5 Stain Removers Dry Cleaners Never Use—And What to Use Instead

No, they don't use secret mystery formulas. They don't even use some of what you might think of as "normal" cleaning solutions.

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A different world of cleaning

First and foremost, dry cleaners use different cleaning treatments than regular folks at home. That’s why they’re a professional service that we pay for—and, in fact, it’s where the “dry” part of their name comes from. “Wet stains go away with water, but dry cleaners, as the name suggests, have to work their way around,” says Natalie Barrett, cleaning supervisor at Nifty Cleaning Services and a former dry cleaner. “That’s why a special anhydrous emulsifier soap comes in handy to get the job done without involving H2O in the treatment.” But there are a few other cleaning solutions that they do use—and some that they avoid—that they have plenty of advice on. Plus, learn more cleaning secrets only dry cleaners know.

Baking soda and vinegar

Don’t get us wrong—baking soda and vinegar can be a magical cleaning solution. But you won’t find a professional dry cleaner using it. “They never use such homemade products,” Barrett explains. “Although sometimes dry cleaners [do] perform a type of  ‘cheaper’ cleaning, if the particular case allows it.” But for the most part, they’re equipped with stronger cleaning products that you won’t really find in the DIY toolkit. In addition, keep in mind that baking soda can damage some fabrics. Find out the things you should never clean with baking soda.

Strong bleach

According to Andrew Taylor, director of Net Lawman, bleach is a last resort for dry cleaners—and it should be for you, too. “Bleach [can be] damaging to clothes, even when used properly,” he says. In addition, not all bleach is the same. There’s a distinction between the stuff you’re used to, like Clorox, and the stronger chlorine-based bleaches. “These harsh cleaning bleaches are not something your dry cleaner would use,” he says. You should also know about these mistakes you make while cleaning with bleach.

OBAs

These, as Barrett explains, are “Optical Brightening Agents.” They’re the chemicals that are added to laundry detergents to help enhance white clothes and prevent them from yellowing in the wash. But dry cleaners avoid them, because “usually, using a pre-treatment detergent with such ingredients results in a loss of color in some fabrics,” Barrett says. Learn some ways you’re shortening the life of your washer/dryer.

Petroleum solvents

These are liquid cleaners that use petroleum in lieu of water.  Dry cleaners have relied on them quite a bit in the past, but they’re flammable and can be dangerous! Barrett says, though, that the reason dry cleaners rarely use them is “because clothes treated with such chemicals need higher temperatures to dry, which often leads to shrinking.” Bottom line: It seems like not using them is a win-win. Learn these things you never knew you could put in the washing machine.

“Secret” formulas

With all that being said, Barrett wants to assure people that dry cleaners still aren’t using weird, mysterious potions that the general public doesn’t have access to. “A common misconception is that dry cleaners rely heavily on passing secret industry knowledge and using special solvents,” she says. “This is simply not true. In fact, most pre-treatment of stains involves the use of products that are available to every user.” However, there are a few secret ingredients you should definitely add to your laundry.

What do they use?

So what do dry cleaners use to work their magic? Well, they use a couple of different products, in addition to their dry anhydrous emulsifier soap. “Most of the time, the chemical of choice for dry cleaners is perchloroethylene, also known as perc,” Barrett says. And while this is a strong chemical that can be dangerous in large amounts, you generally shouldn’t worry about your clothes being treated with it. “They are ‘rinsed away’ in a final wash and then the chemicals evaporate some,” Taylor says. “However, wool can hold a little after repeated dry cleaning experiences—just be aware.”

While they don’t use items like baking soda and vinegar that you could consider “homemade,” Barrett says that one of their methods could reasonably be considered “natural.” This is “the steam jet which blasts through the fibers in the stained area and loosens any stains, thus allowing for a more effective treatment to work,” she says. Check out a guide for how to remove every type of stain.

What DIY treatments should you use?

Well, first of all, Taylor says you should avoid attempting DIY treatments on your favorite, most valuable clothes. Barrett agrees, and adds “freshly stained clothes” to that list. “It is not rare for fabrics to suffer more damage from DIY cleaning efforts than from the actual stains,” she says. “I still recommend bringing your freshly stained clothing directly to the dry cleaners instead of trying to figure out which method is the most suitable to get the job done.”

But if you are going to go for home cleaning treatments, “baking soda and vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and salt” are Taylor’s go-tos. And though dry cleaners don’t use homemade remedies like baking soda and vinegar, Barrett says that this still is a strong homemade treatment. “White vinegar and baking soda are more than acceptable to counter some food or oil-based stains,” she specifies. “First, dampen the problem area with white vinegar, and second, gently scrub the spot with a baking soda paste.” Another DIY stain treatment she recommends? “You can also use Palmolive, Dawn, or similar household detergent to dab the residual staining from the fabrics.”

What store-bought products should you use?

As for actual laundry products, Barrett says dry cleaners commonly use K2R Dry Clean Stain Remover and the Carbona products, which anyone can purchase and use. These are their go-to remedies against oil stains in particular. “The K2R spray can sometimes take several tries until the problem spot is thoroughly cleaned,” Barrett advises, “but it is totally worth it given the low price of the product.” As for Carbona, this brand “has a bottle of detergent for every type of stain, which is very convenient,” she says. “That’s why I stock [up] on the whole Carbona Stain Devils set.” Next, watch out for the laundry mistakes you didn’t know you were making.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.