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Read This Before You Ignore a “Dry Clean Only” Label

Ever wonder what that "Dry Clean Only" label means? Is it a warning? A suggestion? And what actually is "dry cleaning" anyway? We got the dirt on what your clothing care labels are (and aren't) really telling you.


That clothing care label is required by law

The basic indication that clothing is “dry clean only” can be found right on the label. The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that every item of clothing sold in the United States include a “care label” containing regular care information and instructions. What the care label must say is subject to stringent and highly detailed FTC requirements. These requirements define dry cleaning as a “commercial process by which soil is removed…in a machine which uses any common organic solvent.” The most commonly used “organic solvent” is perchloroethylene (PCH) because it is widely considered to be the most effective. It’s what gives clothes that familiar dry cleaned smell. Although PCH is a carcinogen, it is not considered hazardous to wearers of dry cleaned clothing (because its presence is typically low). Still, however, dry cleaning can be expensive, and the trips to and from the dry cleaner can be time consuming.


“Dry” cleaning isn’t exactly dry

As defined by the FTC, the dry cleaning process may, and often does, include adding moisture to the cleaning solvent—up to 75 percent relative humidity. That’s not exactly “dry,” now is it? Kind of makes you wonder whether, maybe, just maybe, can you wash dry clean only clothes, yourself? Don’t miss the 13 things your dry cleaner won’t tell you.


Dry cleaning uses more heat than your dryer

If you think that by having your clothing dry cleaned, you’re protecting them from the heat of the clothes dryer, think again. Dry cleaning involves the “hot tumble drying” of your clothing up to temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 25 percent hotter than a typical household clothes dryer, which begs the question, can you hand wash dry clean only clothes, and should you?


You might have a choice, but clothing manufacturers don’t have to say so

Under the law, if either washing or dry cleaning can be used on the product, the label needs to state only one of these instructions—and which one ultimately appears on the label is up to the manufacturer. An expert in textiles who asked that her name not be used for this article revealed to us that “clothing manufacturers tend to opt for as few instructions on the label as is legally required.” Given a a choice between “wash” and “dry clean,” manufacturers tend to choose the latter because it is more likely to lead to the consumer leaving the care of the item to professionals, and professional cleaning can reduce the manufacturer’s risk of of return by the consumer who mishandles the item with home-cleaning. When you do decide to wash your clothes, make sure to read these tips on how to do laundry at home.


Read past the big print

Since clothing manufacturers are required to state only one cleaning method on the care label, you may need to do a bit of detective work. Our textile expert recommends seeing which fibers make up the garment and letting that information be your guide to whether or not dry cleaning is necessary.

  • Cotton takes well to hand-washing, and even to the delicate cycle of the washing machine.
  • The same is true of linen and silk.
  • Even rayon, a semi-synthetic, and synthetics like polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, and acetate can be hand washed safely. Wool can lose its shape in the machine, so hand-washing is best, as is using a detergent specifically made for wool.

Consider other factors

Items of clothing that are simply constructed and unlined are obvious candidates for hand washing or the delicate wash cycle even when the label says “dry clean.” But with certain precise construction (think blazers, suits, pleated skirts), very saturated color, and when there are trimmings like beads, elaborate buttons, and sequins, you’ll likely want to leave it to the pros. If you have a garment that’s richly dyed or deeply hued and are worried it may not be color fast, test it by wetting an inconspicuous area with a small amount of water and then pressing on the wet spot with a cotton swab. If the color bleeds onto the swab, you’ll want to take the item to the dry cleaner. Leather and suede items should always be cleaned by leather and suede professionals.


Use that wild card—common sense

Sometimes an item of clothing is so dirty that it’s not worth the struggle to clean it at home. This applies especially if the stains are numerous or cover a large area, if the stains require a chemical procedure for which you are not equipped, if the fabric is fragile or extremely large, or if you are not sure what the stain is or have doubts about the fabric. Dry cleaning is part skill, party chemistry, part magic. When in doubt, send it to the dry cleaners and let them deal with it.


Do home dry cleaning kits work?

Home dry-cleaning kits are meant to be used with a standard clothes dryer (and so still involve all the heat) and include a water-based stain remover for pretreating stains (and so still involve water). According to Sarni Dry Cleaners of the greater Boston area, these kits are intended not for cleaning but for freshening up clothes.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.