How Do Dry Cleaners Clean Clothes?

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Dry cleaners protect clean clothes with clear plastic bags
Dry cleaners protect clean clothes with clear plastic bags (Image: new clothes shopping image by .shock from Fotolia.com)

Dry cleaners use liquid chemicals called solvents and detergents to clean delicate fabrics that might shrink or discolor if they are submerged in water. Most dry cleaners, about 90 percent according to the trade organization the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute, use the solvent perchloroethylene (perc). "Green dry cleaners" use water-based solvents in a process called wet cleaning they claim is less harmful to the environment.

The Dry Cleaning Process

Dry cleaners treat stains by hand before putting fabrics in large machines with chemical solvents, detergents and sometimes small amounts of water. The machines agitate the fabrics, much like a home washing machine, to remove dirt, oil and stains. The fabrics are then dried in the same or a separate machine. Finally, the fabrics are pressed and shaped before they are returned to the customer. Some industry experts say dry-cleaning is less effective at removing dirt that is easily soluble in water.

Fabric types

Industry experts say almost any fabric will benefit from dry cleaning because even cottons can lose their shape and color over time in conventional washing machines. Fabrics particularly suited to dry cleaning, however, include natural fabrics such as wool and silk, which will shrink in water, or synthetics such as rayon or polyester, which can attract oily stains that respond well to dry cleaning solvents. Some particularly delicate fibers such as cashmere and suede will show inevitable wear over time and should be expected to have short life spans, even if they are dry-cleaned.

Almost any fabric can be dry cleaned
Almost any fabric can be dry cleaned (Image: clothes, image by uthe from Fotolia.com)

Wet Cleaning

The United States Environmental Protection Agency endorses wet cleaning as a more environmentally friendly type of garment care. The process is similar to dry cleaning, but it uses recently developed water-based detergents instead of chemical solvents. Wet cleaners also used computerized machines that can precisely control variables such as mechanical action, water and drying temperature and the amount of moisture in the dryer in order to protect fragile fabrics such as silk, woolens, linens and leather. Currently, about 10 percent of professional dry cleaners use a wet cleaning process, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental Hazards

Perchloroethylene, or perc, is the most common solvent used by dry cleaners because it can remove stains and dirt from most fabrics without causing shrinkage or discoloration. It can also be cheaply filtered and reused. But it has been found to cause serious symptoms, including dizziness, nausea and skin irritations, in people exposed to it in high concentrations. In older dry cleaning systems, perc was often released directly into the air through vents, or poured down floor drains with waste water. The industry has recently introduced safeguards, such as improved ventilation and disposal systems, to reduce the amount of solvent dry cleaners release.

Chemicals used in dry cleaning can be toxic
Chemicals used in dry cleaning can be toxic (Image: chemical test tubes image by Oleg Verbitsky from Fotolia.com)

Preparing your Clothing

Don't let stains set before you take them to the cleaner. Dry cleaners are much more successful at removing stains when they are fresh. Make sure you discuss any stains with your cleaner when you drop off your clothes. Remove all items from your pockets. Make sure to clean matching pieces, such as suit jackets and pants, together so any fading will be uniform.

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