"Ugh! I just got taken to the cleaners!" This expression, meaning to get ripped off or overcharged for something, comes from the fact that dry cleaning — while at times necessary — can be expensive.
But anyone who complains about the cost of dry cleaning probably doesn't understand how it works. The dry cleaning industry definitely isn’t out to rip anyone off or steal their hard-earned money.
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In short, it's a special process for cleaning your clothes that helps protect their delicate features, and that can also be more effective at removing dirt and tough stains.
However, despite the name, it is actually not "dry."
It just doesn't use water, which is where the name comes from.
In fact, the dry cleaning process looks similar to that of washing your clothes at home, with just a few small differences, like the use of a specialized dry cleaning machine.
Let's look at the dry cleaning process to see what's involved and why it often costs so much.
What Is Dry Cleaning?
Quite simply, dry cleaning is the process of cleaning your clothes without using water. Dry cleaning uses chemical solvents to clean your clothes instead of water and laundry detergent.
Most modern dry cleaners use a chemical solvent known as perchloroethylene, which people in the industry refer to as simply "perc."
However, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has determined that the dry cleaning chemical known as perc to be both a health and environmental hazard. While most dry cleaners still use it, there is a movement to switch to dry cleaning solvents a bit less harmful to people and the environment. Many dry cleaning businesses have already suspended the use of perc in favor of safer alternatives.
Some of these alternatives include liquid carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon and silicone-based solvents. Another option is to simply use water but in a different way, which we will discuss in further detail in a moment.
In the old days, dry cleaners used gasoline or kerosene, which was highly flammable and dangerous. If we go way back to Roman times, they used ammonia derived from human urine.
So, while today's chemicals might not be ideal, we are making progress! Modern dry cleaning methods are certainly more appealing than the idea of cleaning your clothes with gas or urine!
How Is Dry Cleaning Different from Regular Washing?
The obvious difference between dry cleaning and regular washing is the use of chemical solvents. Traditional washing methods rely on water and detergents to clean clothes.
In this process, the water mixes with the detergent and then, during the cleaning cycle, the clothes are agitated so that this soapy water penetrates the fabric fibers, loosens the dirt or soil inside and then washes it away.
Then, fresh water is used to rinse out the soap, and the spin cycle gets all the water out and prepares your clothes for heading into the dryer to run through a drying cycle.
So, how does dry cleaning work? The dry cleaning process is actually very similar. Here's a quick summary of what the dry cleaning process looks like and how dry cleaning works:
- Stain pre-treatment — If there are any difficult stains on your clothes, the dry cleaners will first treat them with special stain removal products that are safe for delicate fabrics.
- Washing — Once clothes have been pre-treated (if needed), then they are loaded into a giant drum washing machine that looks like an industrial version of the one you have at home. Typically, cleaners will group similar clothes together (primarily by color and material) when placing them in the dry cleaning machine. This means your clothes will be mixed with those from other customers. Once inside the machine, the chemical solvent is added. The clothes are then agitated much like they are in your home washer, though these machines are much gentler and designed especially for use with liquid solvents and dry cleaning chemicals. This loosens all the dirt in the clothes and helps get them clean.
- Rinsing — During the next phase, more solvent is added to rinse the dirty mixture out of the clothes and then it is all drained out of the machine.
- Spinning — From there, the machine spins, again like your home washer, to extract the remaining solvent. At this point, your clothes are almost clean.
- Drying — During the final step, the machine introduces steam to not only dry your clothes but also to vaporize what's left of the solvent (you don't want that in your clothes!). And that's it! Your clothes have officially been dry cleaned.
As you can see, the actual process is pretty much the same, and to answer the question: Is dry cleaning really dry? No! It's not. It's just as wet as any other type of cleaning. It just doesn't use water, which is why we call it what we call it — dry cleaning – even though it’s technically still a form of wet cleaning.
What's So Bad About Water?
Well, there's nothing inherently wrong with water. Instead, the problem with regular washing has more to do with the process. First, there's the water and detergent mixture.
Modern detergents are designed to mix with water and then penetrate the fibers of your clothes, which makes them highly effective at removing dirt and stains, but this is also damaging to your clothes.
Some garments can withstand this process, but many cannot, especially those made of more delicate materials such as silk, wool and other types of fabric that are prone to damage. Sweaters, jackets, business suits and dress pants are a few of the many examples of garments that should not be laundered in a regular washing machine. Even some tablecloths require dry cleaning.
The other issue with traditional washing methods has nothing to do with water but instead the machine.
In an attempt to get as much dirt out of clothes as possible, modern washing machines are fairly aggressive. They agitate your clothes to ensure that the detergent and water mixture gets deep into the fibers and removes all of the dirt.
Again, this makes them effective, but such abuse can ruin some clothes and household linens.
