What Really Happens to Your Clothes at the Dry Cleaner?

dry-cleaned garment

The Spruce / Michele Lee

The term dry cleaning is a bit of a misnomer. In the United States, the dry cleaning process refers to cleaning clothes and fabrics by using a chemical solvent that contains little or no water. While cleaning the surface of fabrics, the dry cleaning does not penetrate the fibers like water does in a washing machine.

Dry cleaning is typically used on clothes and fabrics that cannot withstand the rigors of a standard home washer and dryer. This process preserves the desirable qualities of many fabrics and helps to prevent shrinking and stretching. It also eliminates the need for more time-consuming hand washing. Most dry cleaners also offer wet cleaning for washable items like starched shirts, slacks, and household linen.

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.

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.

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 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:

  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 barcode for regular customers. Similar soiled garments from different customers are cleaned together and tagging ensures that your clothes are returned to you.

  2. Garment Inspection

    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.

  3. Stain Pre-treatment

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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. 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.

  6. Finishing

    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.

garment tags

The Spruce / Michele Lee

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 

    When we spill something on our clothes or notice a stain, it is tempting to try to remove the stain ourselves. Avoid this temptation and get it 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 a desk clerk that doesn't 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.

reading the garment label

The Spruce / Michele Lee

  • 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 dry clean only clothing of yours, 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.