Dry cleaning is a kind of modern magic—especially for those of us who never really learned how to iron. Is there anything more satisfying than taking a balled-up, stained dress to the cleaners and getting it back looking so new, it could be hanging in a window of the store where you bought it?
That magic comes at a pretty steep price, depending on where and how often you clean your clothes. And we're not just talking about the dent it makes in your discretionary spending. The chemicals used by most dry cleaners can harm air quality, the health of your dry cleaner's employees, and your own well-being.
If your clothes are cleaned with perchloroethylene, you're inviting some known-to-be-noxious chemicals directly into your home. Perc (cute nickname, ugly side effects) is a volatile organic compound, or VOC. Volatile means that the organic compounds—which are also, in this case, toxic—readily and continuously evaporate into the air.
You've probably noticed this. Perc vapors float out of a fresh dry-cleaning bag, giving off an odor that is, ironically, sweet. In fact, gases from perc can exacerbate asthma and cause dizziness and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. Babies and kids, whose lungs and bodies are smaller and less able to handle toxic exposure, may be more affected by perc when it "off-gasses," for instance, in the backseat of a closed car where dry cleaning is hanging next to them.
There doesn't seem to be any safe level of exposure to perc. According to the National Institutes of Health, "Short-term exposure to high levels of perchloroethylene can affect the central nervous system and cause unconsciousness and death." And longer-term, lower-level exposure is also problematic: "Studies of workers, including dry cleaners, have shown that regular exposures over time are linked to an increased risk of esophagus and bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, spontaneous abortion, menstrual and sperm disorders, and reduced fertility," says Jennifer Sass, an NRDC senior scientist. It's because of these known hazards that California has banned perc via a phaseout process to be completed by 2023.
Keeping perc out: the DIY alternatives
Wherever you happen to live, you can take matters into your own hands by completely avoiding dry cleaning that uses perc. Your best option is to carefully "wet-clean" items yourself, either in the washing machine or by hand, with cold water and mild detergent. First, note that there's a difference between labels on your clothing that say "dry clean" and those that say "dry clean only"; the latter means business, while the former is more of a suggestion. "A lot of clothes say 'dry clean' because it's the least harsh process for the fabric, and it absolves clothing companies of any issues if you DIY. But almost everything can be wet-cleaned," says Sass.
Cashmere, alpaca, mohair, cotton, linen, most wools, and other natural materials can go in the sink for hand-washing, or put them in net bags and wash in a machine on the delicate cycle, with cold water and a gentle detergent made for these materials. Acrylic, polyester, and nylon can also be washed at home, but be careful with silk; it usually holds up to hand-washing, but you should test bright-colored silks first to ensure they won't bleed and lose their color. Don't attempt to wash acetate, velvet, taffeta, or lined wool garments at home. These are either too delicate or will lose their shape when washed in water.
None of these fabrics can safely go in the dryer, but you can lay them flat on a towel and leave them to air dry. Wrinkly results? A quick trip to the cleaners for professional pressing, or a deft hand with the iron at home, will get fabrics crisp and wrinkle-free without chemicals.
There are lots of online resources that describe how to clean fabrics. Google the specific material you want to clean, then read up—or search on YouTube for video how-tos. Wet-cleaning at home may not be as convenient as dropping off your clothes with a professional. But in addition to the satisfaction of doing something yourself and avoiding toxic chemicals, you'll also save serious cash over time.
When DIY is not an option
If your online research tells you the fabric of your garment is an extremely delicate blend, or if it has decorative elements like beading and sequins or is just too expensive to risk the DIY treatment, there are professional wet-cleaning options, which are also nontoxic. The next best alternative is CO2 cleaning, in which carbon dioxide is pressurized into a liquid solvent that safely cleans clothing.
You've probably seen signs for "organic" cleaners or "earth-friendly" options—all meaningless designations, since claims made by dry cleaners aren't regulated. These terms could indicate a perc-free cleaning system, but you'll need to inquire. If the method offered is not wet-cleaning or the CO2 system, then it's likely one of a few other options that are best avoided. This includes "green" silicone processes that don't use perc but do use other chemicals that are potentially problematic. "The silicone-based solvents called siloxane, such as D5, are extremely persistent in the environment and have a questionable toxicity profile," Sass says. "Some studies report an increase in uterine cancer in exposed laboratory animals."
Petroleum-based solvents are often advertised as "organic," too, because technically their chemical structure is composed of long chains of carbon. But these by-products of gasoline production, with trade names like Stoddard, DF-2000, PureDry, EcoSolv, and Shell Solution 140 HT, are still VOCs that release gasses into the environment.
Of course, there's always the simplest solution to the dry-cleaning problem: Equate "dry clean only" with "do not buy."
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