How Does Dry Cleaning Actually Work? Experts Explain the Enigmatic Process

Here's an inside look on how the mysterious cleaning method unfolds.

<p>Edna M/Getty Images</p>

Edna M/Getty Images

For stubborn stains and delicate fabrics, dry cleaning can be a lifesaver. But how does dry cleaning work exactly? Dry cleaning is a cleaning process that uses a liquid solvent instead of water and detergent to clean clothes. Whether you have clothes with stains that won’t come out in the regular wash or delicate fabrics that require waterless cleaning, dry cleaning is an excellent option. This guide will cover all the basics of what you need to know about the benefits of dry cleaning and how it works. Read on to learn more about the dry cleaning process and get insights from the experts.

Related: How to Dry Clean Your Clothes at Home

What Is Dry Cleaning?

As the name suggests, dry cleaning is a process that cleans clothes without water. Dry cleaners use a special solvent that lifts dirt and stains from clothes. Clothes are washed together in a large machine that uses solvent instead of water and detergent.

“The main advantage of dry cleaning is that it is gentler on delicate materials which can be damaged by traditional washing processes and detergents,” says Matt Connelly, CEO and founder of the I Hate Ironing network of dry cleaning experts. “The solvents used in dry cleaning are also more targeted at treating stains that water alone cannot remove, such as oil-based stains.”

Dry cleaners vary in the solvents they use, but many employ tetrachloroethylene, often called perchloroethylene or “perc.” Perc comes with health and environmental risks and is regulated by the EPA. In response, many dry cleaners now offer alternative solvents that are more eco-friendly, such as synthetic petroleum, siloxane (Green Earth), and liquid carbon dioxide.

Dry Cleaning Steps

So, how does dry cleaning work? The dry cleaning process generally involves these steps:

  1. Tagging clothes. First, dry cleaners place identifying tags on your clothes. They may use paper tags or iron-on strips. Tags allow the cleaners to determine whose clothes are whose and to wash clothes with similar stains together.

  2. Garment inspection. Cleaners inspect clothes to ensure the items are in good condition and no items are left in pockets.

  3. Pre-treatment of stains. Dry cleaners mark and spot treat any stains with formulas to address specific issues. If you have details about any stains in your clothes, let your cleaner know so they can use the best treatment solution for that particular stain.

  4. Cleaning in the machine. Clothes go through the wash process in special dry cleaning machines. The machines use a gentle agitation process and clean using solvents.

  5. Extraction of solvent. The next phase of the dry cleaning cycle involves extracting the solvent from the clothing and the machine. The solvent can then be reused. Modern machines recover approximately 99.99% of solvents for reuse.

  6. Aeration. After the cleaning process, clothes are cooled and filtered with outside air and a vapor recovery filter to remove any traces of solvent.

  7. Finishing touches. The final stage is pressing, steaming, and ironing garments so they’re crisp and ready to go.

Benefits of Dry Cleaning

If you're wondering why you should consider dry cleaning, you should know that there are a few benefits to the specialized cleaning process.

Excellent for Delicate Fabrics

This waterless cleaning method is especially helpful for delicate fabrics that may be damaged by traditional washes or for items with oil-based stains. “Dry cleaning is gentler on delicate fabrics, preserving their quality and extending their lifespan,” says cleaning professional Angela Rubin from Hellamaid. “It effectively removes stubborn stains, such as oil-based or grease stains, that may not come out with regular washing.”

May Help Preserve Some Textiles

Another advantage of dry cleaning is that it can preserve the color, shape, and texture of clothing. Water, especially hot water, can be harsh on clothes and cause colors to fade. Since dry cleaning is waterless, it helps preserve colors and fabrics. “Dry cleaning eliminates the risk of drinking or color fading as your items aren’t washed in hot water or dried at high temperatures,” Connelly says. Fabrics that usually do well with dry cleaning include:

  • Silk

  • Cashmere

  • Wool

  • Velvet

  • Suede

Some fabrics can be washed in a regular machine or dry cleaned. See your clothing’s cleaning label for the recommended cleaning methods. For some items that would normally go in a regular washing machine, such as denim, if you have unique embellishments, treatments, or stubborn stains, dry cleaning can be a great option.


While dry cleaning may be the best solution for specific fabrics and stains, it does not work well for every situation.

May Not Remove Certain Stains

Dry cleaning excels at removing oil-based stains but may not treat some other blemishes. Cleaners can use spot treatments for some stains before dry cleaning. Talk with your cleaner to make sure the stains on your items can be removed.

Doesn't Work On All Fabrics

Additionally, not all clothing is made of materials that do well with dry cleaning. Fabrics that generally do not do well with dry cleaning include:

  • Sequins

  • Rayon

  • Materials made with plastic, PVC, or polyurethane

“The chemical solvent in dry cleaning can cause damage to the adhesives used to hold together sequined or beaded items, causing the embellishments to fall away,” Connelly says. “Plastic-coated items such as raincoats or gym clothes can be damaged by dry cleaning solvents and should be washed per their care label instead.”

If you’re in doubt whether an item can be dry cleaned, check the label for cleaning instructions. You can also consult with your cleaner to ensure you choose the best option for your clothing.

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

Since the common dry cleaning solution of perc has raised environmental and health concerns, eco-friendly and healthy alternatives are increasingly popular.

“Dry cleaning traditionally used perchloroethylene (perc), a potentially harmful chemical,” Rubin says. “However, the industry has evolved to adopt more eco-friendly practices. Many modern dry cleaners use environmentally friendly solvents, such as hydrocarbon-based or silicone-based solutions, which are less harmful to both the environment and human health.”

Modern dry cleaning machines are also more energy efficient, as they’re better equipped to reuse cleaning solvents so they are not released into the environment. There are a variety of eco-friendly dry cleaning solutions now available. Green dry cleaning options are:

  • Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning uses carbon dioxide under high pressure and other cleaning agents to offer an eco-friendly cleaning with specialized equipment.

  • Silicone-based solvent uses a chemical-free, odorless solution to remove stains. 

  • DF-2000 hydrocarbon solvent is a petroleum-based cleaning solvent that is extolled as a better alternative to perc. However, the DF-2000 still comes with some health warnings.

  • Wet cleaning involves using water to clean with specific machine settings and cycles to minimize wear. This option can work well for some fabrics but not for those that can’t get wet.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does dry cleaning work?

Dry cleaning uses a waterless cleaning process to remove dirt and debris from clothing. Dry cleaning uses a specialized, large machine that cleans clothing using a solvent. The solvent is then extracted from the clothes, and they are air-dried and pressed.

Does dry cleaning use high heat?

Dry cleaning may use heat, but for delicate items, cleaners do not use heat. Talk with your cleaning professional about any special care instructions or stains that your clothing has.

How long does dry cleaning take?

Dry cleaning usually takes between 24 and 48 hours for regular items. For special stains or delicate fabrics, it may take longer.

How much does dry cleaning cost?

Dry cleaning costs vary based on the location. In general, dry cleaning usually ranges between $3 and $10 to dry clean a shirt and averages $25 to $50 per visit.

Related: Do You 'Really' Need to Dry-Clean That? Dry-Clean vs. Dry-Clean Only

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