How To Wash Your Favorite Hat Without Ruining The Shape [Test Results]
March 7, 2022
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Everyone has a favorite hat. The problem with favorites is the more you wear something, the more it gets dirty. And those dark stains are not a good look.
Do you try to wash it and risk it losing its perfect shape and fit? There is reason to be worried: clean it the wrong way, and it’s never the same again.
We’ve done the research to give you the best advice possible so you don’t ruin your favorite baseball cap or hat. We even tested four different techniques– and you might be surprised by the results.
Yes, there are right (and wrong) ways to wash a hat. Spoiler alert: with a little effort, you can make your favorite hat look new again.
What types of hats can be washed?
Almost any kind of hat can be washed if you’re careful. The key is to be aware of the material and the structure, which will dictate the types of products you can use, the level of pressure you can use with a brush or cloth, and if you can soak with water or not.
Most hats are made from cotton, polyester, or cotton/poly blends, all of which can handle the methods we recommend here. Knit hats (like beanies, for example) can usually be washed in the laundry and then air-dried. Make sure you always read the tag first.
Note: Delicate fabrics like wool or silk should be treated differently. We’d recommend professional cleaning (especially if it’s your favorite).
For info about cleaning fabric, read our article Easy Stain Removal Hacks That Actually Work.
Be aware that there’s a lot of bad advice online. Advice that could ruin your hat. Internet myths and misinformation can spread fast, become gospel, and hang around for a while– long after being debunked. So let’s get those out of the way.
Can a hat be washed in the dishwasher?
Lots of websites tell you to wash your hat in the dishwasher, but we don’t recommend it. The inside of a dishwasher is a violent storm of water jets, harsh detergent, and hot steam that can ruin your favorite hat. Also, it doesn’t work great.
Of the four tests we did for this article, the dishwasher test was the least effective. While there will be some differences between dishwashers and dishwasher detergents, there’s no reason to think it will work as good as the other techniques we tested.
If you must: Place it in the top rack and remove it before the drying cycle. Better yet, get the Ballcap Buddy to protect the form of your cap. Its been a popular item for years, costs about 8 bucks and is designed to work in a dishwasher or washing machine.
Can a hat be washed in the washing machine?
You can wash your hat in the washing machine, but beware: there are lots of ways it can go wrong. Hot water, the weight of the laundry, the agitator (spinny middle thing), dyes, bleaches, and harsh detergents can all do a number on your favorite baseball cap.
Even Whirlpool doesn’t recommend it. Although this technique worked fairly well for washing a hat in our test, as far as removing the dirt, there were unintended consequences– like ruining the shape.
If you must: Use the cold water setting, delicates cycle, with like colors and don’t overload the washer. And never use chlorine bleach. Pretreat any heady soiled areas with a spray stain remover or detergent. And use hat cage like the Ballcap Buddy.
Can a hat be dried in the dryer?
Hats should never be put in the dryer. The heat combined with the tumble action can warp and shrink it into a misshapen mess. This is the number one thing you can do to ruin your hat. If you’ve tried it before, you already know this.
Can I use shampoo to wash a hat?
Yes. Since shampoo is made for washing oil out of hair, it can also remove body oil and other stains from a hat. It did well on our test (see results below) but doesn’t work quite as good as detergents and stain removers and it takes longer to fully rinse out.
The best way to wash your baseball cap or hat
Hand-washing is the safest and most effective technique by far. Pretreat the toughest areas with spray stain remover, soak in warm water and detergent or shampoo for about 30 minutes, then lightly work out the dirt with a soft brush, rinse, and let air dry.
That’s the answer in a nutshell. Keep reading to see our test results, get step-by-step instructions for washing your favorite hat, and learn general hat-washing tips.
Warning: Avoid soaking vintage baseball caps. (They might have a cardboard bill, which can warp or degrade if saturated with water– check by flicking the bill and listening to the sound). Instead, brush with cold water and detergent mix, blot with a damp cloth, and let air dry.
How long does it take to properly wash a hat?
Deep cleaning a hat will take less than an hour, including a 30-minute soak time. You can watch your favorite show while you do it. This doesn’t include drying time, which can take up to 24 hours. You can speed up that process with a fan, the sun, or a space heater.
