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:: Fabric Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning (or dry-cleaning) is any cleaning process for clothing and textiles using an organic solvent rather than water. The solvent used is typically tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), abbreviated "perc" in the industry and "dry-cleaning fluid" by the public. Dry cleaning is necessary for cleaning items that would otherwise be damaged by water and soap or detergent. It is often used instead of hand washing delicate fabrics, which can be excessively laborious.


Dry cleaning uses non-water-based solvents to remove soil and stains from clothes. The potential for using petroleum-based solvents in this manner was discovered in the mid-19th century by French dye-works owner Jean Baptiste Jolly, who noticed that his tablecloth became cleaner after his maid spilled kerosene (paraffin) on it. He subsequently developed a service cleaning people's clothes in this manner, which became known as "nettoyage à sec," or "dry cleaning" in English.[1]

Early dry cleaners used petroleum-based solvents such as gasoline and kerosene. Flammability concerns led William Joseph Stoddard, a dry cleaner from Atlanta, to develop Stoddard solvent as a slightly less flammable alternative to gasoline-based solvents. The use of highly flammable petroleum solvents caused many fires and explosions, resulting in government regulation of dry cleaners.

After World War I, dry cleaners began using chlorinated solvents. These solvents were much less flammable than petroleum solvents and had improved cleaning power. By the mid-1930s, the dry cleaning industry had adopted tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), colloquially called "perc," as the ideal solvent. It has excellent cleaning power and is stable, nonflammable, and gentle to most garments. However, perc was also the first chemical to be classified as a carcinogen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (a classification later withdrawn). In 1993, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted an airborne toxic control measure (ATCM) to reduce perc emissions from dry cleaning operations. The dry cleaning industry is now[when?] beginning to replace perc with other chemicals and/or methods. At this time, dry-cleaning was carried-out in two different machines — one for the cleaning process itself and the second to dry the garments.

Traditionally, the actual cleaning process was carried-out at centralized "factories"; high street cleaners shops received garments from customers, sent them to the factory, and then had them returned to the shop, where the customer could collect them. This was due mainly to the risk of fire or dangerous fumes created by the cleaning process.

This changed when the British dry-cleaning equipment company, Spencer, introduced the first in-shop machines (which, like modern dry cleaning machines, both clean and dry in one machine). Though the Spencer machines were large, they were suitably sized and vented to be fitted into shops. In general, three models, the Spencer Minor, Spencer Junior, and Spencer Major, were used (larger models, the Spencer Senior and Spencer Mammoth, were intended for factory use). The cleaning and drying process was controlled by a punch-card, which fed through the "Spencermatic" reader on the machine. Also, Spencer introduced much smaller machines, including the Spencer Solitaire and one simply called the Spencer Dry Cleaning Machine, for use in coin-operated launderettes. These machines resembled coin-operated tumble dryers; to be as small as they were, they simply filtered used perc, rather than distilling it like the commercial Spencer machines. Solvent had to be changed far more frequently as without distillation, it quickly became discoloured, and could cause yellowing of pale items being cleaned. A coin-operated version of the Spencer Minor, which automatically carried out all the distillation and solvent-cleaning operations of the standard version was available but rarely seen, presumably[citation needed] due to its greater cost and size than the other coin-operated machines.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Spencer machines were extremely popular, with virtually every branch of Bollom possessing either a Spencer Minor or a Spencer Junior. Spencer continued to produce machines (introducing new modular and computer controlled models, such as the Spencer Sprint series) until the late 1980s, when the company closed. Spencer machines may still occasionally be seen.


A dry-cleaning machine is similar to a combination of a domestic washing machine, and clothes dryer. Garments are placed into a washing/extraction chamber (referred to as the basket, or drum), which is the core of the machine. The washing chamber contains a horizontal, perforated drum that rotates within an outer shell. The shell holds the solvent while the rotating drum holds the garment load. The basket capacity is between about 10 and 40 kg (20 to 80 lb).

During the wash cycle, the chamber is filled approximately one-third full of solvent and begins to rotate, agitating the clothing. The solvent temperature is maintained at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), as a higher temperature may damage it. During the wash cycle, the solvent in the chamber (commonly known as the 'cage') is passed through a filtration chamber and then fed back into the 'cage'.

This is known as the cycle and is continued for the wash duration. The solvent is then removed and sent to a distillation unit comprising a boiler and condenser. The condensed solvent is fed into a separator unit where any remaining water is separated from the solvent and then fed into the 'clean solvent' tank. The ideal flow rate is one gallon of solvent per pound of garments (roughly 8 litres of solvent per kilogram of garments) per minute, depending on the size of the machine.

