A Rundown of Dry-Cleaning Chemicals

Whether you’re an enthusiast, are looking to open up your own dry-cleaning company, or are simply concerned about the viability of sending your favourite suit in for a clean, there is a lot to be learned about the dry-cleaning chemicals used to reinvigorate your most cherished items of clothing; or those of your customers.

Commercial dry cleaning is nothing new, in fact, it has been around since the early 1800s, and in that time its approaches and the chemicals it uses have been refined and polished to be more effective, less harmful for the environment, and far more cost-effective and accessible.

So, let’s explore the chemicals that have made this possible, how they are used in dry-cleaning, cautions to be taken when using them, and which fabrics they can be used with to clean them.

Which Chemicals are Commonly Used in Dry-Cleaning?

To start off let’s explore the main chemicals and solvents that are used in the dry-cleaning process. These same chemicals have been in use for as far back as anyone can remember, thanks to their effectiveness and affordability.

These chemicals include Solvay Perchloroethylene, Hydrocarbon and White Spirits. There has been a rise of alternative substances surfacing in the market. Some claim to be eco-friendly or more effective. There has, however, been no solid evidence to prove any of that. For that reason, the three chemicals mentioned above are typically used across all major dry-cleaners; while the others seem to come and go.

Solvay Perchloroethylene

Perchloroethylene is more commonly known as tetrachloroethylene. It is colourless and non-flammable at room temperature.

This particular chemical is insoluble with water, and so requires the use of alcohol, ether, chloroform or benzene. In the case of dry cleaning, this chemical is used with white spirits to achieve this objective.

This is where dry-cleaning gets its name from. It doesn’t literally mean that clothes are cleaned without the use of any liquids, but rather without water since the chemicals used in the process require more stringent solvents in their application.

Perchloroethylene has quite a wide range of applications, many of them concerned with stain removal. It is also used in the automotive industry for cleaning brakes, as well as in silicone lubricants. In fact, its uses vary so much, that it is even used as a substitute insulating fluid for electrical transformers.


Hydrocarbon describes a petroleum-based dry cleaning solvent. As you may have guessed from the name, it is made up entirely of two compounds; hydrogen and carbon.

It is used extensively in dry cleaning, particularly when cleaning soft or sensitive fabrics. Hydrocarbon works far less aggressively when cleaning fabrics than perchloroethylene does, making it a better fit for sensitive items of clothing.

This does, however, mean that cleaning with hydrocarbon takes a little longer than it would with perchloroethylene, but still cleans as effectively in most cases.

Hydrocarbon is also regarded as the most widely used organic compound known to man. It has been used throughout history for a range of applications, and its critical use in the production of natural gas and motor fuel, which has led many to believe that it has been one of the leading driving forces of Western civilisation.

So, hydrocarbon, it turns out, is way more than just a pretty suit. From its critical position in the motor industry right through to its power to remove even the most stubborn of stains, it is a remarkably powerful and compound; as well as a staple of the dry-cleaning industry.

White Spirits

White spirits are also not exclusively used by dry-cleaning businesses, but rather have a massive range of applications across a number of industries.

This liquid, colourless solvent can be used as a paint thinner, which is probably its most common domestic use. It does, however, have a range of industrial and commercial uses as well.

On top of that, white spirits are used as a mild solvent and can be used for cleaning machine tools and parts, and is also often used as a thread cutting and reaming lubricant when mixed with cutting oil.

In the case of dry-cleaning, white spirits are used as the major solvent for the dry-cleaning process, since it is both mild on most types of fabrics, and because it can be used to dilute Perchloroethylene.

Are these Chemicals Harmful to People?

Since we are working with chemicals here, it is always a good idea to understand the dangers they present to the people who come into contact with them. Under the right direction, when used as intended, these chemicals pose little risk to people.

However, accidents to happen, oversights may occur; when they do injuries may be the result. Because of this they should always be used with care.

But what are the dangers posed to people when using dry-cleaning chemicals, and how can those who make use of them, avoid the risks.


Perchloroethylene is quite a harmful substance when not used as directed. When inhaled or ingested, Perchloroethylene can cause a range of unsavoury side-effects.

These may include central nervous system depression which decreases the rate of breathing in the body, slows the heart rate, may lead to a loss of consciousness and in some instances, may result in a coma or death due to the suppression of brain activity.

When mixed in high concentrations, Perchloroethylene can also cause severe irritation to mucous membranes in the body, including the eyes and respiratory tract.

It is also an irritant when it comes into contact with skin, and in some cases, may even result in chemical burns.


Exposure to hydrocarbon is associated with a number of afflictions when it isn’t used as directed or in the event of an accident.

Inhalation, since hydrocarbon has low surface tension and viscosity, penetrates the lungs deeply when inhaled. From there it can lead to severe chemical pneumonitis which causes inflammation in the lungs. In some cases, this can be severe enough to be fatal.