Does Dry Cleaning Work? Why You Should Dry Clean Your Clothes
Given that it's more expensive and also makes use of harmful chemicals, you may be wondering why you should even bother dry cleaning your clothes. Well, there are a few reasons:
- Keep Your Clothes for Longer — The dry cleaning process is easier on your clothes than traditional washing methods. Some materials must be dry cleaned if you want them to survive more than one or two uses. Others can withstand the abuse of conventional machines, but if you dry clean them, they will last even longer.
- The Label Says So — Sometimes, you need to dry clean your clothes simply because the manufacturer says it's a good idea. To find out, check the care label on the inside of your clothes. Some may say "Dry Clean Only." Typically, silk, wool and down always need to be dry cleaned. In general, you should heed this advice. If the label says "Wash on Gentle," then consider alternating between traditional washing (using the gentle cycle) and dry cleaning to help ensure they last even longer.
- Maintain the Shape of Your Clothes — Some clothes come pre-shaped. Think about pleated skirts/pants or pressed collars on men's shirts. If you wash these clothes in water, these treatments will break down and lose their shape.
- Get Your Clothes Cleaner — Although modern laundry detergents are generally effective at removing dirt and stains, dry cleaning is good at getting out oil-based stains. Plus, dry cleaners have special chemicals they can use to pre- and post-treat your clothes so that stains come out without destroying the fabric. So, if you've got a big stain on a piece of clothing, instead of trying to get it out on your own, consider taking it to a local dry cleaning business.
Downsides to Dry Cleaning
Although dry cleaning can protect your clothes and get tough stains out, there are some downsides to consider. It’s important to consider these disadvantages when deciding whether having your clothes dry cleaned is right for you.
- The Use of Chemicals — The defining characteristic of dry cleaning is that it uses chemical solvents instead of water. But, as we mentioned, these chemicals are harmful to both humans and the environment. The finishing stages of dry cleaning remove the chemicals from your clothes, but if it's not done correctly, it can be a problem. This also doesn't take away from the environmental stress these chemicals cause. If this bothers you, then look for cleaners using "Green" methods. Some organic solvents are safer than traditional chemical solvents.
- Time — Because you can't do dry cleaning yourself, you must take your clothes to a professional, and it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to get your clothes back. Plus, you need to find time to drop off and pick up your apparel. So, if you pull your suit out of the closet on Wednesday and see it needs to be cleaned before the wedding on Saturday, you might be out of luck.
- Cost — The expression we used at the beginning of the article has its roots in the truth. Dry cleaning is not cheap. Part of this is the cost of the chemical solvents, but a big part of it is the cleaners' time. This is a premium service, and they tend to charge based on the garment. Large coats can cost $100 or more, and you should expect dry cleaning businesses to charge at least $20 for shirts and blouses. This isn't too bad every so often, but it can add up quickly if you're doing a lot of dry cleaning or working on a very limited budget.
Alternatives to Dry Cleaning
If, after reading all of this, you're thinking, "dry cleaning is a scam," we don't blame you. Yes, there are times when it is simply necessary, especially if you want to preserve your clothes – especially your most expensive, high-quality garments – for years to come. However, it can be wasteful in other situations, and you can get away with using an alternative.
Some alternatives to dry cleaning include:
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- Hand Washing — A common reason why you can't wash some clothes normally is because of the vigorous nature of modern washers. Water isn't the issue. It only becomes one when you agitate it aggressively with detergents. Therefore, you can avoid taking your laundry to dry cleaners by washing some of your clothes by hand and with softer soaps. Earth Breeze Laundry Detergent Sheets are perfect for handwashing. Silk and wool, for example, can usually be cleaned this way, as well as some other types of delicate cotton. Don't do this for suits and other larger items, but it's an excellent workaround for smaller items. Just remember not to scrub too hard, as doing so will likely cause even more damage than washing delicate fabrics in your washing machine.
- Steam — Dry cleaners use a lot of steam to clean your clothes. You can do this too by using an iron. Simply hang your clothes up and spray them with steam and perhaps a little bit of light soap to get sweat stains and other light soiling out of the fabric. Another option is to invest in a new washing machine with a steam feature. You can use a personal garment steamer, too.
- At-Home Dry Cleaning Kits — If you want to dry clean your clothes yourself, you can buy kits that contain the same chemicals used by the cleaners. They work pretty well, but they will wind up costing you the same as if you took your clothes to the cleaners. Therefore, they are only a viable alternative if you're pressed for time. And if you are concerned about damaging your clothes, it makes more sense just to take them to a professional cleaner to avoid the risk of complications.
Dry Cleaning Is Dry...Sort of
It's dry in the sense that it doesn't use any water, but it does use liquid chemical solvents. However, now that you know a little bit more about the process of dry cleaning and what it involves, hopefully, you can see why it is (and sometimes isn't) necessary.
Now, use this information to make smarter choices about caring for your clothing and make it last the rest of your life!