How Does Dry Cleaning Work?

When people drop off their clothes at the dry cleaners, they don’t tend to stick around and ask the workers what kind of magic they use to remove stubborn stains from the most delicate fabrics.

Most customers simply return 23 days later expecting perfectly ironed, cling-coated garments that are fresh and ready to wear. Dry cleaning isn’t magic, however, and the dry cleaning process is surprisingly simple. The question is how does dry cleaning work?

First, we will explain all you need to know about dry cleaning before explaining how it works.

What is Dry Cleaning?

Dry cleaning is very similar to normal household laundry, but instead of water and detergent, a liquid solvent is used to clean clothes. Solvents contain little or no water, hence the term “dry cleaning”.

Dry cleaners use very large and technically advanced computer-controlled dry cleaning machines. Your clothes do get wet, but the liquid solvent evaporates much more quickly than water. 

Since we use solvent instead of water, we do not drain and dispose of it as a washing machine does with soiled water. 

We recirculate the solvent through filters throughout the entire cleaning cycle to remove impurities during the cleaning process. Then, we distill the solvent to be crystal clear and purified before it is used again.

Dry cleaning has two distinct advantages over cleaning with water or “wet” cleaning: water swells the fibers. It is this swelling action that causes shrinkage and dye fading in many garments. Dry cleaning solvents are far superior to water for removing the oily or greasy residue that is the cornerstone of many stains.

After the dry cleaner cleans your clothes properly, your cleaner will “finish” (iron) your clothes with special finishing equipment. 

The finishing processes used vary depending on the garments being processed, but generally involve steaming and ironing.

Steaming is effective in wrinkle smoothing, improves ironing, and also serves to improve cleaning by removing the remaining water-soluble material and killing bacteria.

Ironing is the last step, providing crisp, smooth results that are difficult to replicate at home with a manual iron.

This requires considerable skill and training and allows for a last inspection of the garment. Last time and packed, awaiting your arrival.

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How and When Dry Cleaning Began

Dry cleaning first emerged in the 1940s after French sailor Jean-Baptiste Jolly realized solvents could remove dirt and grease stains from fabrics. 

This has become a common washing and stain removal process in modern society as not all fabrics perform well with the traditional water washing method.

The chemical cleaning process replaces the use of water with a petroleum-based solvent. In the past, kerosene or gasoline was often used as stain removers but has now been replaced by perchloroethylene, also known as “Per”, which has become the industry standard worldwide.

This solvent became popular in the 1930s and has been a mainstay for most dry cleaners ever since. Although many people assume dry cleaning is a dry process, the reality is that clothes still get wet.

The “dry” in “dry cleaning” simply means that they use no water in the wash.

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The Science of Dry Cleaning

As most of you know, washing clothes in a regular washing machine is perfectly acceptable for most types of clothes as long as you keep the colors separate. 

After pouring into the washing machine and adding detergent, it slowly filtered through the water. And the machine beats, removing stains through friction and the action of water as a universal solvent. 

However, not all substances are water-soluble, so regular washing can not remove them from clothing. 

Also, certain types of materials do not react well with water, so they should not put them in the washing machine. This is where dry cleaning comes into play.

The basis of dry cleaning is the use of a petroleum-based solvent rather than relying on water. The first person to see the potential of a petroleum solvent lived nearly two centuries ago and accidentally discovered dry cleaning by spilling kerosene on a greasy piece of clothing. 

Seeing that the pesky stain was gone, he founded the first dry cleaning service in Paris after experimenting with various petroleum-based substances.

Today, the same tradition is intact as the oil does not contain water, so it protects the delicate fabrics during the cleaning. 

However, kerosene is extremely flammable, so they have developed many other options over the past 200 years. 

Most notable and popular for decades was perchloroethylene, which was used for many years because it was non-flammable and very effective. 

Affectionately abbreviated as “perc,” this solution has even been found to be potentially dangerous and carcinogenic, so newer chemical cleaning solvents have gained popularity over the last two decades.

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Chemical Cleaning Solvents

Water is often referred to as the universal solvent, but it doesn’t solve everything. Detergents and enzymes are used to remove grease and protein stains. 

Although water can be the basis of a good all-purpose cleaner, it has one property that makes it undesirable for use on delicate fabrics and natural fibers. 

Water is a polar molecule, so it interacts with the polar groups in fabrics, causing the fibers to swell and stretch when washed. 

As the fabric dries, the water is removed, the fiber may not be able to return to its original shape. Another problem with water is that high temperatures (hot water) may be required to remove some stains that could damage the fabric.

Dry cleaning solvents, on the other hand, are non-polar molecules. These molecules interact with the stains without affecting the fibers. 

As with washing in water, mechanical agitation and friction remove fabric stains, so the solvent removes them.

In the 19th century, petroleum-based solvents were used for commercial dry cleaning, including gasoline, turpentine, and mineral spirits. 

These chemicals, while effective, were also flammable. Although not known petroleum-based chemicals also posed a health risk.

Supercritical carbon dioxide is non-toxic and less active than a greenhouse gas, but not as effective at removing stains as PCE. 

Freon-113, brominated solvents, (DrySolv, Fabrisolv), liquid silicone, and dibutoxymethane (SolvonK4) are other solvents that may be used for dry cleaning.

