Dry cleaning services use non-water solvents to remove soil and stains from clothes. This great invention dates back to the 1855. First reference to the use of an organic solvent (spirits of turpentine) to remove stains comes from 1981. The potential for using petroleum-based solvents such as gasoline and kerosene was recognized by French dye-works operator Jean Baptiste Jolly who was also the first to develop early dry cleaning service in 1840s.

In the late XIX century the traditional solvent used by dry cleaners were turpentine spirits, camphor oil, benzene, naphtha and white gasoline. There are very flammable, so the business was rather risky. Clothings were washed and rinsed in tubs filled with these solvents, and then hung in a warm room to dry. Raw white gasoline was the primary dry cleaning solvent used in the United States.

By the mid-1930s dry cleaning industry had adopted tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene) as the safe and inflammable solvent. It has excellent cleaning power and is gentle enough to most fragile garments. However, it was later incidentally recognized as carcinogen by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission - and banned as a consequence. In 1993, the California Air Resources Board adopted also regulations to reduce its emissions from dry cleaning operations. After World War I, dry cleaners started using chlorinated solvents. They were much less flammable and had improved cleaning power – and was quite safe for our health, too.

Traditionally, the cleaning process was carried out at large factories situated beyond the city center. Dry cleaner shops received garments from customers, sent them to the factory, and then had them returned clean. At this early time, dry cleaning was done sequentially in two different machines — one for the cleaning process itself and the second one to dry the clean items.

Today the used solvent is usually recovered during the drying process and then returned condensed and distilled, so it can be reused to clean further loads. The majority of modern machines also incorporate a computer-controlled drying sensor which automatically "feel" when all traces of solvent have been removed. This ensures that only the smallest amount of perc fumes will be released when opening the door at the end of the cleaning process.