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Dry Clean Only? Don’t Be Afraid—It’s Just a Tag!

I enjoy giving laundry tips to those that dread the prospect of dry cleaning.

What is dry cleaning? Do you really have to follow a label that says "dry clean only"?

What is dry cleaning? Do you really have to follow a label that says "dry clean only"?

What Does "Dry Clean Only" Mean?

For some people, one of the most horrible experiences is finding out that a garment they absolutely adore has a tag stating it's "dry clean only."

However, those three little words don't have to strike fear into your heart, there are a variety of ways that you can get around the need for dry cleaning (or at the very least greatly reduce the frequency of your trips to the dry cleaner).

Of course, it helps if you understand exactly what dry cleaning is and how it works . . . this can help you to see how it benefits certain materials and will also assist you in figuring out whether you can get your dry clean only clothes clean in some other way.

Dry cleaning uses an organic solvent instead of water.

Dry cleaning uses an organic solvent instead of water.

What Dry Cleaning Is

Dry cleaning is a method for cleaning clothes that uses an organic solvent instead of water, with the most common solvent used being tetrachloroethylene. A number of different solvents have been used since the dry cleaning process was first created in the middle of the 19th century; early versions used kerosene or gasoline, though the danger of using these chemicals resulted in a number of explosions in dry cleaning establishments.

This changed after World War I when dry cleaners began looking for less dangerous ways to get clothes clean. Tetrachloroethylene became popular as a cleaning solvent in the late 1930s due to its stability, how gentle it is on most fabrics, and the fact that it's completely non-flammable. The more common name for tetrachloroethylene is "perc," which is a shortened form of its alternate name, perchloroethylene.

Why Clothes Are Labeled “Dry Clean Only”

A number of materials simply can't be washed in standard detergent and water as you would put into a washing machine; either the chemicals in the detergent would damage the material, or the water would cause the material to shrink or otherwise be negatively affected.

Clothing made of these materials will often be labeled "dry clean only," informing people who own those garments that they might damage them if they put them in the washing machine with their other clothes.

Of course, not all dry clean only clothing is going to be severely damaged if it isn't sent to a dry cleaner . . . some materials do quite well with hand washing but are labeled "dry clean only" because some consumers are more likely to buy clothes with this label than a handwash only label.

Still, other clothing items are made of materials that are generally not recommended to be placed in a washing machine but that can be washed under certain conditions.

Clothing labels can be quite confusing.

Clothing labels can be quite confusing.

Washing “Dry Clean Only” Clothes

Some "dry clean only" materials can stand at least occasional cleaning in a washing machine, though care must be taken when doing so.

  • It is generally recommended that if you are going to attempt to wash "dry clean only" clothes that they be washed in cold water only and using a mild detergent.
  • They should be placed on the delicate cycle, and a lingerie bag or other delicate garment bag should be used if possible in order to protect the garment.
  • Before you place any item of clothing labeled "dry clean only" into the washer, you should take the time to do a little bit of research in order to make sure that you're not going to ruin the garment.
  • Do an online search if possible to see if others have had success washing similar clothing items, and read up on the procedures that they used to achieve this success.
  • Any information that you can find will help to ensure that you don't do irreparable harm to your garment; if you can't find any information on that particular type of material and are worried about whether or not you should wash it in the washing machine, then you should simply not risk it and try to find an alternative method of cleaning it.

Hand Washing

Several types of material which are usually labeled "dry clean only" actually do quite well with hand washing so long as you use a gentle detergent. Hand washing your clothes is usually much less aggressive and doesn't agitate the clothing item nearly as much as machine washing; this can greatly reduce the chance of your item being damaged while washing it with detergent and water.

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Since you're physically in contact with the garment the entire time, you can also keep a much closer eye on it and notice any potential damage well in advance of the point when it would become damaged beyond repair.

If you aren't sure whether a garment can handle being hand-washed, you can test a small portion of the material in an inconspicuous place before washing the entire garment. Apply a small amount of detergent and wet it, slowly working it in with your hands and then rinsing it out. Be sure that you use cold water for this, as warm or hot water can often cause shrinking or other damage to certain materials.

Watch for any signs of color bleeding, stretching, shrinking, or any other damage which might occur. Wait for the portion that you cleaned to dry completely, and then examine it closely . . . if it seems unaffected by the cleaning, then you should have no problems hand washing the garment.

