both hands and gently wiggle it back and forth a few times. You can also use your hands to smooth out wrinkles; lay the garment flat, smooth, and then hang to dry or place on a drying rack.

Step 3: Hang or lay garments properly

Woman hanging clean laundry on drying rack in bathroom, closeupLiudmila Chernetska/Getty Images

Whether you’re hanging clothes or laying them flat to dry, make sure to space them out so there’s enough room between each item for adequate airflow. Balanzat says that overcrowding can prolong drying time and cause mildew to form. “Position drying racks or clotheslines in areas with good airflow, such as near open windows or doors,” she advises. “Cross-ventilation helps speed up drying time and prevents clothes from developing a musty smell.”

As for which items to hang vs. lay flat when air-drying, Balanzat recommends the following.

Hang

Use clothespins or a wood/plastic hangers to hang items to dry. Wire hangers can leave creases, stretch fabrics and stain garments with rust.

  • Shirts and blouses
  • Pants and trousers
  • Dresses and skirts
  • Towels and linens

Lay flat

Items should ideally lay over a vented drying rack to allow ample airflow.

  • Delicate knits and sweaters
  • Undergarments and lingerie
  • T-shirts and casual tops

Step 4: Reshape delicate items

“When air-drying delicate items like sweaters or knits, reshape them while damp to maintain their original silhouette,” Balanzat says. “To do this, gently stretch sleeves, collars and hems back into shape to prevent misshaping as they dry.”

Step 5: Flip and rotate

woman hanging clean wet towels on drying rack outdoorbrizmaker/Getty Images

Periodically flip and rotate clothes while they’re drying to ensure even drying and prevent creases from setting in. This is especially important for thicker fabrics like towels or jeans. How often you do this depends on the garment and airflow, but a good rule of thumb is to rotate or flip items every 30 minutes to an hour.

Step 6: Check for dryness, and remove

Test clothes for dryness before removing them from the drying rack or clothesline. Simply feel the fabric between your fingers to see if it’s dry to the touch, paying special attention to thicker areas like seams and folds. Leaving clothes hanging or laying flat for too long isn’t the end of the world. However, it can cause creases, stiffness and potentially some distortion, so it’s best to put clothes away as soon as they’re dry.

Pro tip
If drying white or light-colored garments outdoors, take advantage of direct sunlight. Sunlight acts as a natural bleach and helps brighten whites while also aiding in the removal of stains and odors. If you’re drying bright or dark colors, though, hang them in the shade to prevent fading.

How long does it take for clothes to air-dry?

It may take as little as a few hours or up to a full day for garments to air-dry. “Conditions such as humidity, temperature and air circulation in a room, as well as the fabric properties—such as garment thickness or how damp it is to start—all impact how long clothing takes to air-dry,” Ahoni says.

Thinner garments or moisture-wicking pieces—like T-shirts, towels or activewear—dry far more quickly then dense items like knitwear or jeans. Also, high levels of airflow or ventilation will allow a garment to dry more quickly. Those who live in a dry climate versus humid climate will also have a shorter dry time.

How do you air-dry clothes without them smelling?

fan on a dresser next to a plantTim M Lanthier/getty images

A mildewed, musty smell can occur when you air-dry clothing if there’s poor ventilation or airflow and it takes extra long for the garment to dry. According to Balanzat, the key to preventing this from happening is to press out excess moisture before air-drying and to space out your items in a well-ventilated area.

“Also avoid drying clothes in humid or damp environments, such as basements, as this can contribute to mildew growth and musty odors,” she adds. Ahoni additionally recommends opening a window, running a fan or raising the thermostat to help improve drying time and prevent mildew smells.

Pro tip
If a mildew-y smell occurs, you’ll need to rewash the garment. Add 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle to help cut through the odor, and make sure to properly ventilate the item while air-drying the next time around.

FAQs

close up of clothes pin and laundry drying on a rackKinga Krzeminska/Getty Images

What is the fastest way to air-dry wet clothes?

The keys for speed include removing as much excess moisture as possible, having enough room between garments and drying them in a well-ventilated space, Balanzat says. Warm temperatures and low humidity levels can also expedite the drying process. When drying indoors, you can optimize room conditions by making sure the room is warm, opening windows and turning on a fan and/or heater. When air-drying garments outside, you can place white items in the sun to speed up dry time.

Does air-drying cause mold?

Only if garments don’t dry quickly enough. This can happen if the damp clothing absorbs moisture in the air and creates an environment that’s conducive to mold development. To minimize the chance of this happening, improve air circulation by turning on fans or opening windows. If mold is a recurring issue, try adding a dehumidifier in your drying area, or choose an alternative drying method during especially humid weather. If you ever notice mold on your clothing, make sure to thoroughly inspect and clean your drying space to remove spores.

How do you air-dry clothes and make them soft?

Clothes can feel slightly stiff after air-drying due to overcrowding, exposure to the elements and lack of movement (not rotating/flipping/shaking). If this happens, Balanzat says you can briefly toss them in the dryer on a low heat setting with a damp towel. Let the dryer run for five minutes to soften garment without risking shrinkage or color fade. You can also use a fabric softener in your wash cycle.

Why trust us

At Reader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts. For this piece on how to air-dry clothes, Wendy Rose Gould tapped her experience as a home and cleaning writer, and then Mary Marlowe Leverette, a fabric-care, stain-removal and laundry expert with more than 40 years of industry experience, gave it a rigorous review to ensure that all information is accurate and offers the best possible advice to readers. We also relied on reputable primary sources, verified all facts and data and backed them with credible sourcing, and we will revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies.

Sources:

  • Jennifer Ahoni, principal scientist for Proctor & Gamble’s Tide; email interview, Feb. 20, 2024
  • Rechelle Balanzat, dry-cleaning specialist and founder of Juliette; email interview, Feb. 20, 2024