If you’ve ever dropped off a wine-stained wedding dress or a sports uniform that is covered in dirt at the dry cleaners, but didn’t know how they could make it look good as new—then this blog is for you! Dry cleaning can seem like a mysterious process, but in reality, it’s not all that complex. If you’re curious about how dry cleaning works or just want to be prepared should you ever need to answer a dry cleaning-related trivia question, we have you covered.

The History of Dry Cleaning

Once people began washing their bodies, they set out to clean their clothes as well. In the past, people would scrub their clothes with stones and sand or use buckets to wash their items, which eventually evolved into the modern invention we know today as dry cleaning. With the average person having never stepped foot in the back of a dry cleaner, it begs the question—how does dry cleaning work?

The origins of dry cleaning date back to the late 1800s when a clumsy maid was said to have knocked over a kerosene lamp that removed stains from a linen tablecloth. The discovery was made by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Jolly, who is described as the father of modern dry cleaning. However, this inaugural method for dry cleaning was not without its weaknesses.

Not only did kerosene make clothes reek, but the use of flammable materials caused fires, forcing new regulations to protect businesses. Turning away from more flammable solvents, a dry cleaner from Atlanta, Georgia, Wiliam Joseph Stoddard, created a mixture of petroleum distillate fractions that became known as Stoddard solvent, which was used until the late 1950s.

Did you know: Thomas Jennings became the first African American to be granted a patent in 1821. A successful tailor and businessman, Thomas invented a process called “dry-scouring”, a method of cleaning clothes in a way that did not harm them. That process has evolved into the dry cleaning process we have today!

What Chemicals are Used in Dry Cleaning?

If you’ve pondered how your outfits stay so clean after a trip to the dry cleaners—how does dry cleaning work?

To understand dry cleaning, you must first understand the types of chemical solvents used to remove stains and freshen clothes. Each solvent differs in cost, cleaning time, and other factors.

  • Perchloroethylene (PERC) is the most widely used solvent among dry cleaning professionals. It releases a sweet smell that wears off and becomes undetectable in a short amount of time.
  • Hydrocarbons are petroleum-based solvents used to dry clean clothes. It is slightly more flammable than PERC and does require a longer cleaning cycle to remove stains.
  • Liquid Carbon Dioxide is both non-toxic and noncombustible. The highly pressurized gas is pumped into the cleaning cycle (in conjunction with detergent) and then sucked out for re-use.
  • Glycol Ethers are formulated with a variety of other chemicals, such as dipropylene glycol n-butyl ether, which is a solvent used in the creation of makeup. Glycol ethers have a higher flashpoint than PERC—meaning they can ignite at higher temperatures, creating safer conditions.
  • Liquid Silicone is free from harsh chemicals and absorbs deep into fabrics to lift stains. It is environmentally friendly as it breaks down into water, sand, and carbon dioxide.

What is the Environmental Impact of the Dry Cleaning Process

Up until the 1990s, most dry cleaning machines involved a transfer system where clothes were manually switched between multiple machines and contained separate distillation units. This created a wider impact on the environment because workers had to manually drain the leftover solvent. Similar to how one would throw out filtered coffee grounds, distillation produced leftover waste that needed to be disposed of—creating environmental concern.

Today, dry cleaning machines have been equipped with pollution prevention technology that is both good for the environment and cost-effective. For instance, a closed-loop dry-to-dry system reduces vent emissions by up to 70%.

Other measures that reduce the spread of solvents released into the air include the addition of a distillation unit on a machine, carbon absorbers, refrigerated condensers, proper loading technique, and proper filter cartridge drainage.

Reducing our carbon footprint and protecting the environment is a top priority for ZIPS, which is why we send your clothes back home to you without excess tissue paper and use 100% recycled bags!

What is the Dry Cleaning Process?

If you want to take your Dorothy costume to the cleaners, we promise to be more transparent about our dry cleaning process than the man behind the curtain. If the yellow brick road didn’t lead to any answers—then what is dry cleaning?

