What Really Happens to Your Clothes at the Dry Cleaner?

Cleaning & OrganizingLaundryLaundry How-TosByMary Marlowe Leverette Mary Marlowe LeveretteMary Marlowe Leverette is one of the industry's most highly-regarded housekeeping and fabric care experts, sharing her knowledge on efficient housekeeping, laundry, and textile conservation. She is also a Master Gardener with over 40 years' experience; writing for over 20 years.Learn more about The Spruce'sEditorial ProcessUpdated on 02/28/22Reviewed byRhea Mehta Reviewed byRhea MehtaRhea Mehta, PhD, is an award-winning healthcare innovator and toxicologist who for the past decade has worked to empower people to lead healthier lives, starting in their homes. Rhea holds a PhD in Toxicology, with over 15 scientific publications, and a certificate in integrative health coaching. Learn more about The Spruce'sReview Board

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.

What Really Happens to Your Clothes at the Dry Cleaner?

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:

How to Get the Best Results From Your Dry Cleaner

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