You may see the phrase “Dry Clean Only” on the tags of some nice clothing items and formalwear. But what exactly is dry cleaning and how does it work? Read on to learn the specialized process that keeps delicate fabrics looking fresh and new.

How Dry Cleaning Works

Dry cleaning uses chemical solvents rather than water to clean clothes, hence the name “dry”. Here is an overview of the dry cleaning process:

Non-Aqueous Solvents

Specific non-water based solvents are used to clean clothes, such as perchloroethylene (also called perc), hydrocarbon, or silicon-based solvents. These dissolve dirt, oil, and stains without risk of fabric shrinkage caused by water.

Gentler Agitation

Gentle tumbling and agitation of clothing in solvents loosens soils. There is no harsh scrubbing or wringing. This reduces stretching and distortion.

Stain Removal

In addition to solvents, spotting agents are hand applied to extra dirty areas like collars to lift stubborn stains and oils.


After cleaning cycles, items are rinsed and spun to remove all solvents and residue from fabrics. The solvents are then reclaimed for reuse.


Heat pressing equipment like industrial steam irons and presses add finishing touches to remove wrinkles and give clothing a crisp look.

The dry cleaning process allows deep cleaning without the risk of shrinkage.

Types of Garment Care

Dry cleaning is one of several methods of professional garment care and laundry:

Dry Cleaning

Uses chemical solvents to clean clothing. Ideal for delicates prone to shrinking like silks, wool, and rayon.

Wet Cleaning

Employs water, detergents, and specialized equipment for gentle garment washing. Good for delicates.

Laundry Services

From commercial equipment to wash-dry-fold services, professional laundromats offer full cleaning.

Hand Washing

Meticulously washes delicates by hand using mild soaps in a sink or tub without machines.

Fabric Restoration

Special processes to restore damaged or discolored heirloom textiles and vintage garments.

Tailoring and Repair

From simple repairs like re-sewing buttons to full alterations, tailors modify the fit and structure of clothing.

Dry cleaning focuses specifically on deep cleaning delicate materials.

When Dry Cleaning is Required

Dry cleaning allows you to safely clean items that cannot be washed at home, like:


Water erodes silk fibers, making them brittle. Dry cleaning preserves silk’s sheen.


The scales and textures of wool fibers shrink and felt when agitated in hot water. Dry cleaning prevents damage.

Rayon and Viscose

These semi-synthetic fabrics lose shape, shrink dramatically, and become misshapen when water washed.


Intricate beading, sequins, and delicates construction make wedding gowns and tuxedos dry clean only.

Leather and Suede

Leather and suede require special leather-specific cleaners only used by professionals.

Down and Feathers

Down-filled coats and feather trims require the gentle cleaning dry pros provide.

When unsure if washing will damage an item, dry cleaning is the safest bet.

Advantages of Dry Cleaning

Here are some key benefits that dry cleaning offers:

Prevents Shrinkage

No exposure to water means shrink-prone natural fibers like wool and linen retain their dimensions.

Safe for Delicates

Fragile fabrics stay intact through the gentle dry cleaning process instead of ripping or fraying.

Maintains Shape and Structure

The smooth tumbling motion prevents distortion of tailored garments that washing can cause.

Keeps Colors Vibrant

Without dye-leaching water and heat , fabrics maintain rich, unfaded colors over many cleanings.

Lifts Stains and Odors

Powerful solvents penetrate deeply to remove stains and odors water cannot reach.

Adds a Finished Look

Professional pressing, steaming, and finishing makes clothing look crisp, smooth, and wrinkle-free.

Dry cleaning keeps high-end clothing looking its best.

Potential Risks of Dry Cleaning

However, dry cleaning does come with some disadvantages to note:

Shrinkage Still Possible

Heat from high temperature pressing and drying can still potentially shrink fabrics.

Fading Over Time

Though reduced, colors may gradually fade over many cleanings as solvents strip dyes.

Loss of Beading/Embellishment

Delicate beads, sequins and trims can snag on machinery. Net bag wash delicates first.

Residual Solvent Odor

Chemical solvents leave a telltale dry cleaning scent on clothing. Air out thoroughly.

Skin Irritation

Chemical residues on clothes may irritate sensitive skin or trigger allergies for some wearers.

Hazardous Chemical Waste

The industry produces hazardous solvent waste and pollution. Greener options are improving.

While dry cleaning has advantages, some downsides exist.

How to Prepare Clothes for Dry Cleaning

To get the best results from your dry cleaner, do the following clothing prep:

  • Check care labels – confirm dry cleaning won’t damage material
  • Close all closures like zippers and hooks to prevent snagging
  • Empty all pockets fully – debris and loose change causes tears and holes
  • Point out stains – helps cleaners give special attention to extra dirty spots
  • Use net bags for delicates and embellished items to prevent snagging and loss of decorations
  • Bring accessories in separately – handles, belts, etc. should not go through the machines
  • Remove non-colorfast parts like ribbons or patches that may bleed

Proper prep prevents wardrobe disasters with dry cleaning.

Dry Cleaning vs. Washing

How do you decide between dry cleaning and regular laundering?

Dry Clean For:

  • Sheer, lightweight fabrics
  • Tailored wool suits and coats
  • Cashmere, angora, and fine knits
  • Sequined and beaded formalwear
  • Leather, suede, and fur
  • Down jackets and feathered trims

Wash At Home For:

  • Everyday cottons, denim, linens
  • Workout and athletic wear
  • Heavy towels, sheets, and blankets
  • Machine washable silks and wools
  • Children’s clothing
  • Casual t-shirts and jeans

Assess fabric type, construction, and care labels to pick the ideal method.

Dry Cleaning FAQs

Let’s answer some other common questions about dry cleaning:

How often should you dry clean clothes?

As infrequently as possible – maybe every 5-10 light wears for delicate fabrics. Frequent cleaning wears items out faster.

What do the symbols on clothing tags mean?

A circle indicates dry clean. Triangle is bleaching instructions. X means no bleach. Squares give drying directions.

Can you dry clean at home?

Not recommended – home dry cleaning kits lack the power of professional machines and use dangerous chemicals.

Does dry cleaning kill germs?

It reduces bacteria but does not fully sanitize like washing. Take extra precautions with laundry exposed to illness.

Will dry cleaning shrink clothes?

Potentially, if subjected to overly high heat during the drying and pressing phases. Reputable cleaners are very careful about heat settings.

Why does dry cleaning cost so much?

The specialized equipment, skilled labor, hazardous waste disposal and high overhead results in higher cleaning costs.

Can you put dry clean only clothes in the washer?

Only as a last resort using the gentle cycle, cold water, and mesh bag. This voids manufacturer instructions.

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