Today’s dryers have so many new settings and options steam refresh! downloadable cycles! it’s easy to overlook one that’s been around a long time: Permanent Press.

This familiar but vaguely old-fashioned-sounding cycle is still found on some dryers manufactured today, because permanent press textiles are still wildly popular for their ease and sharp looks.

What is Permanent Press? What does this setting actually do? To get to the bottom of this mystery, I talked to Haven Polich, product manager at Asko, a Scandinavian-inspired laundry and kitchen appliance brand. Here’s what she had to say.

About the Expert

Haven Polich is a product manager at Asko luxury kitchen and laundry appliances.

What Does Permanent (Perm) Press Mean?

Permanent press alludes to ironing, or “pressing,” your clothes. “The cycle was originally named as a special cycle for permanently pressed clothes, which are chemically treated to resist wrinkles,” Polich says.

Cotton and other natural fibers tend to wrinkle. So before permanent press finishes and synthetic fibers came along in the middle of the last century, people wore clothing that needed ironing. Lots and lots of ironing.

If you haven’t done it, ironing is hard work. Scientists figured out adding chemicals like formaldehyde and its derivatives to cotton made it more difficult for wrinkles to form. Less ironing! Now people just needed a good way to wash these new fabrics.

As permanent press finishes gained popularity in the 1950s, Polich says, “It became commonplace for washing machines to include a special cycle just for this clothing.”

But let’s back up. Formaldehyde? Isn’t that for embalming dead bodies? Are we still wearing clothing doused with this toxic chemical?

Unfortunately, yes, and it’s not just permanent press fabrics.

Today’s permanent (aka “durable”) press clothing uses a safer derivative of formaldehyde called dimethylol dihydroxyethyleneurea, which significantly reduces the release of formaldehyde onto your skin or into the air.But thousands of regular textile garments jeans, underwear, even baby clothes use formaldehyde somewhere in their processing.

Studies have shown that even “eco-friendly” clothing contains this chemical, but washing your clothes before the first use brings the levels down to within legal limits. It can still cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals, and manufacturers generally aren’t required to label the finishing process they use.

What Does Perm Press Mean on a Washer?

Gentler spin and shorter wash times, according to Polich. “The permanent press cycle is slower, with gentler agitation than the normal cycle, and it typically lasts around 30 minutes,” she says.

First, clothes go through a warm-water wash before the temperature switches to cold for the rinse cycle. Polich says this cold-water rinse releases the wrinkles.

Permanent press washer cycles were created in response to treated “wash-and-wear” fabrics. But Polich says the cycle works for multiple materials, including synthetics like naturally wrinkle-resistant polyester, cotton-poly blends and natural fibers that wrinkle easily (like linen).

What Does Perm Press Mean on a Dryer?

“Typically, the permanent press cycle on a dryer uses less heat than a regular cycle,” Polich says. Less heat means it’s gentler on clothes and can reduce wrinkles. Permanent press cycles are also shorter than normal cycles. Polich says for wrinkle control, the lowest heat and the shortest amount of time are generally best.

Permanent press settings differ from brand to brand, but the general idea is low or moderate heat for the bulk of the drying, finished with a cool down. Use this setting for “clothes that wrinkle or shrink easily, as well as clothes with bright colors,” Polich says, because the lower heat also prevents fading. Always remove clothes promptly for best wrinkle-free results.

Do They Still Call It Permanent Press?

Sometimes.

If you’re standing there looking at your washer or dryer going “mine doesn’t say permanent press,” don’t worry. Today’s casual, athleisure-driven culture means many of us have few if any clothes that need regular ironing. That’s why Polich says many manufacturers have moved away from this terminology.

Instead, look for words like “casual,” “easy care” or any variation of the word “wrinkle,” as in Asko’s Steam Wrinkle Care. Polich says newer washers and dryers feature advanced settings to really drill down on specific laundry needs, and they often have intuitively named cycles. Use them!

But check your clothing labels first. The label will help you choose the right cycle, no matter what it’s named, Polich says. And that will help your clothes last longer.

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