Does Cotton Shrink In The Wash? Here’s The Truth

Cotton is one of the most durable and comfortable fibers used in clothing, bedding, and fabrics. However, while cotton has many advantages over synthetic fibers, it has one major drawback: it is prone to shrinking. 

Cotton shrinks in the wash when exposed to high temperatures. Regular exposure to hot water or high dryer temperatures may cause permanent shrinkage. Pure cotton can shrink up to 20 percent, while preshrunk cotton can reduce in size by 5 percent or more when exposed to heat.

In this article, you’ll learn why and how cotton shrinks in the wash and how much you can expect your cotton clothing to shrink.

This article also provides instructions on how to wash 100% cotton without subjecting it to shrinkage, as well as how to unshrink cotton if you make a mistake during laundering. Read on to learn more.

Does Cotton Shrink in the Wash?

Cotton shrinks in the wash when exposed to hot water during the wash cycle or tumble-drying garments on high heat. Regularly exposing cotton to high heat can cause permanent shrinkage as it irreversibly damages the natural fibers.

Cotton is a natural fiber that has been used to make textiles and clothing for centuries. It is renowned for its softness, breathability, and absorbency. However, these very same qualities also make cotton highly susceptible to damage from heat.

In preparation for thread and yarn production before being used for clothes, tension is applied to cotton fibers through stretching, pulling, and twisting. This process separates the fibers’ natural connections, spreading the fibers further apart.

When you apply heat to these fibers, the tension within the connections is released. Fibers move tightly back together, reverting back to their original size. This is the cause of cotton shrinkage.

How Much Does 100% Cotton Shrink When Washed?

Fabrics made with 100% cotton can shrink up to 20 percent when washed in hot water or dried in high-temperature settings. Even preshrunk cotton garments may reduce in size by up to 5 percent when exposed to hot water or high temperatures.

Contrary to popular belief, preshrunk cotton is not shrink-proof. It is cotton that has been treated and previously exposed to high temperatures to reduce the amount of future shrinkage.

Does Cotton Shrink Every Time You Wash?

Cotton doesn’t shrink after every wash cycle, even if you use hot water every time. After the first laundering using heat, the fibers revert back to their natural state and size. Fibers may still tighten over time after heat exposure, though shrinkage is minimal compared to the first wash.

How Do You Wash 100% Cotton and Not Shrink?

Wash 100% cotton and prevent shrinkage by using cold water, never hot. When possible, opt for preshrunk cotton instead of pure cotton to reduce shrinkage by up to 15 percent. Always read clothing labels carefully before laundering. Air dry or use a dryer at the lowest temperature.

Many people prefer using high heat settings, as they don’t feel their clothes are clean enough after laundering garments in cold water. While cold washes or the delicate cycle are best for preventing shrunken clothing, warm water is also acceptable. Cotton typically fares well in warm water as long as you’re mindful of the temperature settings.

It’s hot water that causes the release of tension in natural cotton fibers. If you must wash in warm water, consider alternating between warm and cold washes for best results and minimal shrinkage.

How Do You Unshrink Cotton?

You can unshrink cotton garments by filling a tub with warm water. Add a cup of conditioner, and agitate the water with your hand. Put the cloth in the tub and let it soak for half an hour. Remove the item and wring out the excess water. Lay it flat and stretch it back into shape. Let it air dry.

Gentle conditioners are best for stretching cotton, as they don’t add any harsh chemicals to the fibers that may alter them further. Gentle conditioners simply soften the fibers enough to allow for a better stretch, making the garment easier to manipulate back into shape.

That said, remember that sometimes, it may be impossible to unshrink cotton. This is usually the case for cotton that’s been exposed to hot water and high temperatures repeatedly over an extended period. In that case, you’re better off recycling the garment than go through the hassle of attempting to stretch it, as the fibers will shrink right back down to size.

When stretching cotton clothing, follow these tips:

  • Pull the fabric in every direction and in every area. Working in only one specific area or direction may cause the garment to look awkward or end up ill-fitting once it dries.
  • Use both hands to gently stretch the garment. Don’t tug too hard, as you don’t want to tear a hole in your clothes. Work slowly and meticulously from the center outward. Flip the clothing over and stretch the back, too.
  • Once you’ve finished stretching your item of clothing, use heavy objects (i.e., books, candles, etc.) to keep it extended as it dries. Failure to do so may result in the fabric going back to its shrunken size as the water evaporates. The goal here is to increase tension in the fibers again.

Restretching the fibers may compromise the integrity of the cotton, making it more susceptible to shrinkage or damage in the future. Therefore, after achieving success through stretching, make sure to avoid using hot water or heat to prevent shrinkage from happening again.


Cotton is durable, soft, and comfortable, which is why it’s used in a variety of garments. Unfortunately, this fiber is prone to shrinkage.

When laundering cotton, take special care to avoid the use of heat to avoid ruining your clothes and making them too small to wear. If you make a mistake, there are ways you can attempt to unshrink cotton clothing, though it’s not a guaranteed fix.

For best results when caring for cotton clothes, use cold or warm water and never dry garments using high temperatures.

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