Chlorinated solvents began to replace petroleum-based solvents in the mid-1930s. Perchloroethylene (PCE, “perc” or tetrachlorethylene) came into use. PCE is a stable, non-flammable, low-cost chemical that is compatible with most fibers and easily recyclable. 

Water for oily stains, but can cause staining and discoloration. PCE toxicity is relatively low, but it is classified as a toxic chemical by the state of California and is being phased out. Much of industry still use PCE today.

Other solvents are also used. About 10 percent of the market uses hydrocarbons (e.g. DF2000, EcoSolv, Pure Dry), which are flammable and less effective than PCE but less likely to damage fabrics. 

About 1,015 percent of the market uses trichloroethane, which is carcinogenic and also more aggressive than PCE.

How does Dry Cleaning Work?

The dry cleaning process differs worldwide as different solvents are being used. However, below lies a general process of how dry cleaning works, which is gentle on clothes and leaves behind the annoying smell of dry cleaning.

Step 1: Identification

Your clothes are tagged so you can easily track them during the cleaning process. Labeling ensures that they do not mix up garments and that no customer loses one of their garments during childbirth or receives an item that is not yours.

Step 2: Inspection

They should survey clothing before the cleaning begins. Professional cleaners have to check if there are any items in their clients’ pockets.

Any item found will be returned to customers during delivery. They will also look for rips, tears, and/or missing buttons.

Step 3: Pre-treatment for stains and Stain Treatment

Each garment is spotted and inspected for stains that require special attention. Stubborn stains are treated before they send the garment for dry cleaning.

The clothes can go through a proper dry cleaning process repeatedly without fading or looking worn.

Stains are treated with chemical solvents, heated, or vacuumed. The stain removal method depends on the type of stain.

It would be helpful to inform the dry cleaning company if your garments require any special stain treatment.

Step 4: Dry Cleaning

The garments are sorted and placed in the dry cleaning machine. Sorting is based on color and the manufacturer’s cleaning recommendations. Similar items of clothing are cleaned together.

Most dry cleaners use sand-based liquid silicone. Most chemical cleaners use a petroleum-based solvent known as perc. 

The FPA classifies perc as an air pollutant. The liquid silicone solvent is a by-product of sand and is non-toxic. However, it still leaves an unwanted smell in the garments. The solvent used will dissolve any grease on the clothing and will float dirt particles away from the clothing. 

This cleaning machine spins the clothes and the solvent. This spinning movement also contributes to the fact that they wash away dirt particles from the clothing. 

The solvent is then drained off and they rinse the garments with fresh solvent. The fresh solvent will remove any dirt left on the garments.

These garments are then dried according to the manufacturer’s care instructions. The temperature used to dry clothes depends on the type of fabric. Different fabrics require different drying temperatures.

This eco-friendly, non-toxic dry cleaning process leaves your clothes smelling and looking fresh

Step 5: After Stains

Garments are checked again before being packed for delivery. They inspected each garment for any stubborn stains that may remain.

The dry cleaning process is usually very effective, especially for removing dirt and oil stains.

However, other types of stains can cause headaches. If necessary, these are removed with steam, vacuum, or even water.

Step 6: Finishing and Packaging

The last step involves ensuring the garment is ready to reflect your million-dollar look! Garments are pressed and given one last inspection, packaged, and set for delivery.

Other types of Dry Cleaning

Four other methods of dry cleaning (also known as “green” dry cleaning) arose from the need to produce a solvent that could replace the use of perc: synthetic petroleum (DF2000), siloxane ( Green earth ), liquid carbon dioxide, and wet cleaning. 

Synthetic petroleum is a by-product of the production of gasoline and is often marketed as a greener alternative to perc. The EPA has classified it as a neurotoxin and it is as tightly regulated as PER. 

Siloxane (trade name Green Earth) is a colorless, odorless liquid silicone used in the dry cleaning industry. You can break the solvent down into sand, water, and carbon dioxide, but it is also toxic to the liver. 

Liquid Carbon Dioxide is a non-flammable, non-toxic solvent that can be reused for multiple cleaning cycles. This process generates no new carbon dioxide and it is a cheap and plentiful solvent.

However, the initial cost of purchasing the dry cleaning machine is required for this procedure, and therefore it is no affordable option for many detergents.

Wet cleaning is exactly what it sounds like. This method uses water as the cleaning solution, but the washing machine used can be set to a very specific temperature and spin modes. While it is often as effective as traditional dry cleaning for most items, it may not be safe for all garments and fabrics, and testing has found some stains to be difficult to remove without first treating especially oily ones.


In dry cleaning, a good dry cleaner knows how to check clothes for residual stains. These are treated again with solvent or even with water. The clothes are then hung on hangers and packed in plastic bags, waiting for their owners to collect them. 

Concerns about perc not being environmentally friendly have led to new ‘green’ dry cleaning methods in recent years. 

Instead of perc, some green cleaners have switched to solvents made from carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide can only be in liquid form when the pressure is exposed so that the machine can provide a pressurized environment so that carbon dioxide operates properly.

Green dry cleaning is considered gentler on clothes, and it is also more environmentally sound. With greater interest in environmentally friendly cleaning, green methods may ultimately replace perc. Now that you’ve learned how dry clean works, we recommend it as it preserves clothes longer.



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