  1. Garment Tagging: Once you drop off an item at your local dry cleaner, it is tagged for identification. This step ensures that the correct item will be returned to its rightful owner.
  2. Garment Examination: Your dry cleaner will carefully scan your garment for any rips, tears, or missing buttons. If found, they will make a note and report back to you.
  3. Stain Pre-Treatment: Garments are laid flat and inspected for any stains. Depending on the type of stain, it is treated with a special solvent.
  4. Machine Dry Cleaning: Dry cleaner workers sort garments by color and then place them into dry-cleaning machines. Solvents lift the stains to give the item a fresh renewed look. The machine spins like a typical washing machine and then gives the item a final solvent rinse to complete the session.
  5. Post-Spotting: Dry cleaners give one final quality assurance look at your items. If any stubborn stains are left behind they will be treated with steam, water, or vacuuming. Finally the clothing will be professionally pressed to ensure the garment is returned wrinkle-free and in the best possible condition.
  6. Garment Returned: ZIPS returns cleaned items to you without all of the wasteful unnecessary packaging that other dry cleaners wrap their garments in, and are ready to wear!

How Long Does the Dry Cleaning Process Take?

Dry cleaning can typically take up to 2 days. But here at ZIPS, we know your schedule is busy, which is why our dry cleaners can clean garments on-site and offers same-day service. If you drop off your dry cleaning before 9am, we will have it ready by 5 the same day.

Is Steam Cleaning the Same as Dry Cleaning?

Not quite. Steam cleaners are great for removing wrinkles from bulky items like bedding, but for a thorough clean we recommend bringing your items to a dry cleaner. While steam cleaners use steam to relax fabrics, the dry cleaning process uses solvents and other cleaning agents to remove stains and clean fabrics.

Is Dry Cleaning Better than Washing at Home?

Dry cleaning may be the way to go depending on the item you need to be cleaned. You might be tempted to skip the dry cleaners for a regular load of laundry, but professional machines and solvents will always leave your garments fresher than simply doing laundry at home–especially if you have items that are dry clean only.

P.S.- Sick of doing your machine-washable laundry? Check out ZIPS’ 24-hour Wash N Fold service.

How to get the most out of your Dry Cleaner

To get the most out of your dry cleaner, we put together a few helpful tips so you can bypass the initiation rituals and become an expert on the dry cleaning process.

  • Communicate any stains on your garment to your dry cleaner at drop-off.
  • Leave care labels on your garments attached so your dry cleaner can read them.
  • Give your dry cleaner a full day to clean your clothes. At ZIPS, you can drop your garment off by 9 a.m. and pick it up at 5 p.m. the same day!
  • Leave the stain removal to the professionals–home remedies can sometimes cause more damage than the original stain!
  • Bring stained items in as soon as possible.

Tips to Take Care of Your Clothes

To be more environmentally conscious, many people are trying to take better care of their clothes so that they last longer. Whether you never look at the wash care label on your Hawaiian shirts or go to great lengths to preserve your clothes, we wanted to provide you with some helpful tips to keep your wardrobe popping!

  • Read care labels.
  • Clean your clothes before you wear them.
  • Use garment bags to protect delicate clothes.
  • Wash shirts with pressed-on lettering inside out.
  • Allow clothes that are prone to shrinkage to air dry.
  • Hang clothes to avoid wrinkles.
  • Tackle stains when they are fresh—don’t wait until they set in.
  • Place a dry towel in the dryer along with your wet item when you want to dry a single item fast.

Final Thoughts

A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into the dry cleaning process, perhaps giving you a new appreciation for your local dry cleaner. Now that you’re a dry cleaning wiz, you’re ready to impress your friends and family—and perhaps your local ZIPS associate—with your newfound knowledge.

Not sure where to get your clothes dry cleaned or just want to explore our services? Find a ZIPS location near you for all your dry cleaning needs.