Wash or Dry Clean Clothes: How to Decide

Deciding whether to wash or dry clean your clothes can seem tricky. However, with some basic knowledge about fabrics, care labels, and cleaning methods, you can make the right choice to keep your clothes looking their best. This comprehensive guide will teach you exactly how to determine if you should wash or dry clean various items in your wardrobe.


When it comes to keeping clothes clean, you essentially have two options: washing them in your machine at home or taking them to a dry cleaner. But how do you decide which is the right method for an item? We’ll walk through the major factors to consider when choosing between washing and dry cleaning clothes.

The first and most important factor is the fabric. More delicate materials like silk, wool, and rayon often require special care that professional dry cleaners are better equipped to provide. Meanwhile, sturdier fabrics like cotton and polyester can typically withstand regular washing.

You should also check the garment’s care tag for specific instructions. Symbols will indicate if it should be dry cleaned, hand washed, or machine washed (and often if certain settings or water temperatures should be used). However, care tags aren’t foolproof, so also consider the fabric and construction.

Washing clothes at home is often cheaper and more convenient than dry cleaning. But dry cleaning may be gentler on clothes, avoiding shrinkage and damage from agitation. The pros and cons of each method are outlined below.

By understanding fabric types, interpreting care labels, and weighing these key factors, you can decide whether to play it safe with dry cleaning or take care of it at home. This guide will walk you through the process step-by-step.

Determining Fabric Type

The first step is identifying the main fabric an item is made from. Certain fabrics have properties that make them well-suited for dry cleaning or washing.

Fabrics That Typically Require Dry Cleaning

  • Silk – Silk is a delicate, protein-based fiber that can easily be damaged by water or agitation. Dry cleaning maintains the sheen and structure of silk.
  • Wool – Wool fibers can shrink, felt, or warp when washed in hot water. Dry cleaning is gentler on wool.
  • Rayon – Rayon is semi-synthetic but still fairly delicate. Dry cleaning prevents shrinkage and dye transfer.
  • Linen – Linen wrinkles easily when washed. Dry cleaning helps linen hold its shape.
  • Cashmere – Like wool, cashmere is prone to shrinking and felting when washed. It retains its softness with dry cleaning.
  • Suede – Suede can lose its color, shape, and texture when washed. It needs special solvents used by dry cleaners.
  • Specialty fabrics – Sequins, beads, lace, velvet, brocade, and other embellished fabrics may require dry cleaning to avoid damage.

Fabrics That Can Usually Be Washed

  • Cotton – Cotton is durable, breathable, and machine washable. Washing helps remove odors, oils, and sweat.
  • Denim – Most jeans and denim jackets can be tossed in the washing machine, even on delicate cycles.
  • Synthetics (polyester, nylon, spandex) – These fabrics are quite durable and retain their shape after washing.
  • Knits – Sweaters, T-shirts, activewear, and other knits typically hold up well to washing.
  • Towels/linens – Any household linens or towels should be washed regularly to sanitize them.

Consulting the Care Label

Care labels provide instructions directly from the manufacturer on how to clean an item. Here’s how to interpret some common care label symbols and terms:

  • Dry clean only – This means the garment should only be professionally dry cleaned, not washed at home.
  • Machine wash, delicate cycle – Use the gentle, low-agitation delicate cycle. Avoid vigorous washing.
  • Hand wash only – Only hand wash it gently in the sink, don’t machine wash.
  • Do not wash – Don’t wash the item at all. Dry clean only.
  • Wash separately – Wash the item by itself to prevent color transfer or damage.
  • Line dry/no machine dry – Hang the item to dry rather than machine drying.
  • Lay flat to dry – Lay item flat while drying to prevent stretching.
  • Cool iron – Use a low heat setting if ironing.

However, care labels aren’t the final word. Use your best judgement based on the fabric and construction too.

Weighing Pros and Cons of Washing vs. Dry Cleaning

To make the best decision for an item, consider the main pros and cons of both cleaning methods:

Pros of Washing Clothes at Home

  • More affordable than dry cleaning
  • Convenient – no extra errand to the cleaners
  • Can thoroughly sanitize items like towels and sheets
  • Effective at removing odors, oils, sweat, and stains
  • Prevents damage from chemicals used in dry cleaning

Cons of Washing Clothes

  • Can cause shrinkage, warping, or fading with heat/agitation
  • Not as gentle on delicate fabrics like wool and silk
  • Requires more time hanging/laying flat to dry
  • Can damage embellishments, beads, sequins with agitation
  • Wrinkling is common in fabrics like linen and rayon