Supplies you need for washing a hat
Here’s a simple supply list. You should have most of this stuff at home:
- Bucket, small tub, or sink. Clean last night’s leftovers out of the sink first.
- Laundry detergent or dish detergent. Liquid Tide or Dawn if you have them.
- Stain remover spray (optional). The best one is Oxi-Clean Max Force.
- Toothbrush or small, soft brush. Don’t plan on using the toothbrush again.
- Washcloth or small towel. Don’t use the nice one with the monogram on it.
- Small bowl or object to place the hat on. A balled-up T-shirt can work!
The hat-wash test
We always research our topics carefully to give you the best possible advice, and when we can, we test it ourselves. For this article, I ordered five new, identical baseball caps, got four of them equally dirty, then tested the four top hat-washing methods.
The hats we tested
The Yupoong 6-panel fitted baseball cap is one of our best-sellers, made from a poly-cotton blend fabric with a wool-like texture, with a Flex-Fit sweatband made of spandex. Its athletic, structured form is built for durability and shape retention. It comes in a wide selection of colors and features a large print area.
Getting the test hats dirty
The dirt that typically collects on hats is sweat stains around the headband that spreads onto the bill, the crown, the sides, and the back. This is difficult to recreate because it happens over time and multiple wears. Nobody got time for that. So here’s what I did.
To get our hats equally dirty for the test:
- Sprayed cooking oil onto the headband, underside of bill, and edges.
- Applied mud mixture (half-soil, half-water) randomly with a paintbrush.
- Sprayed plain water over the whole hat to allow the dirt to stick to it.
- Sprinkled dry dirt all over the hat and rubbed in a little bit.
- Sprayed more water to help set in the dirt.
- Rubbed some leftover dirt/oil from the tabletop for good measure.
- Left them to dry all night near a space heater to set in the stains.
The hat-washing methods
Four different techniques were tested:
- Hand-wash with laundry detergent, spray stain remover, air-dried.
- Hand-wash with shampoo, spray stain remover, air-dried.
- Washing machine with detergent, plus full dryer cycle.
- Dishwasher with standard detergent, full wash, and dry cycle.
Test 1: Hand wash with detergent, spray stain remover, and air-dried
Method: The hat was sprayed with OxiClean stain remover on the dirtiest areas, and then dunked in a tub of warm water and laundry detergent to soak for 30 minutes. Then it was scrubbed with a soft brush, rinsed, and air-dried on an upside-down bowl.
Results: The hat came out almost perfectly clean, with little to no trace of any of the dirt. The shape not only stayed intact but was improved because of the drying process.
The takeaway: Clearly the best method of the four we tested. The stain remover spray combined with soaking in the detergent seemed to do most of the work of removing the dirt. Brushing the rest out was quick and the soap rinsed out easily. This is the method we recommend.
Test 2: Hand wash with shampoo, spray stain remover, and air-dried
Method: The same steps as the hand-washing method above, except using shampoo rather than laundry detergent: stain remover spray first, then dunking in a tub of warm water with shampoo and letting sit for 30 minutes, then scrubbing with a soft brush, rinsing with water, and air drying.
Results: Shampoo worked surprisingly well, although we think the stain remover spray did a lot of the work. The shampoo created a lot of suds when scrubbing, and took about 10 minutes to thoroughly rinse out. Some faint stains were leftover after it dried.
The takeaway: Shampoo seems to work almost as well as detergent, but not quite. When people advocate for this method online, the logic is that shampoo is designed to remove oil from hair, therefore it should work great for body oil deposits on fabric (sweat stains), but that is also what detergent is designed for. We’d recommend this method if you’re worried about detergent being too harsh, or if you don’t have any on hand.
Test 3: Washing machine with detergent, spray stain remover, and dried in the dryer (normal cycle)
Method: I pretreated the tough areas with OxyClean spray and threw it in the washing machine with some other laundry. The detergent I used was a Tide Pod, and the setting was a lukewarm temperature wash (colors). After washing, I tossed the hat into the dryer along with the other laundry and ran it for a full cycle with the regular setting (around 60 minutes).
