Explained: How Does Dry Cleaning Work?

Doing laundry is an everyday household chore that most people hate. Fortunately, it has become relatively easy with the washing machines and tumble dryers, we all have at our disposal. Βut what about clothes that we cannot toss in the washer to be washed?

A customer picking up her dress from the dry cleaner's

We all have a silk shirt, a dress, a cashmere suit, or a leather jacket in our wardrobe! You can’t even hand wash such types of clothes. So, the big question is… How can we clean clothes like that? Fortunately, there is a way, and it’s called dry cleaning! I’m sure you’ve heard it before, and you’ve probably tried it already. But do you think you know everything about it?

What is dry cleaning?

Dry cleaning has been known since ancient times. In simple terms, it’s a way of cleaning your clothes without using water and detergent. So, forget about wet cleaning and how it’s done! It’s called dry because clothes aren’t soaked in soapy water. The laundry is washed in dry-cleaning solvents, which also contain a detergent to remove the stains.  As soon as clothes are clean, they’re pressed to look perfect. 

Up to the 1990s, dry cleaners used solvents of tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene) known as “perc”, 1-bromopropane or petroleum spirits. However, this industry was forced to alter those solvents to more environmentally friendly ones based on carbon dioxide detergents, because “perc” is proved to be harmful to humans. 

What problems does it solve when it comes to cleaning?

Sometimes, there are stains that you can’t remove from a garment. That might happen because the stain is too old or because you don’t know what kind of stain it is. When such a case occurs, you should do nothing. Just grab your stained garment and drop it off at the nearest cleaner. They can treat almost all kinds of stains due to the solvents and the dry-cleaning machines they use. 

Why do we need it?

So, do we really need dry-cleaning in our lives? We could say for sure that doing so is necessary to maintain specific garments in good condition. Certain delicate fabrics, like silk, wool, suede, leather and so on, can’t be washed traditionally. Washing machines use heat and water to remove stains off the fabrics; some types though can be damaged. Water and heat can change the fabric’s formation. Water can stretch fibres and cause them to lose their original form. What’s more, if you apply a stain remover, you should use a water-based detergent and high temperature to remove stains. 

The cleaning machines on a dry cleaner's

What is the commercial dry cleaning process?

Except that you can dry clean at home easily, having your clothes cleaned in a commercial cleaner is the best way to maintain them like new. They know exactly how it works and they will do the best to keep your clothes the way you hand them in and even better. This process requires a few steps: Inspection and tagging, pre-spotting, the process, post-spotting and finishing. 

Inspection and Tagging

It’s the only process you can be part of. Once you drop off your items to the dry cleaner, then the cleaner examines the garments for stains, forgotten items left in pockets, missing buttons, tears etc., and creates a tag for your clothes with your details. 


After inspection, the cleaner is going to check the stains and apply a solvent on them to make it easier to clean your cloth during the process. If you know the cause of the stain, you better tell the cleaner to get the best results. 

The process

A dry-cleaning business is occupied with large drum machines. Clothes that have been pre-spotted are placed into the machine and immersed in a water-free based solvent. The clothes are cleaned thoroughly in the machines. Afterwards, the machine rotates them to remove the excess solvent. Then, it releases warm air to dry the clothes completely. 

An employee on a dry cleane's folding a shirt


Now, the cleaner gets the dry clothes and checks them for any remaining stains. This process can remove oil-based stains effectively. All other stain types are removed with steam, water or even a vacuum.


Finishing is the final step. Here, clothes are getting ready to be delivered to the customer. This step includes steaming, pressing or ironing and making repairs. Then the cleaner hangs or folds them and gives them back to you. Clothes also are placed into plastic bags so that you can get them to your home without being stained again. Once you arrive at your home, you should remove the plastic bag right away, as there’s a great risk for your clothes to be damaged due to the trapped moisture. 

How often should I dry clean my clothes?

This process, though, isn’t so harmless for clothes. It can weaken the fabric due to the liquid solvents used and the friction that the process involves. Thus, you can understand that you can’t wear a silk shirt once and then drop it off the cleaner. We’ve made you a chart to help you understand how often you should clean your clothes:

BlousesEvery 3-4 wears
SweatersEvery 2-5 wears
Pants and SkirtsEvery 5 wears
OuterwearOnce a season
DressesEvery 1-2 wears

Note: You can keep this frequency cleaning chart as a compass and adjust it according to your needs. It isn’t a strict rule you have to follow. Of course, it can change depending on how dirty a garment is. 

Can I dry clean all types of clothes?

All clothes and fabrics are labelled with washing instructions. On these labels, you’ll see tags that say “Dry clean only”, or “Not Dry-clean”. In the first case, it means that you should leave professionals to deal with your garments and better don’t try any other washing way. If the tag says “Dry clean”, it means that it is suggested, but you can wash your item either in a washer or go for the traditional way of hand-washing. Just make sure you always follow the instructions on the cloth label. But, if your clothing has a label that says “Not Dry-clean” then you better avoid cleaning it in that way because it will be damaged. Thus, nope! You can’t do that in all types of clothes!

A woman reading the label tag on her clothes

Will dry cleaning destroy my clothes?

When a piece of clothing needs to be cleaned in this method, you’ll know it by looking at the care label. So, before you wash your clothes, have a close look at these itchy tags to understand how to wash them. As mentioned before, not all fabrics are made for dry cleaning. 

Fabrics that involve synthetic materials composed of plastic, PVC, and polyurethane cannot be cleaned in that method. You’ll damage them if you do so. Now, all other types of fabric, even cotton or polyester, when are included in suits can be dry cleaned. In any case, if you aren’t sure how to clean a garment, seek professional advice.

How to get the best results from your dry cleaner

Before you clean your clothes, there are a few simple things you should take into consideration to be sure that you get the best results. Plus, you can help the cleaner at the same time.

Read the labels

All clothes and textures are labelled with washing instructions, which many of us neglect to look at before washing them. Items with labels that say “Dry cleaning only” should go to professional cleaners and not be washed in a washer or getting hand washed; have in mind that if you choose to wash them traditionally, you’ll probably destroy them. You might damage the fabric, their colour or even cause a shrinkage. Thus, next time you want to wash a silk shirt have a look at the clothing label before you toss it into the machine.

Don’t remove stains on your own

How many times have you tried to apply a homemade stain remover on your clothes? Plenty I dare to say! Most of the time, it ends up making matters worse. The oil, food stain or dye can go deeper into the fabric, making it impossible to remove. So, you end up throwing the garment away. Thus, next time you notice any stain on a delicate fabric doesn’t try to remove it. Grab it and drop it off at to cleaner. They know how to tackle it.

Inform the cleaner about a stain

Every time you visit your cleaner, mention a stain on a garment. Cleaners might pre-spotted clothes, but it would be much more convenient if you point out the stains. 

Mention any special buttons or embellishment 

If your clothes have any special buttons or embellishment, don’t forget to inform the cleaner. These will probably need special attention, so the cleaner should know about them. So, next time point out which ones require special care to be sure that they would be removed or covered during the cleaning cycle.

Two women working on a dry cleaner's
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