Dry cleaning is typically used on clothes and fabrics that cannot withstand the rigors of a standard home washer and dryer. But did you ever wonder what dry cleaning really does to your clothing? Read on to learn more about the process and follow a garment's journey from start to finish.
What Is Dry Cleaning?
Dry cleaning launders and cleans clothes and fabrics using a chemical solvent containing little or no water. A dry cleaning solvent cleans the surface of materials but does not penetrate the fiber like water does in a washing machine. It also prevents stretching and shrinking.
A History of Dry Cleaning Chemicals
Dry cleaning has been around since Roman times when ammonia was used to clean woolen togas to prevent any shrinking that happens when wool is exposed to hot water. Next, cleaners moved to petroleum-based solvents like gasoline and kerosene which proved to be highly flammable and dangerous to use.
By the 1930s cleaners began using perchloroethylene, commonly called "perc." This chlorinated solvent is highly effective and still used by many commercial cleaners today. Perc has a distinctive chemical odor, and is classified as carcinogenic to humans. In the 1990s the United States Environmental Protection Agency began to regulate dry cleaning chemicals and encourage commercial cleaners to use safer, more environmentally friendly solvents.
The Commercial Dry Cleaning Process
The commercial dry cleaning process is safer than its ever been. Dry cleaning isn't better or worse than washing your clothing, but it depends on the garment's fabric and if it needs a dry cleaning to preserve its look and shape. It begins in your local dry cleaning storefront when you drop off your dirty clothes. Today, most dry cleaners do not have the very large and expensive cleaning equipment on-site; many will transport your laundry to a central cleaning facility. This is more cost-efficient than having machines at every drop-off location. There are several steps for each item cleaned:
Every item is tagged with an identification number. Some cleaners use paper tags that are stapled or pinned to the garment. Others use an iron-on strip with a permanently assigned barcode for regular customers. Similar soiled garments from different customers are cleaned together and tagging ensures that your clothes are returned to you.
Before clothes are cleaned, they are inspected for items left in pockets, rips, tears, and missing buttons. These items are returned to customers and problems are noted as issues known before cleaning.
As part of the inspection process, the cleaner checks for stains on the clothes and treats them before the solvent cleaning process. If you know what caused a specific stain, it is extremely helpful to let the cleaner know in order to get the best results in the stain removal process. This is also the time a good cleaner removes or covers delicate buttons and trim to prevent damage.
Machine Dry Cleaning
Soiled clothes are loaded into a large drum machine and cleaned with a water-free chemical solvent. The clothes are gently agitated in the solution which causes soils to loosen. The solvent is then drained, filtered, and recycled and the clothes are "rinsed" in a fresh solvent solution to flush away any last soil remains.
The dry cleaning process works very well in removing oil-based stains thanks to the chemical solvent. However, other types of stains are not always removed effectively. Accordingly, all garments are post spotted to look for remaining stains. The stains are treated with steam, water, or even a vacuum to remove any remaining traces.
The final step includes getting the garment ready to wear. This includes steaming or pressing out wrinkles, reattaching buttons, or making repairs. Items are then hung or folded to return to the customer. The plastic bags provided are only there to help you get your clothes home without more stains. It's important to take them off right away or risk damage to your clothes from trapped moisture.
How to Get the Best Results From Your Dry Cleaner
Always Read the Labels
This one may seem obvious, but plenty of people pay no attention to the labels in their clothing, or even worse, tear them out completely. Your dry cleaner should always reference the labels before cleaning but you should be the first to call attention to any special care instructions or unique fabrics to ensure proper cleaning.
Don’t Try to Remove Your Own Stains
It is tempting to try to remove a stain from clothing ourselves. Avoid this temptation and get the garment right to your dry cleaner instead. You are much more likely to make it worse by pushing the oil, dye, or food deeper into the fabric, making it even more difficult or even impossible to remove.
Be Sure to Point out Any Stains During Drop-Off
Always be sure to point out and identify stains so they can be properly marked and pre-treated during the cleaning.
Point out Any Special Buttons or Embellishments
Some garments have delicate buttons or embellishments that require special care. Since you will probably deal with an associate who may not do the actual cleaning, point them out and ask if they can be protected or removed during cleaning. Ask if the items will be reattached as part of the service.
Make Special Care Requests up Front
Always be sure to highlight any stains, delicate fabrics, or embellishments at the time of drop off. Do not leave it to chance or simply assume all will be well during the dry cleaning process. Establishing a dialogue with your cleaner will give much better results that you and your clothes will appreciate.
Environmentally Friendly Dry Cleaning Options
If you want to bypass traditional dry cleaning chemicals, look for a green dry cleaner who can offer you one of the following services, but make sure you feel comfortable with any of these processes:
- Wet cleaning: Water, special detergents, and high-tech washers and dryers remove stains and clean your garments, but it may not be appropriate for all fabrics.
- Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning: Liquid and gas forms of carbon dioxide are used as non-toxic solvents in complex (and costly) cleaning machines that apply pressure to draw the carbon dioxide through fabrics to remove soil. There is no heat involved which also makes the process more gentle to fabrics.
- Silicon-based solvent: This solvent, also known as siloxane, is a chemical-free type of liquified sand that removes stains from fabrics. However, the manufacturing of the product may not be so green because it involves chlorine.
- DF-2000 hydrocarbon solvent: Though this method is touted as organic because the solvent is extracted from the earth, it is a petroleum-based product and may not be as green as you'd prefer.
How often do you need to dry clean your dry clean only clothing?
Unless you've spilled something on that piece of clothing, you can get away with wearing it at least three to four times before taking it to the dry cleaners.
Should you try to remove a stain on clothing that's dry clean only?
If there is a stain on a garment with a dry clean only label, then whatever you do, don't try to remove it yourself as you can make it worse, thus making it harder for the dry cleaner to get the stain out.
Can you use a clothes steamer on dry clean only clothing?
For those in-between times, freshen up your dry clean only garment by using a clothes steamer. They work well taking out those wrinkles and odors.