Pros of Dry Cleaning Clothes

  • Gentler cleaning process for delicates like silk, wool, suede
  • Specialty solvents lift stains while preserving fabrics
  • Expert care from trained professionals
  • Avoids shrinkage, distortion, and damage from washing
  • Items pressed and finished – less wrinkling

Cons of Dry Cleaning

  • More expensive than washing at home
  • Potential for chemical damage from solvents over time
  • Inconvenient to drop off and pick up from cleaners
  • Not as effective at removing odors as washing
  • Limited ability to sanitize delicate items

When to Wash Specific Items

Now that you understand the key criteria, here are some guidelines on when to wash (or dry clean) some common garments:


  • Button-down shirts – Cotton and polyester/cotton blends can be washed. Silk and rayon should be dry cleaned.
  • Polo shirts – Safe to wash cotton/polyester polos. Dry clean silk or cashmere ones.
  • T-shirts – Cotton t-shirts can be washed regularly.
  • Tank tops – Most can be washed, except silk or sequined ones.
  • Cashmere sweaters – Dry clean to avoid shrinking soft cashmere.
  • Wool sweaters – Hand wash or dry clean delicate wool knits.


  • Jeans – Sturdy jeans are made to withstand washing.
  • Khakis/chinos – Cotton and polyester blends can be washed. Wool blends should be dry cleaned.
  • Dress pants – Dry clean wool, linen, rayon, or silk pants. Wash polyester and cotton ones.
  • Shorts – Cotton and polyester shorts can be washed. Dry clean silk shorts.
  • Skirts – Dry clean silk, linen, or suede skirts. Wash cotton, denim, and polyester ones.


  • Raincoats – Most lightweight raincoats can be washed, except suede which should be dry cleaned.
  • Overcoats – Wool and cashmere coats need dry cleaning. Polyester ones can be washed.
  • Leather jackets – Only dry clean genuine leather jackets. Faux leather can be washed.
  • Blazers – Dry clean silk, wool, and linen blazers. Wash cotton and polyester ones.
  • Down jackets – Use a front-loading washing machine (no agitator) to wash down coats.


  • Bras – Hand or machine wash delicate bras, don’t dry clean.
  • Shapewear – Polyester and nylon shapewear can be washed. Dry clean silk/lace ones.
  • Hosiery – Most pantyhose and stockings need hand washing only.
  • Slips – Silk slips should be dry cleaned. Cotton can be washed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I strictly follow the care label instructions?

Not always. They provide a good starting point, but care labels aren’t foolproof. The instructions are added by the manufacturer often to err on the side of caution. You may find many items hold up fine to washing even if the tag says “Dry Clean Only.” Use care labels as a guideline along with considering the fabric type and construction.

Can I wash wool sweaters at home?

It’s risky to machine wash or dry wool sweaters as they can easily shrink, felt, or lose their shape. It’s best to dry clean wool knits. If you want to hand wash delicate wool, use cold water and a wool-specific detergent. Lay the sweater flat to dry. Steaming can also help wool keep its form.

How often should clothes be dry cleaned versus washed?

For everyday cottons, synthetics, and knits, washing after every 1-2 wears is fine. More delicate fabrics that require dry cleaning can go 5-6 wears between cleanings. Garments that rarely get dirty like coats or formalwear may only need dry cleaning 1-2 times a season. Use your judgement and clean as needed based on wear frequency, activity, and odor.

Is dry cleaning or hand washing better for silks?

Dry cleaning is preferable for most silks to avoid damage from water or agitation. However, some very delicate silks like charmeuse or silk chiffon could get weakened by dry cleaning chemicals over time. For those, hand wash in cold water using a mild detergent. Either method requires extreme care when handling silks.

How can I get wrinkles out of clothes without washing them?

For wrinkled clothes that don’t require washing yet, use the steam setting on an iron to smooth them out. You can also try hanging the item in a steamy bathroom. For deeper wrinkles, try pressing with an iron on the synthetic/wool setting (low heat). Be very careful ironing delicate fabrics and embellishments.


Deciding how to clean different clothing items doesn’t have to be a guessing game. By considering the fabric type, checking care labels, and weighing the pros and cons of washing vs. dry cleaning, you can confidently choose the best method. Take a few moments to evaluate new purchases so you understand how to care for them over time.

With fine fabrics like silks and wools, when in doubt, go the more gentle route and dry clean. For everyday cottons, knits, jeans, and synthetics, washing them at home is typically perfectly fine. Hand wash delicates like bras and slips when possible.

Treat stains promptly and clean clothes regularly as needed, and your wardrobe will stay looking fresh and wear well for longer. Knowing the basics of garment care will save you from damage caused by guessing incorrectly! Just follow this guide’s tips and you’ll get far more wears out of your favorite clothes.