Results: The hat came out fairly clean, but there were still faint stains left on the fabric. The main problem was between the agitator of the washer and the heat of the dryer, it changed the shape of the hat and shrunk it slightly.
The takeaway: The washing machine method is only something we would recommended if used with a cap cage like the Ballcap Buddy, and air-dried rather than using the dryer.
Test 4: Dishwasher with standard detergent (full normal cycle)
Method: The hat was placed on the top rack of a dishwasher and ran on a normal cleaning cycle and drying cycle. The detergent used was a Cascade Pod.
Results: This method barely removed the dirt, leaving stains behind. This was the worst result of the four tests.
The takeaway: The dishwasher method is not recommended for any hats in any scenario at any time. We’re not sure how this became popular advice.
Hat wash test results: summary
Based on our test results, hand-washing after pre-treating and a soak with detergent is easily the best method, followed by handwashing with shampoo. Using a washing machine can get the hat fairly clean, but might ruin its shape in the process. Using the dishwasher doesn’t seem to work well at all.
Step-by-step: How to deep-clean an old, stained baseball cap
If you have an old, stained baseball cap that has seen its best days, but you can’t throw it out for nostalgic reasons and you were hoping to bring it back to life someday, here’s how to deep clean it:
Rinse the hat under warm water, fully saturating the fabric and rubbing away any loose dust and dirt. This will help the material absorb the stain cleaning pre-treatment.
Spray the entire hat with stain remover (we recommend OxyClean), concentrating on the bill, the headband, the edges along the backside, and any particularly stained areas.
Place the hat on an upside-down bowl and let sit for 10 minutes or more. If you don’t have a bowl, you can use a balled-up T-shirt, a balloon, or a mannequin head.
Fill a small tub or bucket with warm water and add about half a cup of laundry detergent, dish soap, or shampoo. Agitate. Dunk the hat into the mixture, agitating more and working it into the fabric, especially the seams.
Let the hat soak in the detergent and water mixture for 30 minutes or more. Make sure it’s completely submerged.
Scrub the hat lightly with a soft brush, working in the direction of the grain. Focus on the stained areas. Use a soft cloth around embroidery so you don’t damage it.
Rinse thoroughly under warm water until no more suds are visible. Wring out gently, avoiding the bill and any structured part, then blot with a dry towel, pressing into the fabric slightly.
Place the hat on an upside-down bowl to dry. You can also use a balled-up T-shirt or a balloon. You can speed up the drying process with a fan or a space heater placed at a distance.
Bonus method: Vinegar and baking soda to clean an old hat
This natural home remedy technique can be used instead of stain remover and detergent or combined with it. You may want to try this before or after the other method:
- In a small bowl, make a paste using 4 tablespoons of baking soda and a quarter cup of water.
- Apply it to the stains using a soft-bristled toothbrush.
- Rub in small circular motions.
- Allow the hat to sit for up to an hour.
- Spray with white vinegar.
- Give the stains another scrub.
- Rinse clean in cold water.
- Pat dry with a towel and then allow the hat to air dry completely on an upside-down bowl.
General hat-washing tips
Here is the best overall advice for washing baseball caps and other hats:
- Only baseball caps with plastic bills should be completely soaked.
- Hand-washing after soaking is the safest and most effective technique.
- Shampoo works well, but laundry detergent works better.
- Use stain remover spray on the dirtiest areas.
- Test stain removers on a small hidden area for fabric colorfastness.
- Only use bleach for white hats, and always diluted with water.
- Use a soft brush, and scrub lightly with the grain of the fabric.
- Be careful around embroidery, patches, or screen-printed areas.
- Rinse or re-dunk the hat as you go to remove brushed-out dirt.
- Use a toothbrush for small areas and between seams.
- Air-dry on a small upside-down bowl or a balled-up T-shirt.
- Use a fan, the sun, or a space heater (at distance) to speed up drying.
- Never put a hat in the dryer or expose it to direct heat.
Get some new hats!
When you can’t get the stains out, or you ruined your hat by washing it the wrong way, it’s time for some new headwear. Browse our selection of hats and customize them with your logo or brand. Embroidery is the way to go!
And now you have no excuses not to keep your hats clean.
About the Author
A graduate of the Multimedia program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Imri Merritt is an industry veteran with over 20 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.