“Dry Clean Only” Clothes and How to Wash Them

What Does the "Dry Clean Only" Label Really Mean?Do you check the fabric care label on a piece of clothing you’re thinking of buying? When you find out that it reads “dry clean only,” do you put it back on the rack, or resign yourself to expensive and inconvenient trips to the dry cleaner? We haven’t talked about how strictly we should follow washing instructions like “dry clean only” in quite a while, so let’s chat about it.

“Dry Clean” vs. “Dry Clean Only”

First, what do “dry clean” and “dry clean only” labels actually mean? Technically, the former means dry cleaning is recommended while the latter means dry cleaning is a must. According to Martha Stewart Living, you can hand-wash or use the washing machine’s cold cycle for unlined clothes made from natural fibers or polyester, while the dry cleaner is your best bet for suits, pleated skirts, rayon and other “delicate synthetics,” silk, wool, leather, suede, and clothing with sequins, beading, or metallic pieces. The article points out that clothing manufacturers err on the side of caution by saying “dry clean only;” they want to reduce the risk of customers returning clothes damaged by improper home washing. (By the way, over at CorporetteMoms we regularly feature machine-washable workwear.)

Here are several more tips for washing “dry clean” or “dry clean only” clothes at home, including advice we’ve collected from Corporette readers’ comments:

Tips For Washing Clothes Labeled “Dry Clean” (and “Dry Clean Only”)

Do what the directions say at first — then take your chances. If you buy something that’s labeled “dry clean only,” do what the label says for the first year or so of wear, then try washing at home. (See below.) In the best case scenario, the item of clothing does just fine with the new washing method; if not, at least you got a good year out of it. (Kat’s note: I’ve regularly, regularly had success washing “dry clean” clothes in Woolite — but I have ruined clothes that were “dry clean only” that accidentally went in the wash. Be careful.)

Follow the “dry clean only” label only for certain kinds of clothing. Decide which clothes are really worth the expense and hassle of dry cleaner trips — your suits, perhaps, or nice dresses, or items that would be hard to replace (either for sentimental or practical reasons). Some readers say that their minimum for this is $100 — clothes that cost more than that go to the dry cleaner. (Try to find a dry cleaner that offers free pickup and delivery — they do exist!)

Try Dryel. When we talked about this topic last time, Kat expressed her disappointment with Dryel while a few readers sang its praises in the comments. Dryel products are well reviewed on Amazon, including the starter kit and refill cloths, and Woolite appears to have its own home “dry cleaning” system with similar reviews. Readers: Have you used either or both? Were you happy with the results? (Kat’s note here — I’m really curious to hear what you guys say, I haven’t tried Dryel in years!)

Use your washing machine — carefully. If you find hand washing clothes to be a pain — either those with labels instructing you to dry clean or those that say to wash by hand — give it up (like Kat and I have). After all, it tends to make a mess, you have to wash each piece individually, and you may accidentally stretch delicate clothes by hanging them on a drying rack and/or by pre-drying them in a rolled-up towel. A more convenient but gentle option is to put them in a mesh laundry bag, use the delicate or hand-wash cycle on cold with Woolite, and lay to dry on a sweater dryer — stackable, over-the-door, or hanging.

Buy a garment steamer. While these won’t exactly clean your clothes, they’ll smooth out wrinkles if care labels warn against ironing. On Amazon, garment steamers seem to fall in the $20 to $100+ range — a few highly reviewed ones are made by PurSteam, TaoTronics, and Epica. Several readers have had success with these, but YMMV — and read the directions carefully.

Wear your “dry clean only” clothes more than once. Kat talked about this in our post on dry cleaning suits, where she recommended hanging up suits to let them air out after wearing and keeping them cleaner longer by not wearing sleeveless tops underneath, but instead tops like these.

Buy specialized cleaning products. Readers recommended The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo and Eucalan Fine Fabric Wash, to name a couple. On the other hand, another reader had success with baby shampoo. Speaking of cashmere, many people recommend not dry cleaning cashmere (oops), as this Real Simple tip explains.

Or … just try cheap vodka. As we’ve previously recommended for suits, put some vodka in a spray bottle and spray some on your clothes, which will smell fresher after the alcohol evaporates. (They even tested this successfully on Mythbusters, although specifically for cigarette smoke.)

Some readers said that they simply avoid buying an article of clothing that’s marked “dry clean only” unless it’s sure to be a good investment piece that will give them years of wear.

How about you? Do you avoid buying clothes that require dry cleaning? How do you wash your “dry clean” and “dry clean only” clothes? Have you ever accidentally ruined something by purposely not following the washing instructions? 


Did you know that a tag that says "dry clean" is NOT the same as "dry clean only"? Kate looked at the differences between when you MUST dry clean clothes -- and when you can give them a spin (ha ha) in the washing machine or laundry sink.


  1. This is a timely post! I have a J Crew cotton dress with a polyester lining, and the label says dry clean only. Why would this be? Because of the lining? I wore it probably half a dozen times last summer without dry cleaning and it’s been in storage since then, so I would like to clean it properly before wearing it again.

    • It may be because there is a risk that the two fabrics could shrink differently in the wash.

    • yup that’s what happened to a similar dress that I had. Now the lining is longer than the top layer.

  2. I’ve saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars by using the Woolite sheets and Dryel 3-in-1 touch up spray on my clothes that are meant to be dry cleaned. I also have a hand steamer, which works really well if you do a thorough spraying with the Dryel before you steam. Seriously, save your money from the dry cleaners, unless you have a bad stain. My clothes smell much fresher (but not in a manufactured scent-y way) and I can throw them in the dryer whenever they get stinky.

