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How to Soften a T Shirt? (Complete Guide)

How to Soften a T Shirt

Over time, t-shirts lose their softness and become rough and scratchy against your skin. Frequent washing, machine drying, and general wear and tear can cause the fibers to become stiff and rigid. While you can’t reverse the aging process entirely, there are many methods to soften up an old t-shirt and restore its soft, worn-in feel.

In this comprehensive guide, we will provide a variety of techniques to soften a t-shirt without causing damage. From using common household items like hair conditioner and tennis balls to chemical-free tricks like salt soaks and glycerin washes, you can find the right softening solution. With a few simple steps, you can rejuvenate an old, stiff t-shirt and make it comfortable enough to become a favorite once again.

What Causes a T-Shirt to Become Stiff and Scratchy?

Cotton t-shirts become less soft over time for a variety of reasons:

  • Fiber damage from washing – The agitation and friction inside a washing machine can cause cotton fibers to fray and break down. This physical degradation makes the fabric stiffer.
  • Heat damage from drying – The intense heat from machine drying causes the fibers to lose their elasticity and become rigid.
  • Detergent residue buildup – Over many wash cycles, residual detergents leave behind a chemical coating that stiffens the fabric.
  • Hard water mineral deposits – The minerals in hard water bind to the cotton fibers and leave behind a rough, stiff residue.
  • Wrinkle-resistant finishes – Some t-shirts are treated with a formaldehyde resin to create permanent creases. This chemical finish reduces softness.
  • Sun damage – The UV rays from the sun weaken and oxidize the cotton fibers, making them more brittle.
  • Loss of natural cotton oils – The natural oils in new cotton that provide softness are stripped away over repeated launderings.

While being cautious with how you wash and dry t-shirts can extend their soft life, all cotton fabrics will eventually lose their softness. Thankfully, it is fairly easy to rejuvenate an old, scratchy t-shirt at home.

Step-By-Step Instructions to Soften a Stiff T-Shirt

Here are 8 simple methods to soften up a rough, stiff t-shirt using common household items:

Method 1: Use Liquid Fabric Softener

Use Liquid Fabric Softener

Liquid fabric softener is purpose-made to soften clothes. It contains conditioning agents that coat the cotton fibers and make them feel ultra smooth.

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What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • Liquid fabric softener
  • Washing machine


  1. Wash the t-shirt in the washing machine with regular laundry detergent. Use a normal wash cycle.
  2. During the rinse cycle, pour 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup of liquid fabric softener directly into the washing machine drum.
  3. Allow the rinse cycle to complete fully to remove any traces of softener residue.
  4. Remove the t-shirt and either air dry or machine dry on a low heat setting to avoid damaging the newly softened fibers.

The fabric softener will make the t-shirt noticeably softer and smoother. Be careful not to use too much softener, as it can leave an oily finish on the fabric.

Method 2: Try a Vinegar Rinse

Try a Vinegar Rinse

White vinegar naturally softens fabric and removes soap residue. The acetic acid in vinegar acts as a mild fabric softener.

What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • 2 cups white vinegar
  • Washing machine


  1. Wash the t-shirt as normal with detergent. Use a regular wash cycle.
  2. During the rinse cycle, pour 2 cups of white vinegar directly into the washing machine drum.
  3. Allow the rinse cycle to complete fully to remove any vinegar odor.
  4. Remove t-shirt and air dry or tumble dry on low heat.

The vinegar softens the cotton fibers and restores softness. Be sure to rinse properly to eliminate any vinegar smell lingering on clothes.

Method 3: Use Hair Conditioner

Use Hair Conditioner

Hair conditioner contains softening and smoothing agents that work well on cotton fabric. The conditioning ingredients penetrate the fibers to soften.

What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • 1⁄4 cup hair conditioner
  • Washing machine


  1. Wash the t-shirt as normal with detergent. Use a regular wash cycle.
  2. During the rinse cycle, pour 1⁄4 cup of hair conditioner into the washing machine drum. Focus on using a conditioner with smoothing and softening properties.
  3. Allow the rinse cycle to complete fully to remove any residue.
  4. Remove the t-shirt and air dry.

The fabric will become super soft from the hair conditioner treatment. Avoid overuse as too much can leave a greasy finish.

Method 4: Dry With Tennis Balls

Dry With Tennis Balls

The agitation from tennis balls during machine drying physically softens the fabric.

What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • 2-3 tennis balls
  • Clothes dryer


  1. Wash and rinse the t-shirt as normal.
  2. Place 2-3 tennis balls into the dryer drum.
  3. Add in the damp t-shirt. Use a low or delicate dryer setting.
  4. Dry for 20-30 minutes until the t-shirt is mostly dry but still slightly damp.
  5. The tumbling motion of the balls softens the fibers. Avoid over-drying.

This mechanical softening technique works well for stiff t-shirts. The balls also help loosen up the fabric weave.

