Here’s How to Wash “Dry Clean Only” Clothes at Home

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If you forgot to drop your clothes off at the dry cleaners, and the "lucky" suit you want to wear for an important meeting tomorrow is less than fresh, follow these steps to dry clean at home.

Sending clothes to the dry cleaners is expensive and inconvenient, and sometimes you may even pass on buying a new shirt or blouse you have your eye on because of that “Dry Clean Only” label.

But do you really have to dry clean an item marked “Dry Clean Only?” You may be surprised to learn that you can often dry clean your clothing at home. If you know how to read laundry symbols and how to hand wash clothes—especially how to wash silk and other delicates—you’re already on your way.

What is dry cleaning?

“Dry cleaning is a way to clean clothing using a chemical solvent rather than water,” explains Samantha Brown, a celebrity stylist based in New York City. “It’s gentler on clothes than running them through a washing machine.”

The most common chemical used by dry cleaners, though, is perchloroethylene (known as “perc”), which is highly effective but also considered a likely human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Even if you do patronize a “green dry cleaner” there are still the plastic bags and extra hangers to contend with.

These environmental concerns are another reason it’s important to know when you can dry clean an item at home and when you should leave it to the professionals.

“Dry Clean” vs “Dry Clean Only”

Experts always stress the importance of reading care labels before cleaning your clothes and the “dry clean only” instructions are a big reason why. “Certain fabrics can shrink or distort when emerged in water,” warns Brown. “It’s important to pay attention to the labels and makeup of the fabric to determine what’s safe for the garment.”

Often, though, you’ll see both “hand wash” and “dry clean” listed as options on the labels. “This is an obvious go-ahead to gently launder the item at home, preferably by hand,” says Brown.

According to health and beauty expert Tonya Mann, many items marked as “dry clean” can actually be safely and effectively treated at home. “If a garment’s label doesn’t have the word ‘only’ in front of ‘dry clean,’ it’s more of a recommendation of the safest way to care for it,” she says, “But if it specifies ‘dry clean only’ or ‘professionally dry clean,’ you should take heed.” If you still want to risk it, it might be okay to hand wash. “Test an inconspicuous area, like a seam or hem, first and make sure there are no stains or damage when it’s fully dry,” Mann advises. “But if it’s an item that’s especially important to you, I’d leave it to the professionals.”

In general, items that can be dry cleaned at home are those that are unstructured and may just require ironing or steaming to get them back into shape. Any garment that has a lot of embellishment, tailoring, bulk, or oil-based stains, though, is best handled by pros.

What you need to dry clean at home

When it comes down to it, “dry cleaning” clothes at home basically means handwashing them (or, if you’re feeling brave, washing them in a mesh bag on the gentle cycle of your machine). In addition to our guide on how to hand wash clothes, you’ll need:

  • A clean sink, basin, or tub
  • A gentle detergent preferably made for the specific fabric you’re cleaning
  • A drying rack or a clean towel to lay flat to air dry

Home dry cleaning kits

If you’re nervous about hand washing, one of the easiest ways to dry clean at home is with a store-bought kit made just for that purpose. You can find a variety of them in the laundry aisle of your supermarket or online and they’re a great alternative to dry cleaning. Before using, though, read the package to make sure it’s safe for whatever fabric you need to clean.

How they work

Home dry cleaning kits work with your dryer to steam clean your clothes. They come with everything you need, including a stain remover to pre-treat garments, specially-treated cleaning cloths or pads and, often, a bag to keep your clothes protected in the dryer.

Do they work?

Although they may not clean as deeply as professional dry cleaners, our experts agree that home dry cleaning kits are an effective way to freshen up dirty delicates.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • Cost. Using a home dry cleaning kit instead of bringing your clothes to the dry cleaners will save you a ton of money over time.
  • Convenience. If you need an item dry cleaned, doing it at home will ensure it’s ready to wear in about a half-hour.

Cons:

  • Chemicals. Some home dry cleaning kits are powered by harsh chemical solvents so check labels first.
  • Ineffective on some stains. Although they work well on water-based stains, home dry cleaning kits aren’t as effective on oil-based stains.

Best home dry cleaning kits

One of the most highly-rated home dry cleaning kits is Dryel Dry Cleaner Starter Set but Woolite also makes a popular one, and Mann recommends The Laundress Dry Cleaning Detox Kit, which includes four products you can use individually as well as together.

Step by step guide to using home dry cleaning kits

Here’s how most kits work, according to Mann:

  1. Start by using the enclosed treatment product to spot treat any stains.
  2. Place your clothing into the dryer with the included cleaning solution and damp pad or cleaning pad that’s also included. Check how many items can be done at once so you don’t overload. Some at-home kits also come with a bag to put the clothes in.
  3. Follow the instructions on the package to run the appropriate drying cycle, which will create a steam to help release stains, refresh the fabric, and minimize wrinkles.
  4. Hang garments immediately after removing them from the dryer. Lay knits flat to dry.

Dry cleaning special care fabrics at home

Home dry cleaning kits may be able to treat your favorite fabrics—check the package first!—but, if not, here’s Brown’s Plan B:

  • Silk. If the label says “dry clean only,” bring the item to the dry cleaners. Otherwise, you can hand wash it, using a mild detergent. Gently agitate the item in the water with your hands, drain the suds and repeat. Just don’t twist or wring.
  • Wool and cashmere. Hand wash, using a gentle detergent. Brown’s favorite is Wool and Cashmere Shampoo from The Laundress or a tiny splash of Dreft.
  • Leather and suede. Spot clean leather with a damp washcloth, using warm water and a mild detergent. Bring suede to a leather specialist. “Shoemakers are great for this!” says Brown.

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Lois Alter Mark
Lois Alter Mark is an award-winning lifestyle and travel writer. In addition to writing for RD.com, she regular contributes to Forbes and USA Today 10Best as well as a variety of AAA magazines. Because of her blog, Oprah chose her as an Ultimate Viewer and took her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime. Follow her on social media @loisaltermark.