Hydrocarbon is also associated with both short and long-term central nervous system suppression. Extended exposure to hydrocarbon can also lead to neuropathy, where the brain’s ability to carry messages is hampered, as well as a general reduction in the total mass of the brain.

It is also an irritant, which means that skin exposure may lead to burns, itchiness, lesions and rashes.

White Spirits

White spirits are considered to have fairly low levels of toxicity; however, it still poses a risk of illness when inhaled, ingested, or when it comes into contact with the skin.

Acute exposure may result in nervous system suppression, mental impairment and contact dermatitis, causing burns and irritations on the skin.

Extended exposure, which takes place for more than 13 years, may result in memory impairment and reduced memory and personality changes.

When inhaled in high concentrations, white spirits also have a narcotic effect, resulting in loss of concentration, blurred vision, confusion, headaches and drowsiness.

Precautions for Reducing the Risk of Harm

With all of this in mind, it is fairly easy to see why it is important to use and handle dry-cleaning chemicals properly.

You need to make sure that your chemicals are stored correctly, in the appropriate containers, to reduce the risk of spillage.

With regards to storage, it is also important to keep chemicals in a cool dry place to reduce the risk of fires. Containers should also be labelled correctly and clearly to eliminate confusion when using them.

Following use, always wash your hands thoroughly to remove all traces of materials from your skin.

Ensure that wherever these chemicals are being used, that the area has adequate ventilation so as not to inhale high concentrations of them.

Use protective gear where necessary, including gloves, protective goggles and masks.

Only use chemicals as directed and in the appropriate doses to avoid any incidents.

If exposure through inhalation, skin contact or ingestion occurs, be sure to seek medical attention immediately. Show the medical practitioner the label of the chemical that you have been exposed to.

Be sure to keep dry-cleaning chemicals out of the reach of children, your customers or any unauthorised personnel in your establishment. If necessary, keep chemicals under lock and key to ensure that they are not tampered with.

Which Fabrics React Badly to Dry Cleaning Chemicals?

While dry cleaning does offer a superior approach to cleaning many different types of fabrics, there are a few types that should not be cleaned with dry-cleaning chemicals. These are generally softer, lighter, more sensitive fabrics, or those that by their composition, are damaged using chemicals.

Let’s take a closer look:

PVC & Polyurethane Fabrics

Plastic, PVC and polyester fabrics fall under the category of synthetic materials, and should never be dry-cleaned.

When these materials are dry-cleaned, they are exposed to chemicals that deteriorate them, which causes significant damage to the fabric.

Cotton, Cashmere & Silk

Cotton, cashmere and silk come from a particular family of fabrics that are delicate and sensitive. For the most part, these fabrics do not need to be dry-cleaned and can typically be washed in a normal machine.

Where these materials are included in a more complex mixture of fabrics, such as in the lining of suits, dry-cleaning is generally a better option. This is because regular washing may cause these fabrics to lose their shape with any other approach to washing them.

However, if the dry-cleaning equipment is not properly maintained, or where something goes wrong with the process, even these light fabrics might be damaged, shrunk or permanently creased.

Take a Look at the Tag

A good point of reference with any fabric is to look at the tag. Find out what percentage of polyester is in the fabric, for example. While most items of clothing can be safely cleaned through dry-cleaning, it is essential to be aware of those that cannot.

Where fabrics such as cotton and silk might be sensitive to exposure to water, it might be a better option to dry-clean them instead; albeit very carefully.

How Do Dry-Cleaning Chemicals Fight Against Bacteria?

Dry-cleaning works to eliminate bacteria on a number of levels through every step of its processes.

Through the use of white spirits and Perchloroethylene when dry-cleaning, most of the bacteria held inside the fibres of clothing are destroyed. However, even before this step, clothes can be sanitised in hot water to clear most of the germs on a garment.

As part of the final step of dry cleaning, which is ironing and steaming; multiple layers of dry heat exposure also work to eliminate bacteria that is present in clothing.

This might seem like overkill, however, when you consider how infrequently clothing is dry-cleaned, it is easy to see why additional efforts need to be taken to eradicate bacteria in them.

There are a number of different types of bacteria commonly present in clothing fibres, including some of those considered to be dangerous to humans.

They include species of:

Salmonella, campylobacter, Escherichia coli (e-coli) and Clostridium Difficile.

Dry cleaning actually offers a more effective and safer way to remove this bacterium from your clothing.

Researchers have conducted tests on the average domestic washing machine and have found that much of the bacteria that is supposed to be eliminated from clothing, generally finds a new home in washing machines.

From there, they will actually spread to other fabrics being washed in them.

Do does dry-cleaning effectively kill the bacteria in clothing?

It absolutely does, and it does it far more effectively than other methods of cleaning.

Looking for Dry-Cleaning Chemicals? Contact Condrou Manufacturers Today

If you are in the market for high-quality and affordable dry-cleaning chemicals for your business, be sure to get into contact with a representative from Condrou Manufacturing today, or visit our website for additional information on our offers.