Method 5: Use Baking Soda

Use Baking Soda

Baking soda is mildly alkaline and helps remove soap residue that can stiffen clothes over time.

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What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • 1⁄2 cup baking soda
  • Washing machine


  1. Add the t-shirt to the washing machine drum on a normal cycle.
  2. Pour 1⁄2 cup of baking soda into the drum along with the regular laundry detergent.
  3. Allow the wash and rinse cycles to complete fully.
  4. Remove and air dry the t-shirt.

The baking soda softens by removing built-up detergent and minerals from the cotton fibers. Avoid using excess amounts that can leave a powdery residue.

Method 6: Soak in Salt Water

Soak in Salt Water

Salt acts as a natural fabric softener. Soaking the t-shirt helps the salt fully penetrate the fibers.

What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • Bowl or sink basin
  • Warm water


  1. Fill a bowl or sink basin with warm water.
  2. Add 2 tablespoons of table salt and stir to dissolve fully.
  3. Submerge the t-shirt in the salt water bath.
  4. Allow it to soak for 2-3 hours. The longer the better for full softening.
  5. Rinse the t-shirt thoroughly under cool fresh water to remove all the salt.
  6. Gently squeeze out excess moisture and lay flat or hang to air dry.

The salt soaking provides intense softening by coating the cotton fibers. Be sure to rinse out all salt after soaking.

Method 7: Soak in Glycerin

Soak in Glycerin

Glycerin is a natural humectant that provides deep softening when used as a fabric soak.

What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • 1⁄4 cup glycerin
  • Sink basin or bowl
  • Warm water


  1. Fill a sink or bowl with warm water.
  2. Add 1⁄4 cup of glycerin and stir to dilute fully.
  3. Submerge the t-shirt in the glycerin water bath.
  4. Allow to soak for 1-2 hours. The longer the soak, the softer the results.
  5. Rinse the t-shirt thoroughly under fresh water.
  6. Gently squeeze out excess moisture.
  7. Hang or lay flat to air dry fully.

Glycerin provides an intense all-over softening effect on cotton fabric. Make sure to rinse out fully after soaking.

Method 8: Use Liquid Silicone Spray

Liquid Silicone Spray

Silicone lubricant adheres to the fibers to make them smoother and less rough.

What you need:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • Silicone spray


  1. Fully wash and air dry the t-shirt.
  2. Lay the shirt flat on a hard surface like concrete or cardboard.
  3. Holding the bottle 6-8 inches away, lightly mist silicone spray over the front and back of the fabric.
  4. Use a gentle rubbing motion to work the silicone evenly across the entire surface.
  5. Allow to fully air dry.

The silicone coats each fiber to make the t-shirt ultra soft without leaving an oily residue. Use a very light misting to avoid oversaturating the fabric.

Getting the Most Effective Results

To get the softest results from these methods, here are some useful tips:

  • Soak or wash items for at least 1-2 hours for full softening
  • Use the proper amount of softening agent – don’t overdo it
  • Rinse extremely thoroughly after soaking to remove residues
  • Air dry or dry on low heat to avoid damaging newly softened fibers
  • Use lower temperature water when possible – hot water can re-stiffen fibers
  • Softening works best on natural fabrics like 100% cotton – polyester may not soften as well
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With some trial and error, you can find the right softening technique for your particular t-shirt. Combining methods like a vinegar rinse followed by hair conditioner works extremely well too. With a little time and effort, you can rejuvenate a stiff, scratchy t-shirt and make it soft and wearable again.

Common Questions About Softening T-Shirts

Still have some unanswered questions? Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:

Can you put a t-shirt in the dryer to soften it?

Yes, drying a t-shirt on low or delicate heat will help soften it by loosening up the fibers. Just avoid very high heat, which can re-stiffen the fabric. Tossing in a few tennis balls boosts this softening effect.

How long does the softening process take?

Most of these methods require 1-2 hours to fully penetrate the fabric, especially for soaking methods. Drying with tennis balls takes 20-30 minutes. Leaving items to soak overnight provides maximum softening.

Does boiling a t-shirt soften it?

Boiling is not recommended, as the high heat can damage cotton fibers and cause more stiffness. Low temperature soaking and washing methods are gentler and safer.

Can you put hair conditioner in a washing machine?

Yes, hair conditioner is safe to use in a washing machine rinse cycle. It provides great softening on cotton t-shirt material. Just avoid using excess amounts which can build up.

Should you wash a shirt before softening it?

It’s best to wash a t-shirt with detergent first. This removes any dirt, sizing treatments, or other coatings so that the softener solution can fully penetrate the fibers.


With a few simple techniques, you can restore the softness and comfort of an old favorite t-shirt. From common household ingredients to specialty solutions, there are many options to rejuvenate a stiff shirt.

While you may need to experiment to find the right method for a particular t-shirt, the results are well worth the effort. With a little TLC, you can save your ratty old t-shirts from the donation pile and make them wearable once again. So grab your softest tee and get ready to relax!

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