What is the Difference Between "Dry Clean" and "Dry Clean Only" Clothing?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

When reading the instructions that are found on clothing tags, people may see the phrase "dry clean" or "dry clean only." Many people believe that these instructions are interchangeable, but that is not really the case. There is a difference between fabrics, and more care is often needed for clothing marked "dry clean only."

Clothing with "dry clean" designations are usually able to be hand-washed.
Clothing with "dry clean" designations are usually able to be hand-washed.

The main purpose of the clothing tag is to help the owner understand what needs to be done in order to properly clean the garment. In some cases, placing the item in a washer and dryer on specified cycles is perfectly acceptable. There are some fabric blends that require special handling, however. Typically, clothing manufacturers rely on research that helps to determine what cleaning methods will result in maintaining the integrity of the fabric and allowing the garment to be usable after the cleaning process.

Dry clean only clothing items should be taken to a dry cleaners to be professionally cleaned.
Dry clean only clothing items should be taken to a dry cleaners to be professionally cleaned.

Testing methods help to determine which types of cleaning are best for the material. For instance, if the cleaning instructions indicate the garment may be machine washed, the tag will state "machine wash." If it needs to be machine washed only in cold water, then the tag is likely to state this specifically. The idea is to alert the person doing the cleaning to any methods that may lead to a significant chance of damage to the fabric.

This is where the phrases of "dry clean" and "dry clean only" come into play. Seeing either phrase immediately tells the owner of the garment that there are limited options when it comes to cleaning the garment thoroughly and safely, with no chance of damaging the material. In this instance, machine washing is usually out altogether for any garment that is marked with either phrase. There is one key difference between the two designations, however. A garment that is marked as "dry clean only" is made of material that demonstrates a tendency to deteriorate when cleaned by any other method. It's a clear warning that no other cleaning methods should be used.

By contrast, the purpose of the "dry clean" designation is to leave open the option of some sort of home washing and drying for the garment. Since the material involved has been demonstrated to not necessarily deteriorate, and the shape of the garment is not likely to change due to hand washing and air drying, this designation is intended to convey that gentle cleaning methods of this type may be acceptable for the garment. At the same time, the best method is to dry clean the article of clothing.

The whole point of cleaning instructions is that they are meant to help the consumer in the proper care of clothing articles. By doing so, the garment will last much longer, and the owner will get a great deal more satisfaction from the purchase. Understanding this subtle difference between dry cleaning instructions can result in the owner saving money that would otherwise be spent to replace ruined clothing.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


I have pants with a blend of 38 percent poly, 37 percent Rayon, 23 percent wool and 2 percent spandex. The tag just says "dry clean." Can I machine wash them on the delicate cycle and hang to dry?


If you can afford to pay that much for a pair of trousers, you can afford to pay a few bucks to have them dry cleaned. I wouldn't take the risk.

There's one funny thing, though. It seems that the more expensive a garment is, the more difficult it is. One should think that 'expensive' meant 'superior quality', but a 100 percent cotton you can't even wash?


Do not clean with water, do not dry clean, etc., would mean to me "do not buy!" This is why you should always remember to check the care label before buying a label.

As for that 100 percent cotton jacket that says "dry clean only," it may having something to do with the trim, embellishments or lining -- or perhaps even the way the seams are finished.

Depending on how much you paid and how much you love it, I might chance cold water wash, by hand, hang to dry -- if it really wouldn't break your heart if you ruined your jacket.


"do not clean with water, do not dry clean, do not bleach, do not iron"

You have two options: don't wear it or if you do wear it, steam it.


I bought a jacket of 100 percent cotton and the tag says dry clean only. I was wondering if I can machine wash this jacket although the tag doesn't state that.

I have other jackets of 100 percent cotton and they are machine washable.

What do you think? Do I machine wash it?


This is a new one for me. Your best bet is to contact the manufacturer of the pants and find out what cleaning method they recommend for this particular type of cotton weave (I suspect it must be a very high thread count, and the feel and cut of the pants must be exceptional for you to spend that much money on a pair of cotton pants). White cotton will certainly require cleaning after even one wear.


Okay, how about this situation...I have a pair of 100% cotton pants. The cleaning instructions state: Do not clean with water, Do not dry clean, Do not bleach, Do not iron. If I can't use water and I can't dry clean, what options are left?

These pants cost $650 and I don't want to risk ruining them. Thanks!

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