How Does Dry Cleaning Work?

Most people would include the idea of taking their clothes to the dry cleaners as something that is unique to modern society. These same individuals would be surprised by the fact that the term dry-cleaning was first inscribed on a Mycenaean clay tablet somewhere between the years 1600 and 1100 BCE.

To be clear, the dry-cleaning referred to is not the same process that is used today. Van Sigworth, a renowned member of the National Institute of Dry-Cleaning, explains that this term likely refers to the process whereby dirt was used to absorb grease from clothing to get rid of a stain.

So this is an example of dry-cleaning in a very literal form. What most people do not realize is that the dry cleaning we use today is not that dry.


The Beginnings of Modern Dry-Cleaning

Modern dry-cleaning is thought to have had start sometime around the early 1800s. As with all retelling of historical events, there are some discrepancies in the specifics of the story.

However, it is generally accepted that Jean Baptiste, or Jolly Belin, depending on who’s telling the story, accidentally spilled a chemical on a greasy tablecloth.

Some feel that the chemical was turpentine, and others think that it might have been kerosene. Regardless of the chemical used, what was noticeable is that when it dried, the area left behind was unbelievably clean.

Petroleum-based Fluid

From there, Jean Baptiste started to experiment and he learned that a petroleum-based fluid has the ability to clean even the most delicate fibers.

So somewhere between 1825 and 1845 in Paris, the Jolly Belin dry cleaners opened. And for the next century, dry-cleaning companies used kerosene or some other combustible gasoline to tackle stains.

Of course, as would be expected, using combustible materials posed a fire risk. It was hard for some of these businesses to get insurance.

However, in the 1930’s, dry cleaners tried to experiment with other solvents, and by 1948 a nonflammable halogen compound known as perchloroethylene came on the market.

The Modern Dry-Cleaning Process

For the most part, modern dry cleaners still use perchloroethylene. During the process, your clothing is thrown into a wash machine-like device. The rotating drum becomes full of the chemical being used, and the clothes agitated to break down and remove the stains.

Then the perchloroethylene is drained out, filtered, and stored away to be used again. Water is used to remove any water-soluble stains. Then the clothing is pressed, put in plastic bags, and is ready for you to pick it up.

The Challenge of Using Perchloroethylene

Perchloroethylene is not without its faults. In the 1990’s, a study showed that dry cleaning workers were two times as likely to get esophageal and bladder cancer.

The EPA says that perchloroethylene can be carcinogenic to humans. Studies have shown that perchloroethylene might affect the immune system, reproductive system, kidneys, and liver.

Dry cleaners are looking for new chemicals to serve as organic or green cleaners. One option is siloxane, which is a chemical solvent that is biodegradable and based on silicone.


Some cleaners are starting to use CO2 as a solvent. However, because of the price, this has not really caught on yet in a lot of places.

If you have a lot of items that need to be dry cleaned, there are pickup & delivery dry cleaning services that can take care of that for you. Also, many people are opting instead to do a wet cleaning, which is using a good old wash machine and water to get their clothes looking nice.

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