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Is My Dry Cleaner Really Cleaning My Clothes?

I’m convinced he’s just steaming them and giving them back to me.

Button-down shirts at a dry cleaner's. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

This is a crazy person question, but I am convinced you may have either encountered this or know about it. (There were no Google results!)

I am convinced I am going to a dry cleaner that does not actually clean my clothes. They maybe steam them, iron them, but I am CONVINCED they are not cleaning them. I've had this fear before at other places, because I'm paranoid, but … could this be real?

I just opened my dry cleaning and my gut is that this was not cleaned! I just took stuff out and was like "Wait, this still smells vintage and there's a rogue hair on it and I don't trust this process!"

Have you ever heard of a conspiracy like this or did I just write the first act of my sitcom? — Carlye Wisel

This is definitely not a crazy person question! The dry cleaner is probably not pulling a fast one on you, but there is a pretty big difference in how dry cleaning works versus laundering a garment in a washing machine. That's especially true when it comes to odor elimination, so you're basically asking every single one of the right questions. And you probably don't know this about me, but I love love love a conspiracy theory, so you've also delighted me with your commitment to the notion that there's some sort of dry cleaner cabal that's banded together to gaslight you via BO-smelling clothes.

What Even Is Dry Cleaning?

Well, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like, cleaning that's done without the use of water.

To put it in the simplest terms, the dry cleaning process uses solvents in a drum-type situation that's similar to the drum of a washing machine. In contrast, wet cleaning (that is a for-real term!) uses water plus detergent to eliminate dirt and odors from clothing.

But what are solvents? Solvents are liquids that are used to dissolve other substances and typically do not contain water. The most common solvent used in dry cleaning is perchloroethylene, which is called perc for short, but silicone-based solvents and organic solvents are becoming increasingly popular alternatives to perc.

So, Like, How Does It Work?

Here's a funny thing to know: Not everything you bring to the dry cleaner gets dry cleaned.

When you bring clothes into the dry cleaner, they will assess them to determine what sort of treatment is required. A good example of this is dress shirts, which are typically not dry cleaned by the dry cleaner. Nuts, right? Well, not exactly — what happens when you send items like dress shirts, which are made from washable fabrics, out for cleaning is that they will be laundered in a washing machine with soap and water, just as you'd do at home or at a laundromat.

The difference is that when the shirts come out of the wash, they're immediately pressed while still damp to both dry and de-wrinkle them. That's called “wash and press,” and really, the pressing part of the operation is the service you're paying for.

Garments that are made of more sensitive fabrics or that have embellishments like beading, sequins, feathers, or fringe (your basic flapper wardrobe, essentially) get the dry cleaning treatment.

As for what actually goes on in there, we'll let John Mahdessian, owner of the ultra swanky specialty cleaner Madame Paulette, take this one.

"Say you took something like a gasoline [as an analogy for perc] that has no liquid in it — no water, I should say — and you put the gasoline with the detergent. Then, in the drying cycle, the gasoline is evaporated and the soap removes the greasy, oily dirt. Your clothes are supposed to come out with no smell, no particles, any residue of perc (we're using gasoline as an analogy). The reason why [is that] moisture or water combined with mechanical action and heat is what causes shrinkage, so when you have sensitive fabrics like wool or silk, water will cause them to bleed, shrink, and fade."

So, in essence, the difference between wet and dry cleaning is that one uses water and the other uses a solvent in place of water. Makes sense!

Hmm, Okay. But Why Do My Clothes Still Smell Even After Being Dry Cleaned?

Right. So this is where I'm going to do an extraordinarily painful thing for me personally and deviate from what Mahdessian said of the dry cleaning process. This is difficult because he and I are kindred spirits and I hate to think of us in a fight. But! My true allegiance is with you and I am honor-bound to be totally honest with you.

Dry cleaning doesn't work so great on odor issues. That's especially true of odors that are caused by perspiration. So if you've got a garment in need of cleaning specifically because it stinks, consider your alternatives.

The first alternative is to take matters into your own hands, literally, and hand-wash the garment at home. Would you like instructions on how to do that? You got it, please step right this way.

The second alternative is to use an odor-neutralizing product to eliminate smells. There are a bunch of good options, which are detailed in our guide to removing the smell from vintage items, and you should choose which one is most appropriate given the make-up of the garment in question.

So You're Saying I Shouldn't Even Bother With Dry Cleaning?

Nope, I'm totally not saying that at all! Dry cleaning is great for many things, including and especially the removal of oil-based stains. It's also crucial for cleaning the aforementioned sensitive fabrics and items with embellishments.

There's also the convenience factor to consider, which is truly no small thing. Both Carlye and I work from home and are, how to say, a little bit bonkers about our fabric care. For us, hand-washing is a more viable chore than it will be for someone who puts in 60 hours a week as a corporate lawyer. I speak from experience as someone who used to work with corporate lawyers who put in 60 hours a week! Back during my law firm days there was just no way I would have had time to hand-wash all my sensible cashmere cardigans and wool-blend sheath dresses. I relied on my dry cleaner to give me my time back, and you should feel perfectly fine making the same decision for yourself.