Dry clean vs Launder: Know your cleaning methods

Both dry cleaning and laundry have ancient history origins. But the earliest resemblance to the modern versions of both cleaning methods is quite new.

In ancient time dry cleaning, our ancestors employed powerful chemical agents to banish grease, sweat and oily stains from woolen togas that shrunk during hot water immersions, and in ancient time laundry, “gossip” washerwomen traveled all the way to watercourses with baskets full of dirty cloths in order to wash them by panel beating or hand scrubbing.

Today, a lot of that has changed, except for some remote villages around the world that still employ the watercourse method of performing laundry.

In this article we take a deep satisfactory look at both dry cleaning and laundry and also check out the fundamental differences that constructs the fine line between them. To conclude, we provide a quick information regarding which cleansing method is best for washing clothes.

Dry clean vs Launder

Here’s a quick summary explaining the differences between dry cleaning and laundering.

S/no Entries Dry clean Launder
1 History


Roman times as early as 1st century A.D. 170,000 years ago (when humans started wearing cloths).
2 Operated as Commercial establishments. Commercial establishments, self-service business (Laundromat) and home based service.
3 Solvent used (or main cleaning agent) Organic solvent. Water solvent.
4 Other cleaning agents used Detergents. Detergents, soap, softeners.
5 Equipment Washing machine, clothes dryer, presser. Washing machine, dryer, presser, steam and air equipment.
6 Effectiveness on stains Very effective at removing oil and grease stains. Very effective at removing water based stains.
7 Harshness to fabric Gentle on fabrics since solvent does not penetrate fibers. Not especially gentle on poor colorfast materials, delicate, structured and fragile fabrics.
8 After wash odor Depends on the cleaner. No for quality dry cleaners. Yes, refreshing smell.
9 Recommended cloth type Mostly for fragile, delicate, structured and larger fabrics, but can be used for nearly all types of materials that are machine and hand washable. Best for materials that say “dry clean” or dry clean only”. For non-fragile, non-delicate, strong, and sturdy materials. Not for some synthetic fibers since they react poorly with water. Best for all materials that say machine wash only or “do not dry clean”.
10 Cost Comparatively higher than laundry. Low, especially for home cleaning procedures.
11 Energy Comparatively higher energy consumption than laundry. 50 % less energy than dry cleaning
12 Safety Perc (the most widely used solvent for dry cleaning is not entirely safe for humans and the environment) Wet cleaning is most safe.

Now that we have listed out the differences between dry cleaning and laundering, let us consider all of these entries in appropriate groups and discuss elaborately on them for a crisper understanding. Here we go.

What is dry cleaning vs what is laundering?

Dry cleaning is a method of cleansing fabric that employs substantially nonaqueous organic solvents. This means that water is rarely ever used during the main washing process or only required at low quantity relative to the solvent. Because the term wet is mostly specific to water, and also given the fact that the process of dry cleaning barely uses water, the name “dry cleaning” was adopted for the procedure.

The process of dry cleaning uses powerful chemical solvents that react directly with stains in order to eliminate them from fabrics. Most of these solvents are rarely available to the public for cautious reasons that they may cause environmental pollution and health hazard.

The solvents commonly employed for the cleaning process includes perc also known as perchloroethene, or pechloroethylene, liquid silicone, supercritical CO2 and petroleum spirits. Additionally, liquid or powdered detergent can be added to fabrics during washingin order to enhance cleaning performance and also to boost the softness of the fabric. Dry cleaning is typically operated as a commercial or self-service business but never at residential settings.

The laundry symbol for dry cleaning is a circle. If you fabric has one, it means its dry cleanable.

Over to Laundering

Laundering is simply a method of cleansing fabrics that uses water as the primary solvent unlike dry cleaning that uses non-water or aqueous organic solvents. Other cleaning agents are typically employed in order to boost stain removal and cleaning efficiency. The most notable is liquid or powdered detergent which typically contains builders (for softening hard water) and surfactants (responsible for most of the cleaning performance by enabling easy wetting of the fabric and absorption and emulsification of soils into the water). Laundering can be operated commercially, at home, or be a self-service or standalone business.

The laundry symbol of laundry is a washtub with or without hands on it.

The dwarf history of dry cleaning and laundering

We’ll start off with dry cleaning

Professional dry cleaning has always been an ancient period thing. The earliest historic evidence (as of the time of writing) dates back to the ancient Rome period during the 1st century A.D because remains of dry cleaning shops were discovered in the ruins of Pompeii which was a Roman city decimated by the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D.

