Dry Cleaning Solvent Facts and Home Use Guide

Updated April 27, 2020
dry cleaner checking clothes

A highly toxic chemical, dry cleaning fluid cleans dirty and soiled clothes and textiles without using water and detergent. Learn about the different dry cleaning fluids, how dry cleaning works, at-home solutions and even how to make your own dry cleaning solution.

How Dry Cleaning Works

Generally, when you drop your clothes off at the dry cleaners, they go through the following steps:

  1. The clothes are inspected and tagged for identification.
  2. Stains are pre-treated.
  3. The clothes are put into a dry cleaning machine along with the solvent and undergo the dry cleaning and drying processes.
  4. The clothes are inspected for any remaining stains. Any stains are post-spotted and removed.
  5. The items are finished using various methods such as pressing, ironing or steaming.
woman putting clothes into dry cleaning machine

Perchloroethylene Dry Cleaning Fluid

In the early 1930s, the United States dry cleaning industry began using the solvent perchloroethylene, which is nonflammable. Commonly referred to as perc, perchloroethylene is also known as:

  • Perchloroethylene
  • PCE
  • Tetrachloroethylene
  • Tetrachloroethene

Using perchloroethylene became the favored method of dry cleaners and in the late 1950s. It is a chlorinated solvent that removed dirt and stains without water. According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), 85 percent of the 36,000 dry cleaning shops in the United States use this chemical.

Alternatives to Dry Cleaning With Percholorethylene

The three most common alternative methods of dry cleaning without using perchloroethylene include:

  • Carbon dioxide
  • Silicone
  • Wet cleaning

Using Stoddard solvent or hydrocarbons are two other non-perc dry cleaning methods that are being used and studied.

Dangers of Commercial Dry Cleaning Solvents

Dry cleaning solvents are extremely toxic and flammable. Therefore, if you choose to use them, you must use extreme caution and keep these tips in mind.

  • Avoid getting solvents on your skin or in your eyes.
  • Always use in a well-ventilated area because vapors are harmful.
  • Some solvents feature cancer warnings.
  • If the solvent gets on a machine-washable item, you'll want to make sure you remove all the solvent by washing the garment by hand before getting it near the washer or dryer.
  • Always test solvents on a discrete area to make sure they don't do more harm than good.
  • Use dry cleaning solvent sparingly.

Dry Cleaning at Home

While dry cleaning uses dangerous chemicals. There are ways that you can dry clean your clothes at home. Typically, you will dry clean your clothes at home through the use of a dry cleaning kit.

Dry clean only label on silk tie

Home Dry Cleaning Kits

Home dry cleaning kits allow you to dry clean clothing or textiles using your clothes dryer. Many of the dry cleaning kits are manufactured by well-known companies and are sold in supermarkets and big-box stores. The following are examples of home dry cleaning kits:

Easy to use, home dry cleaning kits clean and freshen up fabrics that are labeled dry clean only or hand wash only. Home dry cleaning kits do not include any dry cleaning fluids.

Using Dry Cleaning Solvent for Upholstery

If possible, you will want to use a water-based cleaner on your upholstery. However, if the label is marked with the dry cleaning code S, you'll need to purchase a dry cleaning solvent like PCE. These solvents can be bought online. To use a dry cleaning solvent on upholstery for a stain, you'll need to:

  1. Vacuum the area thoroughly.
  2. Test the solvent on an inconspicuous area to ensure it doesn't harm the fabric.
  3. Read the directions carefully and apply the recommended amount of solvent from a clean white cloth to the stain.
  4. Blot with a clean towel trying to remove as much of the solvent as possible.

Remember to ventilate the area well and use rubber gloves. Solvents can be harmful to the skin.

Applying Dry Cleaning Solvent to Carpet

For most stains on your carpet, you can simply absorb them and use water or a mild detergent to get them out. However, this is not the case for oil-based stains. For these stains, a dry cleaning solvent can come in handy. To use a dry cleaning solvent, you:

  1. Clean up or remove as much of the stain as possible.
  2. Test a discrete area to ensure the solvent will not cause more damage.
  3. Using the smallest amount on a cloth, dab at the stain.
  4. Dab until the stain and solvent are gone.

Again, remember to ventilate and wear rubber gloves for protection.

Where to Buy Dry Cleaning Solvent Online

Getting your hands on dry cleaning solvents isn't that hard. In addition to finding them at some large department stores like Walmart, you can purchase them through several online retailers.

Chemical Supermarket

Although perchloroethylene is available from online retailers such as Chemical Supermarket, it is marketed toward researchers and students. The cost is over $30 for electronic grade solution with over 99% purity.

Guardsman Dry Cleaning Fluid

Guardsman Dry Cleaning Fluid is available from Amazon and cleans heel marks and oil-based stains from fabrics that are dry clean only. This product costs about $60 for 32 oz.

Fabric Farms

Fabric Farms offers a fluid for dry cleaning fabrics and natural fibers. This product is available for $4 for 4 oz.

Homemade Dry Cleaning Solvent

Looking to go a less toxic route? You can choose to make your own dry cleaning solution at home using natural ingredients. This is very similar to Dryel. For this recipe, you'll need:

  • ¾ cup of water
  • 4 tablespoons of vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon of borax
  • 1 teapsoon of dry oxygen bleach
  • Zip-top pillowcase
  • Washcloth
  • Mixing or container

Recipe Instructions

To create your homemade dry cleaning solvent, you'll need to follow these instructions.

  1. In the bowl, add the wet ingredients.
  2. Sprinkle in the dry ingredients.
  3. Mix thoroughly.

You might consider making a larger batch and putting it in a resealable container. This will ensure that you have it on hand when needed.

Using Recipe

This recipe works to refresh your clothes and get rid of any smells. To use you'll:

  1. Soak a white cloth in the solution and wring it out.
  2. Toss it in the bag with the clothing.
  3. Dry for 20 minutes.
  4. Pull out and hang.

History of Dry Cleaning Fluids

The origins of drycleaning date back to year 79 in Pompeii, according to LiveScience. The earliest reference occurred completely by accident when a maid accidentally spilled kerosene from a lamp onto a tablecloth. However, this is not verified. The first verified record was by Jolly Berlin who created a commercial dry cleaning business in 1825.

Early Dry Cleaning Solvents

From the mid-nineteenth century into the early part of the twentieth century dry cleaners used different types of highly flammable solvents which caused a number of fires and explosions making the dry cleaning business somewhat dangerous. The solvents used included:

  • Turpentine
  • Kerosene
  • White gasoline
  • Benzene
  • Camphene
  • Camphor oil
  • Naphtha
  • Carbon tetrachloride

Dry Cleaning Solutions

When it comes to dry cleaning, there are some very serious chemicals at play. While you can make your own dry cleaning solution, if you are concerned about your clothing, it is better to leave it to the cleaning professionals.

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Dry Cleaning Solvent Facts and Home Use Guide