Garments are also checked for foreign objects. Items such as plastic pens will dissolve in the solvent bath and may damage textiles beyond recovery. Some textile dyes are "loose" (red being the main culprit), and will shed dye during solvent immersion. These will not be included in a load along with lighter-color textiles to avoid color transfer. The solvent used must be distilled to remove impurities that may transfer to clothing. Garments are checked for dry-cleaning compatibility, including fasteners. Many decorative fasteners either are not dry cleaning solvent proof or will not withstand the mechanical action of cleaning. These will be removed and restitched after the cleaning, or protected with a small padded protector. Fragile items, such as feather bedspreads or tasseled rugs or hangings, may be enclosed in a loose mesh bag. The density of perchloroethylene is around 1.7 g/cm³ at room temperature (70% heavier than water), and the sheer weight of absorbed solvent may cause the textile to fail under normal force during the extraction cycle unless the mesh bag provides mechanical support.

Many people believe that marks or stains can be removed by dry cleaning. Not every stain can be cleaned just by dry cleaning. Some need to be treated with spotting solvents; sometimes by steam jet or by soaking in special stain remover liquids before garments are washed or dry cleaned. Also, garments stored in soiled condition for a long time (two months or more) are difficult to bring back to their original color and texture. Natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and silk of lighter colors should not be left in dirty or soiled condition for long amounts of time as they absorb dirt in their texture and are unlikely to be restored to their original color and finish.

A typical wash cycle lasts for 8–15 minutes depending on the type of garments and degree of soiling. During the first three minutes, solvent-soluble soils dissolve into the perchloroethylene and loose, insoluble soil comes off. It takes approximately ten to twelve minutes after the loose soil has come off to remove the ground-in insoluble soil from garments. Machines using hydrocarbon solvents require a wash cycle of at least 25 minutes because of the much slower rate of solvation of solvent-soluble soils. A dry-cleaning surfactant "soap" may also be added.

At the end of the wash cycle, the machine starts a rinse cycle wherein the garment load is rinsed with fresh distilled solvent from the pure solvent tank. This pure solvent rinse prevents discoloration caused by soil particles being absorbed back onto the garment surface from the "dirty" working solvent.

After the rinse cycle, the machine begins the extraction process, which recovers dry-cleaning solvent for reuse. Modern machines recover approximately 99.99% of the solvent employed. The extraction cycle begins by draining the solvent from the washing chamber and accelerating the basket to 350 to 450 rpm, causing much of the solvent to spin free of the fabric. When no more solvent can be spun out, the machine starts the drying cycle.

During the drying cycle, the garments are tumbled in a stream of warm air (63°C/145°F) that circulates through the basket, evaporating any traces of solvent left after the spin cycle. The air temperature is controlled to prevent heat damage to the garments. The exhausted warm air from the machine then passes through a chiller unit where solvent vapors are condensed and returned to the distilled solvent tank. Modern dry cleaning machines use a closed-loop system in which the chilled air is reheated and recirculated. This results in high solvent recovery rates and reduced air pollution. In the early days of dry cleaning, large amounts of perchlorethylene were vented to the atmosphere because it was regarded as cheap and believed to be harmless.

After the drying cycle is complete, a deodorizing (aeration) cycle cools the garments and removes the last traces of solvent, by circulating cool outside air over the garments and then through a vapor recovery filter made from activated carbon and polymer resins. After the aeration cycle, the garments are clean and ready for pressing/finishing.

Solvent Processing

Working solvent from the washing chamber passes through several filtration steps before it is returned to the washing chamber. The first step is a button trap, which prevents small objects such as lint, fasteners, buttons, and coins from entering the solvent pump.

Over time, a thin layer of filter cake (called muck) accumulates on the lint filter. The muck is removed regularly (commonly once per day) and then processed to recover solvent trapped in the muck. Many machines use "spin disc filters," which remove the muck from the filter by centripetal force while it is back washed with solvent.

After the lint filter, the solvent passes through an absorptive cartridge filter. This filter is made from activated clays and charcoal and removes fine insoluble soil and non-volatile residues, along with dyes from the solvent. Finally, the solvent passes through a polishing filter, which removes any soil not previously removed. The clean solvent is then returned to the working solvent tank.

To enhance cleaning power, small amounts of detergent (0.5%-1.5%) are added to the working solvent and are essential to its functionality. These detergents help dissolve hydrophilic soils and keep soil from redepositing on garments. Depending on the machine's design, either an anionic or a cationic detergent is used.

Since the solvent recovery is less than 100%, and because dry-cleaning does not remove water-based stains well, entrepreneurs have developed the wet cleaning process, which is, in essence, cold-water washing and air drying, using a computer-controlled washer and dryer. In general, wet cleaning is regarded as being in its infancy, although low-tech versions of it have been used for centuries.

