How to Shrink Your Dry-Cleaning Bill Without Shrinking Your Clothes

Clothes that have been dry cleaned hang in a dry cleaners.
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

One realization can take the typical drudgery of laundry day from bad to worse: That dress or shirt you just bought is dry clean only.

You might be tempted to throw that piece of clothing in with your whites or colors and hope for the best. But are you going to end up with a sweater that fits your Pomeranian puppy better than an adult human?

Dry cleaning your clothing adds one more step to your busy to-do list, and the costs can add up quickly.

“If you spend $100 on a coat, and then 20 bucks every time you get your coat cleaned, after five dry cleans you’ve already spent as much as you spent on the coat,” said Jeanne James, a fashion design instructor at Kent State University. “It’s kind of crazy.”

But the need to dry clean is a reality for many people.

Let’s take a look at why clothing gets labeled “dry clean only” in the first place, and what you can do to reduce some of those pesky dry-cleaning costs.

Who Decides Whether Clothing Is Dry Clean Only, Anyway?

A dry clean only tag is pictured
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

When a brand produces a piece of clothing, it only has to list one reliable way of cleaning it, according to textiles expert Deborah Young. It doesn’t have to list every way.

That’s why you often see items labeled “dry clean only” or “hand-wash only.” A company doesn’t want to deal with complaints if a garment doesn’t hold up in your usual washing machine cycle.

When you’re checking care labels at your favorite store, take a closer look at the fabrics listed. The more absorbent a fiber is, the more it will shrink, Young said.

Wool, rayon and cotton are the most shrink-prone fabrics, in that order, she explained. We accept a certain amount of shrinkage for some products. “We know a cotton T-shirt will shrink more than jeans, but we tolerate it and buy a size bigger,” Young said.

Knowing which fabrics are likely to shrink can help you make better buying decisions.

But what about when fibers get mixed together? That’s where the science gets interesting.

When you have a garment made from a mix of fabrics, you increase the likelihood that something’s going to go horribly wrong if you slam dunk it into the washing machine without a second glance.

Take, for example, a cotton jacket with polyester lining. Cotton is more likely to shrink than polyester, so you might discover that the outer shell of the jacket shrinks. If you’ve ever seen a jacket where the lining peeks out past the bottom hem, it’s because the wearer washed it in warm water or put it through the dryer.

Blended fabrics are different from simply having two fabrics near each other. Intimate blends, as they’re called, are more durable if you wash them at home.

“Polyester acts as a babysitter to cotton,” Young said. “Poly-cotton doesn’t shrink.”

A Few Fabrics to Clean With Caution

Things to dry clean
Mallory Evans / The Penny Hoarder

Here are some fabrics you probably have in your closet that may need extra attention.

If you wash wool garments at home, do so by hand in cold water. The agitation from a washing machine can cause the wool to shrink, like heat does. Dry wool items flat on a laundry rack.

Treat your sweaters extra nicely by washing them by hand in sheep shampoo, available at farm supply stores. The pH balance in this specialty shampoo cleans the wool fibers without damaging them.  

One exception here is a treated version called “washable wool.” If the label specifies that it’s washable, go ahead and throw it in the machine.

Silk is often washable, but tends to hold water spots. If you get a stain on a silk blouse, you can’t just wash out the stain — you have to clean the whole garment, James warned. Wash it by hand or in the delicate cycle.

Young agreed. “Silk is a little finicky,” she said.Acetate often hides in the lining of clothing. “Acetate is not something you can ever wash,” James said. “It will definitely fall apart.”

For that, it’s time for a trip to the dry cleaner.

Wait, Back Up. Can You Explain How Dry Cleaning Works?

There’s nothing actually “dry” about it.

Instead of using water, dry-cleaning machines wash big batches of clothes in a solvent. The clothing gets dried in the same machine, at which point the remainder of the solvent evaporates and is collected in its purified state to be reused as a liquid.

After the cleaning cycle, items are pressed with special machines that steam the clothing evenly and quickly.

Wet cleaning exists, too — it’s the term cleaners use when caring for garments that break down in solvents and must be washed in water.

Dry cleaning is expensive because it’s labor-intensive. In our modern age, it still takes lots of human hands to sort, tag, inspect, press and transport the day’s workload. Eco-friendly solvents can increase the price, as can pickup and delivery add-ons or rush orders.

How to Reduce Your Dry-Cleaning Costs

  1. Invest in a clothing brush. They cost between $10 and $15, and clean pollen, soot and other dirty particles off suits and outerwear. By brushing occasionally and giving these garments space to air out between uses, you can cut down on dry-cleaning frequency, James said.
  2. If you’re washing suit pieces, whether you’re dry cleaning or doing it at home, make sure to wash all related pieces together. Uneven wash frequencies can accelerate fading and wear on some items, while others will still look fresh and new.
  3. Look for a dry cleaner that has a plant on-site. Since your clothing won’t need to be carted to and from the cleaning facility by the cleaner, they’ll be able to charge less for the service.
  4. Take time to point out stains. Cleaners make stain removal look like wizardry, but they can’t work their magic unless they’re aware of trouble spots.
  5. Consider at-home dry-cleaning kits. These kits provide a chemically treated sheet that goes into your dryer with the items you want to freshen up. Consider it a steam clean for less than $2 per garment. “It’s not the same as taking your clothing to the dry cleaner, as the dry cleaner will also press your items,” James said. If you’re fighting considerable stains, a trip to the cleaner may still be required.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.