What is Dry Cleaning?

what is dry cleaning
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What is Dry Cleaning?

The term dry cleaning is a bit of a misnomer. Dry cleaning refers to cleaning clothes and fabrics using a chemical solvent rather than water. The cleaning is done with a liquid but the solvent contains little or no water and does not penetrate the fibers like water does in a washer. The dry cleaning process is typically used on clothes and fabrics that can not withstand the rigors of a standard home washer and dryer and eliminates the need for more time-consuming hand washing.

The Commercial Dry Cleaning Process

The commercial dry cleaning process begins in your local dry cleaning storefront when you drop off your dirty clothes. Today, most dry cleaners do not have equipment on-site; but rather 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:

  1. Garment Tagging: 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 bar code for regular customers. Similar soiled garments from different customers are cleaned together and tagging insures that your clothes are returned to you.
  2. Garment Inspection: Before clothes are cleaned, they are inspected for items left in pockets, rips and tears or missing buttons. These items are returned to customers and problems are noted as issues known prior to cleaning.
  1. Stain Pre-treatment - As part of the inspection process, the cleaner checks for stains on the clothes and treats them prior to the solvent cleaning process. This is also the time a good cleaner removes or covers delicate buttons and trim to prevent damage.
  2. 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 and recycled and the clothes are "rinsed" in fresh solvent to flush away any last remains of soil.
  1. Post Spotting - 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. So, all garments are post spotted to look for remaining stains. These are treated with steam, water or even a vacuum to remove any traces remaining.
  2. Finishing - The final step includes getting the garment ready to wear or use by steaming or pressing out wrinkles, reattaching buttons or making repairs. Items are then hung or folded to return to the customer. NOTE: Those plastic bags are only there to help you get your clothes home without more stains. TAKE THEM OFF or risk damage to your clothes!

Commercial Dry Cleaning Chemicals

Dry cleaning has been around since Roman times when ammonia was used to clean woolen togas to prevent 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 or tetrachloroethylene, a chlorinated solvent. It is a highly effective cleaner and is still used by many commercial cleaners today. It has a distinctive chemical odor. Referred to as perc, it 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.

Green Dry Cleaning is based on a carbon dioxide detergent system and cleaning machines that apply pressure to draw liquid carbon dioxide through fabrics to remove soil. There is no heat involved which also makes the process more gentle to fabrics.

Want to Know More About Dry Cleaning?

Can I dry clean at home? DIY Dry Cleaning

The label says dry clean only; do I have to follow that?  Dry Clean or Wash

What do those dry clean symbols on the label mean?  Dry Cleaning Labels Your Cleaner Needs

Dry cleaning is so expensive!  Six Ways to Save Money on Dry Cleaning

Do you know a good cleaner?  How to Find The Best Dry Cleaner in Your Town

What is Green Dry Cleaning?  Learn About the Environmentally Friendly Dry Cleaning Process