customizing your wetcleaning loads

In order to do proper wetcleaning, it is necessary to customize the loads you are running. This means adding the proper detergent with the proper additives in a specific formulation for that particular load. There is not one detergent that can specifically handle all loads equally. There are some fabrics that require special additives to obtain maximum results and better cleaning. There are some loads that require color stabilization and lubricating agents necessary to prevent shrinkage. Although the manufacturers have provided the proper chemistry often cleaners do not understand how the chemistry works and are often sidetracked with the easy way out. Wetcleaning is an art and the more knowledge people have the better cleaning results you can obtain. There are many manufacturers who offer different formulations but cleaners are not maximizing the chemistry that is available.


  • Anionic – These detergents have a negative charge surfactant that cleans fabrics. Anionic detergents obtain maximum cleaning results on most fabrics but are not designed for wetcleaning wools, silks and fabrics with poor color fastness.

  • Cationic – These detergents have surfactants with a positive charge. These detergents tend to stay with the fabric and provide a softness to the fabric. They are therefore very useful for cleaning wool, silk, rayon and other delicate fabrics. It is important to note the positive charge properties of this detergent. If cleaners pre-spot fabrics with an anionic detergent and then wetclean it with a cationic detergent there will be a breakdown of the detergent causing insoluble rings and swales. Anionic and cationic detergents are not compatible with each other. The rule is that you must always avoid mixing anionic and cationics.

  • Nonionic – are detergents that are neutral without a positive or negative charge. They can be used to clean garments as an additive with any detergent. They do not cause a breakdown in any detergent. Nonionic detergents also provide a certain degree of softness to the fabric. Nonionic detergents have an ability to remove grease and oil. They are therefore effective in wetcleaning pre-spotting formulations. Nonionic detergents do not have capabilities of removing ground in soil.


Manufacturers provide detergents with additives or cleaners can add them separately. Additives provide better cleaning and also add additional safety to fabrics and color.

  • Alkalis – are chemicals that release hydroxyl ions in the presence of water. Alkalis increase cleaning power of any detergent or pre-spotting detergent. For example, if I wetclean a load of khakis with just using anionic detergent there will be only a certain degree of soil removal. If I add alkali to that detergent, I can possibly double the soil removal capabilities of the detergent. Some manufacturers formulate their detergents with an alkali to provide better cleaning for khakis, denim and raincoats. If I add alkali to a pre-spotting agent, the pre-spotting agent becomes much more aggressive. If I add it to a nonionic detergent the oil and grease stain removal potential is increased. If you are wetcleaning a heavily soiled load you can add 1-2 ounces of ammonia (28) per gallon of water. If the detergent is already alkaline based you may not have to add as much alkali to increase soil removal.

  • Acids – are agents that release hydrogen ions in the presence of water. Acids have the ability to provide color stabilization and softness to wool and silk. Most cationic formulations are acid in nature but additional acid in the load for stabilizing poor color fastness can be done. The most versatile acid to add to loads is acetic acid. You can add 1-2 ounces of acetic acid per gallon of water. Acetic acid can be used in the rinse water to neutralize highly alkaline detergents. Acetic acid can also neutralize bleaches. Acids can also be used to add to loads that are stained with excessive amounts of tannin stains.

  • Enzymes – Detergents with enzymes provide additional stain removal. The enzymes used in detergents can withstand high water temperatures up to 140oF. They are also stable in the presence of mild acid, alkali and bleach.

  • Sodium percarbonate – This is a mild oxidizing bleach that is used in detergent mixtures rather than sodium perborate. Sodium percarbonate releases more oxygen than sodium perborate and dissolves more easily in cool water. When used in detergent formulations it has been found to be safe to most wetcleanable items providing the water temperature is cool. They should not be used on wool and silk.

  • Softening agents – are cationic additives used to soften the fabric and texture. They are essential when wetcleaning wool and silk. They are usually used in the rinse water when cationic detergents are used. Garments that are treated properly with softening agents usually do not have to be drycleaned to soften the fabric after wetcleaning.

Picture of Dan Eisen

Dan Eisen

Dan Eisen, former chief garment analyst for the National Cleaners Association, offers lecture, consultation and garment analysis service. He is the author of The Art of Spotting. He can be reached at (772) 340-0909, by email at or through his website at Dan Eisen, 274 NW Toscane Trail, Port Saint Lucie, FL 34986.

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