Professional cleaners during that time, then also known as fullones, employed ammonia (which was a derivative of animal urine), lye alongside a type of clay material know as fuller’s earth in order to absorb dirt, sweat, and grease stains from wool fabrics. The process additionally included moderate amounts of water solvent and clothes were treated in small tubs standing in areas surrounded by walls.

Fullones stood in the tubs and trampled the cloths with their feet in order to work the chemical agents into them. This method of cleaning at that time was developed in order to prevent the shrinking that happened when wool was exposed to hot water. Wool was the common typeof clothing fabric at that time by the way.

Modern day dry cleaning came into existence in 1821 in the United States. Thomas L. Jennings, then 29, launched as the first commercial dry cleaner using a procedure or patent that was lost to history in a fire that happened in 1836. So we’re probably never going to know what Jennings really had up his sleeves.

Four years after Jennings invention of the “dry scouring” method, a Paris based launderer by the name Jolly Belin launched the so called “first modern dry cleaning shop” which operated with turpentine as the primary solvent. Soon after, the dry cleaning business took a turn for the better and the potential for many petroleum based solvents was discovered. These included, kerosene, camphene, benzene and gasoline. But because of the volatility of these product; which constantly set cleaning plants ablaze and contributed detrimentally to the depletion of the ozone layer, newer and much safer alternatives were sought after.

In the 20th century, the year 1926, Stoddard solvent was invented as an alternative to hughly flammable solvents. It was less readily volatile and gained a tiny bit of popularity among commercial dry cleaners. In the early 1930s, perc, a non-flammable and highly effective cleaning fluid was invented and today constitutes the most widely used solvent in dry cleaning industry.

Perc isn’t without its own problems too. It has been proven to be detrimental to the human health and even tagged as “likely carcinogen to humans” at high blasts of frequent exposure by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Currently, newer and better alternatives are being researched with the hope of eliminating perc solvents from the market shelves as soon as possible. Some have actually been developed but have fared lowly compared to dry cleaning in terms of cleaning efficiency and proved quite more expensive in terms of realization.

Now over to Laundry

Laundry has been in existence ever since man started wearing cloths, that’s as old as 170,000 years ago if science predicted that correctly. People during those times, travelled all the way to watercourses in order to wash their clothes; the evidence still persist in rural regions of the modern day world.

Cloths are rubbed satisfactorily with soaps then agitated by hand or trampling to remove dirt. Alternate methods of agitation included slapping against rocks, or beating with washing paddle, battling stick, bat, beetle or club against flat rocks or wooden or metallic washboards.

The next advancement saw humans laundering in washhouses located in communal settings. The washhouses typically contained two basins (fed by streams or springs) one for washing and the other for rinsing clothes. The old method of beating clothes was still employed there and the main difference with the watercourse method was only a matter of convenience, comfort and safety.

Next in the 19th century, the mangle was developed to aid with the pressing of large wet clothes as opposed to the arduous and inefficient process of squeezing by hands. Another variation called the box mangle also functioned as a presser and smoothener of large fabrics that would otherwise be difficult to hot iron by hand.

Still in the 19th century, the hand washing machine was developed to serve as a substitute for hand washing in general. That was actually the first real attempt to mechanize hand washing. Later, the electrically powered variant was developed and today washers are mechanized alongside spin dryers to make life easier for launderers.

The process of dry cleaning and laundering

The dry cleaning process

The dry cleaning process begins with the local pickup and delivery points where customers drop off their dirty clothes. Depending of the dry cleaner, the cleaning operation may be conducted on site or off site — in which case the clothes are transported to a central cleaning facility usually far away from residential buildings. The latter is much quicker in terms of turnaround time, but requires more maintenance from the owners end. Having off site cleaning plants has been proven to be more cost effective than having machines at every drop shop location by the way.

At the shop and cleaning plant the following takes place (if it’s a reputable and quality dry cleaners).

