How to Dry Clean Clothing at Home

All of your burning dry-cleaning questions are answered here.

Photo: Steven McDonald

While some items will always need professional attention, many fabrics can be freshened at home. The truth is, dry cleaning is not actually dry; the clothes get wet, just not with water, but rather with perchloroethylene, or perc, the cleaning and degreasing solvent that's been used for decades. They're then cycled through large washing machines, much like the one you use at home. Once you know which clothes and stains are good candidates for an at-home cleaning-no single technique or product can take care of every spot and spill-you can dry clean many of them yourself without much effort or expense, in the comfort of your own laundry room.

Which Clothes Can Be Washed?

Chances are you can launder more of your wardrobe than you think. Reading a garment's care label-not only for the method of cleaning but also for the fabric content-is key to determining whether you can wash an item at home.

The Truth About "Dry-Clean Only"

Clothing manufacturers are required to recommend at least one cleaning method on their products' care labels. When a tag reads "dry-clean only," it doesn't necessarily mean that the item can't be hand-washed, especially if it's made of natural fibers, says Steve Boorstein, a former dry cleaner who now shares his clothing-care tips in books and on his website But professional dry cleaning can reduce the risk of returns by consumers who mishandle these clothes at home; manufacturers, therefore, tend to take a conservative approach.

What to Wash

Garments that are simply constructed, unlined, and made of natural fibers (cotton, silk, and linen) or of the synthetic workhorse polyester can probably be washed by hand or in cold water in a machine. (Slipping them into a mesh bag helps reduce wear.) Before washing reds and other deep colors, test for colorfastness by wetting an inconspicuous area of the item with several drops of water and pressing with a white cloth or a cotton swab. If the color bleeds, take it to a dry cleaner.

What Not to Wash

Suits, pleated skirts, and clothing made from delicate synthetics, such as rayon, or fabric blends, including silk and wool, should be left to the pros; all tend to lose their shape in water. Leather or suede items and those with metal embellishments, beading, or sequins require special care, too. Heavily soiled garments, especially those with difficult oil-based stains, should be taken to a dry cleaner, who may be able to remove them with specialized solvents.

Do Home Dry-Cleaning Kits Work?

Available in the laundry aisle at supermarkets and drugstores, these kits are designed for spot-cleaning and deodorizing items at home. Used with a standard dryer, the kits cost less than having the work done by professionals. Here's how they work: First, spot-treat your clothing with the included pre-treater. Then put your clothes and the damp pad with cleaning solution (also included) in the dryer, where the heat steams them. To minimize wrinkles, remove garments a few minutes before the cycle ends and hang them up to dry.

The Pros of Home Dry-Cleaning Kits

Your items emerge "refreshed," with a clean scent, says Chris Allsbrooks, a textile analyst at the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI), in Laurel, Maryland. Experts there tested the leading kits on the market and agreed that they successfully eliminated odors and wrinkles and worked well on water-based stains, such as wine and milk. The products are also a bargain, costing about $20 for a kit that can clean as many as 40 items, depending on the brand. "They're great for knits and sweaters, and as a supplement to dry cleaning," Allsbrooks says.

The Cons of Home Dry-Cleaning Kits

According to the DLI report, the kits do not get rid of oil-based and other stubborn stains very well, and they can't lift marks from body oils. In fact, ballpoint-ink stains may be set when treated with water-based stain-removal solutions. And though clothes come out soft and unwrinkled, they're not exactly pressed or starched.

Which Appliances?

Short of a live-in launderer, the most helpful additions to modern laundry rooms are the new family of washers, dryers, and other appliances that put steam to good use. While the machines require an investment, they can clean and refresh many types of fabrics and reduce trips to the dry cleaner.

Steam Washers

Home water heaters are often set to 120 degrees, but the temperature may drop before the water reaches the washing machine. "That is simply not hot enough to break down oil-based stains in your laundry," Boorstein says. Steam washers can push temperatures as high as 148 degrees, helping to eliminate notoriously tough stains, such as grass and grease; they then cool the clothes to prevent them from shrinking.

Steam Dryers

Blasts of steam injected during drying can make stale clothes smell as good as clean ones-a top reason consumers bring a garment to the dry cleaner, Boorstein says. Odor molecules break down in seconds at 114 degrees. Before steaming an item, take a moment to inspect for hidden stains and address them. Keep in mind that steaming clothes without laundering them first will increase the likelihood of setting stains.

Portable Steamers

These powerful appliances can relax deep-set creases as well as those in fabrics too delicate for ironing. As many as a third of women's garments taken to a dry cleaner simply need to be steamed, Boorstein says, especially items wrinkled after minimal wear. Handheld versions are invaluable for travel, letting you steam clothing upon arrival. But take care when using the appliance, because the steam can burn you. Boorstein suggests slipping a small sock over the nozzle to absorb stray hot droplets.

How Do You Keep Your Clothes Clean?

An ounce of prevention could be worth a pound of dry-cleaning receipts. Incorporate these clothing-care practices into your routine and you'll not only cut down on dry cleaning, but you'll also keep your clothes around longer.

Keep Toiletries Away

Get in the habit of applying deodorant, hair products, scented sprays, and perfumes several minutes before getting dressed so that the chemicals are not transferred to your clothes. This practice can also prevent stains (no more errant dabs of lotion or toothpaste sullying an outfit before you even leave home).

Address Stains Immediately

For water-based stains, such as a splash of coffee or a dribble of mustard, take swift action. If left untended, the spot may oxidize and become nearly impossible to eliminate. If you're on the go and must delay laundering, a stain-remover pen is generally a good emergency remedy, Boorstein says. For oil-based stains that are particularly daunting (lipstick, for instance), head to the dry cleaner as soon as you can. Be sure to point out any marks before the items are cleaned, steamed, or pressed.

Give Clothes Some Air

At the end of the day, your clothes need a break as much as you do. When you get home, hang your ensemble in a well-ventilated spot for an hour or two to clear out any perspiration, odors, or smoke that the fabric has absorbed and change into a more comfortable outfit, Boorstein says. This will keep your nicer clothing far from the stove (and spatters) while you're preparing dinner-although wearing an apron is a good idea, too.

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