Dry Cleaning 101

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There’s nothing like sporting that designer suit or silk blouse, but not if it means racking up a dry cleaning bill every time you wear it. Sometimes it doesn’t have be that way, but occasionally it does. Experts share tips and facts about the cleaning process that for many people has become a regular part of life.

Most people see those words and freak out and don’t know what it means, but it’s just cleaning clothing in a solvent other than water.

Dan Miller, founder and owner of Minneapolis-based dry cleaning company, Mulberrys Garment Care

Dry Cleaning 101

While sending clothes off to the dry cleaners is part of the American way for many, chances are, few may know what dry cleaning actually means.

Dan Miller, founder and owner of Minneapolis-based dry cleaning company, Mulberrys Garment Care, pulls back the curtain on this centuries-old practice. “Most people see those words and freak out and don’t know what it means, but it’s just cleaning clothing in a solvent other than water," he says. "And various dry cleaners use a variety of different solvents."

The technique is ideal for clothing made of natural fibers such as silk and wool. And as manufacturers of some of today’s hottest fashion must-haves move away from cotton toward fabrics with other natural fibers, expect to see the "dry clean only" label more often.

Because silk and wool can be damaged by water, they require special care that dry cleaning provides. That means there’s no getting around it, folks: dry-clean only means dry-clean only. “Read the label. If it says "dry clean only," don’t put it in the washing machine. The label is there for a reason,” says Grant Harris, owner and chief style consultant of Washington D.C.–based Image Granted LLC. Harris helps professional men develop their wardrobes to reflect their personal image and style.

At-Home Products: Don't Believe the Hype

During these tough economic times, it’s easy to cut back on expenditures like the weekly dry cleaning bill and, rather, try the growing number of inexpensive, do-it-yourself dry cleaning versions, which typically entail a dryer sheet you put in with your clothes, yielding a fresh scent.

Buyers beware: Such products tend to not be as effective as professional dry cleaning, if they are effective at all, Miller warns. “All they’re doing is essentially just putting a nice scent on it," Miller says. “So, if your clothes aren’t actually that dirty, that may help, but just so long as you know, it’s not actually getting them clean.”

Natural body excretions such as sweat and oil, can cause the most damage to clothing, which is why Miller suggests maintaining a regular dry-cleaning routine. “For example, if your skin’s touching the elbows and you don’t clean it, that just gives the oil and dirt a chance to eat away at your clothes. Whereas if you clean right away, you’re getting that stuff off before anything happens,” Miller says. He suggests a weekly routine: "Have a little bag, throw the clothes in the bag during the week and every Friday, drop it off.”

However, you don't need to dry-clean a garment every time you wear it; on the contrary, that could hurt the garment. “Dry cleaning over time is going to affect the life span of the garment, depending on the fabric, the wear and tear of the fabric, and so on,” Harris explains. Instead, He recommends less frequent dry cleaning. “If a guy who’s working a regular 9-to-5 job has about four or five suits in his wardrobe and they’re all made out of some type of midweight wool, he can get away with rotating those suits and dry cleaning them once or twice a season if he doesn’t spill anything on them."

To Dry-Clean or Not to Dry-Clean?

While your best cashmere sweaters and suits need to be dry-cleaned, both Harris and Miller agree on one item that can do without regular dry cleaning: the dress shirt or blouse. Both men say that these items can be laundered, either at the cleaners or at home. “The laundering process is more sophisticated, and you get the shirt back in a better manner,” says Harris. Always go light on the starch, depending on your preference, and never hang your shirt on a wire hanger. “That’s death for your shirt,” he says.

Men can also extend the life of their neckties by taking them to a crafter instead of a dry cleaner, Harris says. “If you’re prone to spilling things on your tie, as soon as you can, take the tie off and get it to a crafter,” he suggests. “If there is no tie crafter available, use satin wipes.” Additionally, he said to dab stains with cold water, club soda or baking soda. “If it doesn’t come out with any of that, take further measures."

But be careful about using home remedies. “There’s a ton of misconception out there about what stains can be gotten out with what. Some remedies work, but if you have a dry cleaner who knows what they’re doing, don’t touch it,” Miller says. “As long as you bring it in within 24 to 48 hours, you can get anything out.”

Think Green

Dan Miller, owner of Minneapolis-based dry cleaning company, Mulberrys Garment Care, says to always ask your dry cleaner what solvents he uses.

“There’s a solvent called perchloroethylene, or perc, which is the most common dry-cleaning solvent. It’s highly toxic and a carcinogen, and it’s gradually getting phased out, but probably 80 percent of dry cleaners still use it,” he says. “But then there’s other solvents that are greener, less environmental damage, better for your health and better for your clothes because they’re a little more mild.”

Miller gives his thoughts on the three common dry-cleaning solvent alternatives:

Hydrocarbon. “Essentially that’s a petroleum-based solvent. Obviously, it’s better than perc, but not exactly environmentally friendly because it’s oil-based. But it’s better than something that’s totally toxic,” Miller says. “About 10 percent of dry cleaners use that.”

GreenEarth. “That’s the brand name of the solvent, and it is actually called siloxane.. It’s probably better than petroleum, but still maybe a carcinogen. It’s a chemical, so there’s some concern out there that that may be also bad for people,” Miller says. “But it’s often advertised as green. To be fair, it’s greener than the alternative, but it's not exactly good.”

Liquid CO2. “This is the one I use. It’s liquid carbon dioxide. Basically, we just put it under pressure and it converts into a liquid. So, the good thing about it is that it’s perfectly natural and evaporates so that when we clean your clothes, the clothes come out cool with no chemicals,” Miller says. “Very few use this, probably less than 50 dry cleaners in the country -- maybe 25."