How Home Dry Cleaning Works

Inside Your Dryer

Clothes are placed in a nylon bag with a dryer activated cloth.
Clothes are placed in a nylon bag with a dryer activated cloth.

What actually happens inside your dryer is the "black box" of this process for most people. All three kits instruct you to place one to four articles of clothing inside their respective "special" dry cleaning bag. Then, you add the dryer-activated cloths, seal the bag and put it in the dryer for 15 to 30 minutes (depending on which kit you're using). At the end, you remove your newly home-dry-cleaned clothes.

So what's really going on inside that bag? It's actually an incredibly simple system, involving only steam, perfume and an emulsifier.

Here's how it works:

  • The dryer-activated cloth holds a small amount of water, as well as perfume and an emulsifying agent. This emulsifying agent keeps the water and perfume dispersed within the cloth. When you turn on the dryer, the heat generated raises the temperature of the liquids inside the cloth. This increase in thermal energy allows the molecules to bounce around more rapidly than usual. When the molecules reach a high enough temperature, they overcome their attraction to one another and leave the surface of the liquid. The molecules form a dense, high-pressure gas (steam/vapors).
  • The vapors are contained within the nylon or plastic bag. When the vapors penetrate the fibers of the clothing, some of the water and perfume condenses within the fabric. This is the secret behind how these kits "freshen" your clothing; they simply infuse it with a fragrance! If you are allergic to perfumes or the kinds of fragrances that manufacturers typically put in cleaning products, you may want to avoid these kits. Clothes cleaned with them smell strongly of the scents used, even weeks after cleaning.
  • The same steam vapors are used to remove wrinkles from the clothes. The kits operate under the same principle as steam irons. When you press clothes on an ironing board, the steam carries its heat through the fabric. The combination of the water molecules and the heat temporarily breaks weak attractions between the fibers. This unlocks the fibers from the wrinkled state they have been in, and you can then press the fabric flat with the iron. The kits are slightly different, because you don't have the weight and additional heat of the iron to press wrinkles out. The home dry cleaning kits rely on gravity to help wrinkles "fall out" from your clothes once you've removed them from the dryer and hung them up. This is why the kits emphasize getting your garments out of the dryer as soon as it clicks off. Outside the dryer, the clothes quickly cool down, and the fibers become less pliant. So, given the limited window of opportunity for gravity to do its job while clothes are still hot, clothing that is heavily wrinkled will most likely still be wrinkled after home dry cleaning. The FreshCare kit even advises you to launder dress shirts professionally, given their propensity to wrinkle.