How does dry cleaning work?

Want to know what happens to your clothes after you give them to the dry cleaner? Do they actually stay dry?
Want to know what happens to your clothes after you give them to the dry cleaner? Do they actually stay dry?

When you wash clothes at home in the washing machine, water is the solvent used to do the cleaning. Many types of fabric, however, do not handle water very well. For example, wool and water just don't mix. There are also many types of stains that water is not particularly good at removing.

In dry cleaning, a petroleum solvent is used instead of water. It is "dry" only in the sense that it is not wet with water. In the early days of dry cleaning, this solvent was often kerosene or gasoline. Today the industry uses a solvent called perchloroethylene almost universally.

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The clothes are washed in this solvent, and then the solvent is recovered in an extractor so it can be reused (and so that it does not evaporate into the air and cause pollution). Once the clothes are cleaned, they are pressed so they look like new.

There is a fair amount of controversy around perchloroethylene and its health effects at the moment. Several of the links on the next page talk about the problems it can create. Some dry cleaners are now using CO2.

Originally Published: May 14, 2009

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Dry Cleaning FAQ

How does dry cleaning work?
In dry cleaning, a special petroleum-based solvent is used to wash clothes. After being washed in this, an extractor is used to remove the solvent so it can be reused. After this, the clothes are pressed.
What does dry cleaning do?
Dry cleaning is a process that cleans clothing that cannot be washed with water or have particularly stubborn stains. It’s simply a cleaning method that can’t be performed at home in a normal washing machine.
What chemical is used in dry cleaning?
Perchloroethylene or PERC is the chemical used by most dry cleaners used in the U.S. In the early days of dry cleaning, kerosene and gasoline were commonly used.
Are dry cleaning chemicals harmful?
Yes, experts associate a number of health risks to the process of dry cleaning. It I can lleak toxic chemicals that can spread to surrounding areas, including land, water and air. However, the recovery process of the toxic solvent is thorough to ensure that none leaches out and facilities have ventilation systems that can handle the process.
Is dry cleaning better than washing?
Dry cleaning is more effective for eliminating deep-set stains, such as oil and grease. Standard detergent is often ineffective against these.