Wetcleaning Chemistry

I travel around to different drycleaning and wetcleaning plants and find that most of them are not using the best wetcleaning chemicals for obtaining optimum results. The cleaners usually say that their wetcleaning procedures are okay but in reality are not as good as they could be. If your silks, wools and rayons are not coming out as soft as in drycleaning then you are not using your wetcleaning chemicals to their full potential. Some cleaners operate their wetcleaning programs using the same formulation for cottons, silks, wools, polyesters and rayons. This does not give you the best feel possible or protection against shrinkage that you want. A cotton or linen requires a little body and feel while silks and wool require softness, sheen and luster. The point of this article is to impress upon you that the wetcleaning programs you use can work better. The most sophisticated wetcleaning equipment can be of no benefit to you if the proper chemistry is not used.



I have done extensive tests for many years on detergents that are used for wetcleaning. I have worked with most of the major chemical companies and have used their products effectively.

  1.   Cationic-chemically these detergents have a positive ionic charge that does the cleaning. These detergents have both good and bad properties. On shrinkage protection they are probably the best detergents to use. They tend to coat the fiber such as wool making the scale slippery and thus preventing the wool scale from tangling and matting. These detergents tend to stay with the fabric even after rinsing. This detergent is so good that I always have used it for wetcleaning angora sweaters rather than drycleaning. They also will add to the hand, feel and luster on silks and rayons. They are formulated either neutral or slightly acid to prevent dye bleeding. The negative side to using this detergent is that they are not powerful cleaning agents which is okay since its main use is for silks, wools and rayons. It should not be used for glued on trimmings since it tends to soften the adhesive. In pre-spotting avoid using anionic detergents such as neutral lubricant. Many detergents are anionic in nature and will break down and form rings when in contact with the cationic nature of the detergent.
  2.   Anionic-these are better cleaning agents than cationic detergents. They have a negative ionic cleaning charge and are not compatible with cationic cleaning detergents. Manufacturers have attempted to use this cleaning detergent as a universal one for cleaning all fabrics including silk, wool, rayon and cotton. They have been formulated slightly acid which stabilizes the dye on all fabrics. They incorporate softening agents which aid in its cleaning and feel for silks and wool. I have no objection to the use of this detergent but I feel that the use of cationic detergents tend to do a better job in softening wool and silk and preventing shrinkage on wool.
  3.   Nonionic- these detergents are incorporated with other detergents because they have a neutral ionic charge. They are also effective pre-spotting agents for removal of grease and oil. The purpose of nonionic detergents is to aid in grease and oil removal but is not effective for soil. It can be programmed to inject into the wetcleaning machine when needed for denims, cottons and other fabrics impregnated with oils and greases. If the garments do not have oil and grease staining it does not have to be used.
  4.   Sizing agents-this is an additional product added to the wetcleaning program to give fabrics feel, body and hand. These agents are not starch which only gives stiffness. A fabric properly starched has feel and body which makes it easier to press and feels better to the customer. This additive should only be used for cottons, linens and some rayons but not for silk and wool.
  5.   Softening agents-are used to add to the softness and feel of wools, silks and some rayons. They not only enhance the feel but give the fabric more sheen and luster. When used for wools and silks the fabrics will come out as soft as if it has been drycleaned. The chemical make-up of softening agents may be cationic or nonionic in nature. If you are using anionic cleaning agents do not use cationic softening agents. If you are using nonionic softening agents it can be added to any detergent. The softening agents are usually added in the rinse cycle of the wetcleaning program.
  6.   Fabric finish-some manufacturers produce a finishing agent that gives a fabric additional luster and sheen. This too, is used in the rinse cycle.


  1.   Enzymes-removes protein stains and some food grease and oil. They are compatible with most detergents even those that are slightly acid or alkaline based. They are effective in temperatures up to 140oF.
  2.   Oxygen bleach-they are either sodium perborate or sodium percarbonate. They remove oxidized stains and enhance the whiteness of a fabric. In low water temperatures they are usually safe to the colors of cotton, linens and synthetics.
  3.   Acids-used to stabilize dyes and add to softness of fabric.
  4.  Alkali-used to enhance the cleaning action of any detergent.


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.

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