    • I’m also a huge fan of Woolite dry cleaning sheets. I haven’t been to the dry cleaner in years.

      I use these sheets for quite a few things, even some things that I can put in the washing machine. For example, I usually use these dry cleaning sheets with my cardigans. I LOVE how it takes so little time and my clothes come out nice and warm — no reshaping or drying time required.

      For those wondering about the efficacy, I haven’t had any problems. Of course, my work clothes don’t get really soiled. These sheets are enough to remove deodorant stains and my clothes feel fresh afterwards.

    • Same here! I use Dryel consistently; I can’t even remember the last time I took something to an actual dry cleaner’s. The stain removal spray that comes with it works fairly well, but if I had a serious stain I would take it to a professional. The smell isn’t great but I don’t think it’s bad, either, and I haven’t had a problem with clothes wrinkling as long as I take them out quickly.

      The only problem I have had is Jos. Bank sweaters shrinking with Dryel. ONLY those sweaters, and on a consistent basis, so I think it is the brand’s sweaters rather than Dryel. I’ve just started washing them and laying them flat to dry.

  3. This topic is near and dear to my heart! I strongly suggest that you check out the videos and instructions on The Laundress website. They show you how to use your washing machine to clean a wide range of items including a blazers, a Chanel shearling purse, Uggs, Hermes scarves, cashmere sweaters, bras, etc.

    I have severely limited my “Dry Clean Only” purchases. Suits, wool slacks, and formal wear I dry clean, but other than that I’m not willing to spend the money or the time or the environmental damage. Cashmere sweaters, silk dresses (unlined), polyester, all these things have been successfully machine washed (and air dried) in my house. Hermes scarves I prefer to hand wash, but machine has turned out okay in the past (I will admit that I once had color run on a scarf but for most of the styles this has not been a problem).

    For those of you who use Dryel, does it actually get things clean? I used it in the past and found that the stain-removal liquid worked well on occasion, but the wet wipe in the dryer with my clothing did not seem to actually make them clean. For example, when slacks smell stinky and sweaty (especially in the crotch), Dryel does not seem to help at all.

    I have found this labeling issue to be a U.S.-based problem. Clothing in other countries seems much less prone to “Dry Clean Only” labels. Is this only because of litigiousness of the clothing buyers? Is this because we use dryers and other cultures air dry their clothing? Is this because we have more money to waste? Curious.

    I just made a big bag of the wool suiting items I won’t need until next winter. I need to drop it off at the dry cleaner to have it cleaned. It will cost a fortune. I wish this were avoidable.

  4. I tried the Dryel system years ago and felt like it didn’t work well for me. Clothes just came out wrinkled, and maybe I wasn’t a fan of the smell?

    These days I just avoid dry cleaning, and try to wash most things at home.

    I wasn’t aware of the Woolite sheets. These sound promising. Does anyone know anything about the chemicals used in these and are they going to give me cancer?

    • Anonymous :

      Everything gives you cancer, you might as well get nice clothes out of it.

      • +1

      • Winter is my colors :

        Well, some things more than others. My Mom recently passed from a rare cancer, and one of her docs asked her if she dry cleans her clothes.

  5. My method is:

    Buy dry clean clothes with good intentions
    Upon first wear realize there is no chance in hell of me actually dry cleaning them
    Throw in washer on delicate in mesh bag and hope for the best
    Ruin about 30% of clothes and have the others come out just fine
    Kick self for thinking that there was every any chance of caring for the ruined clothes per the label

  6. I’m terrified of washing dry clean only clothes lol I use those at home dry cleaning kits, but those really don’t work on stains. They are really for refreshing – not actually CLEANING. I tend to stay away from “Dry Clean Only” clothes – it’s safer that way ;)

    The Midwest Darling

  7. Kinda related—
    I have a 100% polyester Zara blouse that absolutely will not iron. I’ve tried ironing, steaming, tossing it in the dryer with a damp cloth. Nothing works and it gets progressively more wrinkled. I guess dry cleaning is the next step? I just wouldn’t think polyester would require that.

  8. This is late but I hope I get responses- I have a fancy dress (with sequins) that says to hand wash. I always make a soppy mess when I hand wash and would rather dry clean. Is there any reason I shouldn’t dry clean it? Also, how do people feel about the ‘gentle/hand wash’ cycle on their machines (not for the dress but otherwise)?

    • Coach Laura :

      For the fancy sequin dress, unless is says “do not dry clean” it should be ok.

      I don’t use the gentle cycle on my machine often but I just throw anything and everything into a mesh bag and wash on cold. I use it for anything that says “hand wash” (except maybe sequins) and even for things that are not hand wash so that my clueless hubby or son won’t dry something by mistake.

  9. I always use reusable sweat pads under my blazers. They are easy to wash after every use and they help to keep the blazers away from stink.

  10. I use my dryer to “steam” my dry clean clothes between trips to the cleaner – even suits. I put four or five pieces in the dryer and one ice cube per piece of clothing. I run it on low for 15 minutes and then promptly hang the pieces up properly. It lets the wrinkles out!

  11. My husband wears a lot of suits to work so he usually has to get them dry cleaned once a week. I have been wondering if there is an easier way to clean them than having to drive clear across town. I’ll have to look out for a closer place to go and see if these tips can help me out as well. Thank you for sharing!

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