Understanding wetcleaning chemistry

There are many cleaners who have problems doing wetcleaning or using wetcleaning chemicals because they do not understand the products that they are using. There are some wetcleaning chemicals that are incompatible with others. The result is that the garment may have rings or discolorations. Some wetcleaning chemicals although labeled as safe and mild may not react well with silks and other fabrics. Other wetcleaning chemicals may remove color, break down Spandex and affect glued on beading. If the chemicals have a high PH the soil may be removed but so will the color. For that reason, it is important to use all wetcleaning chemicals that are not only safe but also compatible. For example, some cleaners may use a spray spotter or lubricant that will break down when wetcleaned with another manufacturers product. Your chemical representative can give the information needed to achieve safe and consistent wetcleaning.


(1) Anionic detergent

If the cleaning surfactant is anionic in nature, it means that the detergent has a negative charge. This detergent is effective for cleaning most fabrics and removing the necessary soil. This detergent however, is not compatible with cationic detergents and cationic softeners which are commonly used for silks and wools. If it is used with cationic products, they will counteract each other resulting in rings and loss of cleaning effectiveness. It does not mean that you cannot pre-spot wools and silks but you should use pre-spotters that are compatible.

(2) Cationic detergent

The cationic surfactant used for cleaning has a positive charge. The type of detergent is good for silk and wool because it coats the fiber. It prevents the wool from shrinking because it keeps the fiber lubricated. As we previously explained if you use an anionic detergent for spotting it will break down when in contact with this cationic detergent. This detergent should not be used on glued on trimmings or pigment print. It can loosen the adhesive binder used. It also tends to remain in the fabric and will produce rings and swales if used for cleaning quilted fabrics. This detergent is usually acid in nature which means it also has dye setting properties and is not considered an aggressive cleaner.

(3) Nonionic detergent

This cleaning surfactant has a neutral charge and is compatible with any detergent. It is also effective as a grease remover. This nonionic detergent can be a base for tannin, protein and grease remover pre-spotters. It is used as a softening agent for wools and silks.

(4) Citrus Degreasers

This is a pre-spotter used for removing dry side stains such as grease, oil, ink, lipstick, paint, etc. This type of pre-spotter is made up of oil from citrus products and is a nonionic surfactant. It can affect pigment print, glued on beading and Spandex. It can be damaging to some dyes on silks, acetates and cottons. It should be tested before use.


The PH of water is 7 and is considered neutral. When chemicals fall under this range it is termed an acid. When the PH is above 7 it is termed an alkali. The strength of the chemical involved can be significant if the PH changes. For example, if the PH of an alkali is 8 and another chemical has a PH of 9 it means that the chemical in the 9 range can be 10 times as strong. The same condition occurs with acids.

(1) Acids

These are chemicals that release hydrogen ions in the presence of water. Acids are found in tannin formulas and cationic detergents for cleaning wools and silks. 

(2) Alkalis

These are chemicals that release hydroxyl ions in the presence of water. Alkali increases the cleaning action of any detergent or pre-spotter. The stronger the alkali the more soils and stains it can remove but it can also make it potentially more dangerous. If you mix an alkali with a citrus based degreaser it can make it much stronger but with more risk factors to the fiber and dye. When using citrus degreasers, it is safer to use products with only a slight alkalinity.


If you used one set of wetcleaning chemicals from the same company you can be assured of complete compatibility. The chemical company can supply you with necessary safety data for doing effective wetcleaning.


  • A few cleaners are having problems with Tommy Bahama shirts. Print and solid colored shirts are losing color when drycleaned. Some print shirts have labels that say “Guaranteed to Fade” which is certainly is an indication of poor dye fastness. Laboratory tests have shown that wetcleaning poses less problems to the color.
  • Some high fashions may pose problems to the look of the garment. Gianfranco Ferré is a high styled white gown with a stiff pleated collar which stands up. Loss of sizing occurs when the gown is drycleaned causing the collar to become limp and lose its original look. A extremely short run will reduce the incidence of the problem.

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 cleandan@comcast.net or through his website at www.garmentanalysis.com. Dan Eisen, 274 NW Toscane Trail, Port Saint Lucie, FL 34986.