  1. Inspection: Clothes are handed to the attending clerk by the customer and they are checked thoroughly for spots and stains and also for any preexisting issues such as missing buttons, torn areas or unusual fiber colors. This would ensure the dry cleaners don’t get blamed for something they are innocent for. Additionally, cloths are checked for potential problems such as special trims or ornaments or loose buttons and hems. The clerk then communicates the risks involved and awaits approval from the customer. When given the go ahead signal, he or she then takes the necessary precautions and measures to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible with the potential problems.
  2. Tagging: Next after inspection, the cloths are tagged with paper tags that are stapled or pinned for identification purpose. This would ensure that cloths are returned correctly to their respective owners since different clothes from different customers are sorted properly and washed together in the washer. Tags for regular customers can take the form of an iron-on strip with a permanently assigned barcode on the clothes.
  3. Sorting: Next after tagging is the sorting process. Clothes are sorted into compatible portions for example all lights, darks, synthetics, wools or fragile clothing in one place. This is done to prevent any possible damage to fabrics and also to facilitate any special treatments. During the sorting process, any non-washable part of the fabrics such as belts, some plastics buttons and trims are removed to prevent possible damage in the washer i.e. by reacting with the chemical to melt or dissolve as in the case of plastic buttons.
  4. Prespotting: Prespotting is done primarily to soiled cloths or those that have pick up stains. Spotting basically means to treat stains. During the prespotting operation, the spotter is mainly concerned with treating water based stains such as those caused by milk and soft drinks although he or she might also concentrate to reduce the prominence of other types of stains in order to make stain removal easier during washing. The extra concern for water based stain stems from the fact that dry cleaning is more effecting at getting rid of oil and grease stains than water based stains. The opposite is true for laundry by the way.
  5. Loading: Now once the preliminaries are completed, batches of clothes are loaded into a washer that looks similar to a front loading washing machine, and then soaked and tumbled very gently with an appropriate organic solvent. The solvent is maintained at a specific temperature to prevent disintegration and is filtered and recycled throughout the washing process. Detergents may also be added to aid the removal of stains and impart softness to the final clothes.
  6. Rinsing: Once clean, the clothes are then rinsed with the same solvent but a fresher version to completely get rid of hanging or suspending dirt and stains.
  7. Drying: Next after rinsing, and still in the washing basket, the cloths are spun for some minutes, then tumbled in warm dry air to extract every little bit of solvent remaining.
  8. Post spotting: After drying, the cloths are carefully checked for any remaining and persistent stains and then carefully treated with the most appropriate spot removal preparations.
  9. Finishing: After the spot removal or drying (if no spots are found), the clothes are finished manually or automatically by pressing, steam and air machines. Great care is taken to avoid any press marks from showing up on the cloths as that would give the impression of low quality workmanship.
  10. After pressing, the non-washable parts that were removed earlier are fixed back on the clothes and then they are bagged and prepared for pick up.

The laundry process

At home:

  1. At home laundry is pretty straightforward. Either a washing machine or hands are used to do laundry. In the washing machine, dirty clothes are loaded and soaked in a solution containing water and detergents. They are then washed in cycles, rinsed using water, and dried using a clothes dryer embedded in the same machine, usually. Alternatively, the clothes could be hanged to dry by natural evaporation on a clothes line or horse. They may also be dried out flat. In hand washing, the washing basket is the basin or a bucket and the automatic wriggling and toiling is replaced by hand scrubbing.

Commercial laundry:

  1. Commercial laundry can operate as a self-service business Laundromat or a dedicated professional service. In either case, payment is made before customers can have their clothes washed. As with home laundry, the customers pay and then wash their clothes themselves in the Laundromat. In professional laundry, spot treatment services alongside other services offered in a dry cleaners can also be made available. Customers basically drop off their clothes and come back after some period to retrieve them fresh and properly folded and packaged. A gentler form of professional laundry is wet cleaning which uses environmentally friendly methods throughout the process. It’s now one of the biggest alternatives to dry cleaning.

Which is better: to dry clean or to launder?

As mentioned earlier, dry cleaning mostly avoids the use of water and employs gentle mechanical friction during washing. So any clothing fiber that swells and stretches under the effect of water for example wool or silk, and those are very delicate and fragile are best treated by dry cleaning.  Also, any fabric that reacts poorly with water such as many synthetic fibers i.e. viscose, polyester, lyocell, modal and cupro, and those that have picked up oil or grease stains are best cleaned by dry cleaning since the cleaning solvent is particularly good at removing them.

Larger materials like carpets and comforters, structured materials like suits, pleated skirts, sweaters and jackets, poor colorfast fabrics, and materials with linings, fur, down and external additions such as beads would also react well to dry cleaning than regular home washing, although professional wet cleaning is usually an option too.

As for laundry, materials that are sturdy in composition, do not color bleed, do have any structured areas like shoulder pads, and are simple in construction are all fair game, especially for hand washing since its more predictable than the washer. Fabric composition of such kind of materials commonly include nylon, cotton, linen, acrylic and spandex.

As a rule of thumb, any material slapped with the “dry clean only” tag should be dry cleaned only. Those slapped with the “dry clean” tag but having the machine or hand wash instructions can be safely washed either way. Those having only the “dry clean” tag can still be experimented on a laundry machine provided they aren’t delicate, fragile, and not expensive and beloved. In contrast however, most materials labeled as “machine or hand washable” are often dry cleanable. Those labeled machine or hand wash only are not though! Regardless, trust your dry cleaners or launderers and ask them, they know best!

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