[edit] Symbols

The international GINETEX laundry symbol for dry cleaning is a circle. It may have a letter P inside to indicate perchloroethylene solvent, or a letter F inside to indicate a hydrocarbon solvent. A bar underneath the circle indicates that only mild cleaning processes should be used. A crossed-out empty circle indicates that no dry cleaning is permitted.

Dry-cleaning wastes

Cooked muck

Cooked Powder Residue — the waste material generated by cooking down or distilling muck. Cooked powder residue is a hazardous waste and will contain solvent, powdered filter material (diatomite), carbon, non-volatile residues, lint, dyes, grease, soils, and water. This material should then be disposed of in accordance with local law.


The waste sludge or solid residue from the still contains solvent, water, soils, carbon, and other non-volatile residues. Still bottoms from chlorinated solvent dry cleaning operations are hazardous wastes.


Perc is classified as a hazardous air contaminant by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and must be handled as a hazardous waste. To prevent it from getting into drinking water, dry cleaners that use perc must take special precautions against site contamination. Landlords are becoming increasingly reluctant to allow dry cleaners to operate in their buildings. When released into the air, perc can contribute to smog when it reacts with other volatile organic carbon substances.[2] California declared perchloroethylene a toxic chemical in 1991, and its use will become illegal in that state in 2023.[3]

Solvents Used in Dry Cleaning

    * Glycol ethers (dipropylene glycol tertiary-butyl ether) (Rynex)(Solvair) — In many cases more effective than perchloroethylene (perc) and in all cases more environmentally friendly. Dipropylene glycol tertiary butyl ether (DPTB) has a flashpoint far above current industry standards, yet at the same time possesses a degree of solvency for water-soluble stains that is at least equivalent to, and in most cases better than, perc and the other glycol ether dry cleaning solvents presently in commercial use. A particular advantage of the DPTB-water solutions of the Rynex product in dry cleaning is that they do not behave like a typical mixture, but, rather, the behavior is the same as a single substance. This permits a better-defined separation upon azeotropic distillation at a lower boiling point and also facilitates reclamation more effectively, at a level of 99% or greater, and also enhances purification using conventional distillation techniques.[4]

    * Hydrocarbon — This is most like standard dry cleaning, but the processes use hydrocarbon solvents such as Exxon-Mobil’s DF-2000 or Chevron Phillips' EcoSolv. These petroleum-based solvents are less aggressive than perc and require a longer cleaning cycle. While flammable, these solvents do not present a high risk of fire or explosion when used properly. Hydrocarbon also contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to smog.[5]

    * Liquid silicone (decamethylcyclopentasiloxane or D5) — gentler on garments than Perc and does not cause color loss. Requires a license be obtained to utilize the property of GreenEarth Cleaning. Though considerably more environmentally friendly, the price of it is more than double that of perc, and GreenEarth charges an annual affiliation fee.[6] Degrades within days in the environment to silica and trace amounts of water and CO2. Produces nontoxic, nonhazardous waste. Toxicity tests by Dow Corning shows the solvent to increase the incidence of tumors in female rats (no effects were seen in male rats), but further research concluded that the effects observed in rats are not relevant to humans because the biological pathway that results in tumor formation is unique to rats.[7](170.6 °F/77 °C flash point).

    * Modified hydrocarbon blends (Pure Dry)

    * Perchloroethylene — In use since the 1940s, perc is the most common solvent, the "standard" for cleaning performance, and most aggressive cleaner. It can cause color bleeding/loss, especially at higher temperatures, and may destroy special trims, buttons, and beads on some garments. Better for oil-based stains (which account for about 10% of stains) than more common water-soluble stains (coffee, wine, blood, etc). Known for leaving a characteristic chemical smell on garments. Nonflammable.

    * Liquid CO2 — Consumer Reports rated this method superior to conventional methods, but the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute commented on its "fairly low cleaning ability" in a 2007 report.[8] Another industry certification group, America's Best Cleaners, counts CO2 cleaners among its members. Machinery is expensive—up to $90,000 more than a perc machine, making affordability difficult for small businesses. Some cleaners with these machines keep traditional machines on-site for the heavier soiled textiles, but others find plant enzymes to be equally effective and more environmentally sustainable. CO2-cleaned clothing does not off-gas volatile compounds. CO2 cleaning is also used for fire- and water-damage restoration due to its effectiveness in removing toxic residues, soot and associated odors of fire.

    * Wet cleaning — A system that uses water and biodegradable soap. Computer-controlled dryers and stretching machines ensure that the fabric retains its natural size and shape. Wet cleaning is claimed to clean a majority of "dry clean only" garments safely, including leather, suede, most tailored woolens, silk, and rayon. (Neckties seem to be the one exception.) Most perc cleaners use wet cleaning on some garments, but there are only about 20 exclusive wetcleaners in the U.S.

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