If you don't want to take your clothes to the dry cleaners, what other options do you have?

If you don't want to take your clothes to the dry cleaners, what other options do you have?

Dry Cleaning Alternatives

A number of dry cleaning alternatives have been released on the market in recent years, including home dry cleaning kits which allow you to do your own dry cleaning using a home dryer.

These kits generally contain a pre-treating liquid that needs to be rubbed directly into stained areas on the garment or garments that you're cleaning, a cloth bag that can be placed in the dryer, and small sheets which are soaked in solvent.

The pre-treated clothes are placed inside the bag with a solvent sheet, and the bag is then placed into the drier for the amount of time listed in the kit instructions. The heat of the dryer evaporates the solvent, causing it to react with the stains on the clothing and dissolve them.

If the garment is not stained but has simply been worn, then it may be possible to steam clean it in the dryer as well. Place the garment in the dryer along with a dryer sheet and a damp towel (making sure that the towel is only somewhat damp and not overly wet.) The heat from the dryer will cause the towel to release steam, while the dryer sheet will reduce static, and if you're using scented dryer sheets, it will also leave your clothes smelling fresh.

Some materials are also safe to wash after they have been dry cleaned once or twice . . . the dry cleaning process can "set" the material, preventing it from experiencing the damaging effects that it would normally undergo in the washing machine. If you attempt to try washing clothing after it has been dry cleaned a few times, make sure that you use the delicate cycle in order to help prevent any damage that might be done in case the material hasn't set.

When to Visit the Dry Cleaner

Certain materials, such as wool and very fine silk, should be taken to the dry cleaner if they need to be cleaned. Wool can shrink horribly if washed in a standard washing machine (especially in warm or hot water), and fine silk can be damaged by the agitation of your washing machine.

You might also consider taking clothes that you would normally hand wash to the dry cleaner at least once in a while if you feel that you need a break from your standard handwashing routine.

Reducing Dry Cleaner Visits

Just because some of your clothes are dry clean only doesn't mean that you have to take them in for cleaning every time you wear them. Consider wearing a plain t-shirt or other basic garments that you can throw into the washing machine underneath your "dry clean only" clothes; this can help prevent perspiration and body soil from getting into the clothing and can reduce the frequency with which you have to have it cleaned.

You also might wish to consider using some of the alternatives mentioned above on an occasional basis, alternating trips to the dry cleaner with cleanings done with a home kit or other alternative.

Another option is to simply shop around at thrift stores or factory second stores . . . you can buy clothing for a greatly reduced price, and even if you damage a dry clean only item by washing it, you've managed to save yourself a significant amount of money off of your original purchase so it won't be nearly as much of a tragedy.


bellartdesigns from Fredericksburg, Virginia on November 16, 2011:

I have to comment because I just Googled "can you wash dry cleaning in the wash without it getting ruined" and your hub was the very first thing to come up. Too funny! I am a hubber too. My husband actually laughed when I told him what had happened. Thanks for writing this - I needed this information! Very useful hub!

joy on November 06, 2011:

When hand washing your dry clean only items such as sweaters, always use cold water..use woolite or even a soft dish soap or shampoo and not a harsh washing machine detergent.

Michelle on October 14, 2011:

Thank you for this incredibly helpful and detailed post.

Sirena Sea from California on April 21, 2011:

Good to know that "dry clean only" isn't always a mandate, that hadn't occurred to me. Thanks!

FreshCloz on July 12, 2010:

Great posting, thanks for sharing. But now we can use a kind of dry clean alternative, fresh the "Dry clean only" cloth, it called freshcloz.

C. Ramsdell on July 10, 2010:

I voted you up and useful! This article is very helpful, and now I am excited to get to wear my favorite things more often because I don't have to go to the dry cleaners once a month! Thank you!

Pete Maida on May 25, 2009:

I would leave my work clothes for dry cleaning; it was more for the pressing than the cleaning. Love the baby picture.

Elisabeth Sowerbutts from New Zealand on May 24, 2009:

My mother told me it was common practice to sew in underarm pads into good dresses (often wool) - which were then removed and washed - rather than having to have the entire garment washed.

I wear eleaborate ballroom dancing dresses which are often heavily stoned with crystals. You never dry clean them - the stones fall off - instead you lay them flat and spot wash the underarms and other bits which get smellie. also leaving the dress out in the sunlight inside out will get rid of sweat stains quite well too

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