How Does Dry Cleaning Work?

  • July 8, 2024
  • General

Dry cleaning is an ideal choice for fabrics that are sensitive to water such as silk, wool and cashmere, while it also works great at eliminating tough stains like oil and grease that cannot be removed via conventional laundry techniques.

As part of the garment drying process, garments are immersed in liquid solvents that contain very little water – commonly tetrachloroethylene (perc), though newer machines use heated hydrocarbon and less-flammable chemicals for this process.

The Process

Dry cleaning differs from home laundry in that it uses non-water based solvents instead of water-based solutions to clean fabric items. Instead, your local dry cleaner will place them into a special machine to be immersed into liquid solvent that recirculates and is later fully purified for reuse.

Your dry cleaner may use various solvents depending on the item you bring them; for instance, cotton shirt with stains would require different chemical solvent than silk dress or wool sweater, which require more delicate solutions.

Initial dry cleaners employed flammable petroleum solvents; after some time they switched to chlorine-based dry cleaning chemicals like carbon tetrachloride (perc) and trichloroethylene (TCE). Perc is harmful both for you and the environment, so more eco-friendly options such as supercritical CO2 are now being considered as alternatives. It’s essential that fabric items be marked before being dropped into a machine so your dry cleaner can identify and keep track of them while they are in their machine. This also helps keep track of clothing while in their machines!


When clothing needs professional cleaning, many opt for dry cleaning as an efficient and professional service. Dry cleaning is ideal for delicate materials like wool and cashmere that cannot be washed in their entirety at home with a washing machine.

Garments are placed into a large, specialized machine that resembles a washer and dryer before being immersed into a liquid solvent, usually non-aqueous chemicals such as kerosene, gasoline or perchloroethylene (PERC).

Early dry cleaners often utilized petroleum-based solvents like kerosene and gasoline because they were readily available and affordable. Later on in the 20th century, chlorinated solvents such as carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) and trichloroethylene (TCE) became widely used, providing increased safety and efficiency; more modern dry cleaners typically employ perchloroethylene or 1,1,1-trichloroethane (Freon-113) instead of carbon tetrachloride; these pose less flammability but still present health risks to consumers.

Prior to sending any garment for dry cleaning, an experienced cleaner performs an inspection for any visible stains or spots, marking and pre-treating them with chemicals tailored for their type and fabric type.


Once inside, garments are treated with nonhazardous solvent (usually perchloroethylene, more commonly referred to as “perc”) that dissolves stains without water, such as perc. Additionally, dry cleaners may use additional chemicals aimed at specific stains such as grease or oil-related ones.

Before an item can be pressed, the dry cleaner inspects it again for any remaining stains and uses steaming as necessary to treat them. Buttons and embellishments may also be checked at this time; delicate ones may require removal for safe cleaning before reattachment afterwards.

Dry cleaning can be an ideal way to care for many fabrics, but some types are unsuitable for it – delicate fibers like straw and raffia are often too delicate to withstand the strength of professional dry cleaning solvents; and PVC/polyurethane fabrics should never be dry cleaned!


Once the cleaning cycle is completed, a dry cleaner inspects each garment to make sure all stains have been eliminated before pressing and wrapping them securely with plastic for return to their customer.

Protein stains like blood and sweat are notoriously difficult to remove at home, but professional dry cleaners offer enzyme treatments which “digest” proteins and help remove them without harming fabric or damaging fabric fibers. Furthermore, they have machines capable of steaming or ironing out wrinkles for a more thorough clean.

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Early dry cleaners used highly flammable petroleum solvents that caused fires and explosions. Later they switched to chlorinated solvents like carbon tetrachloride (CTC) and trichloroethylene (TCE), however TCE is still toxic to the environment and cancer-causing. For this reason most modern dry cleaners utilize less-toxic alternatives like perchloroethylene (“perc”) which are safer yet still cost-effective solutions that work just as efficiently for you as well as your clothing. These alternatives cost more but ultimately help both parties involved – so everyone wins in both cases!