A worry today for people who dry clean their garments is exposure to chemicals from the process. Are there safe methods of dry cleaning and if not, what are the alternatives?
You may remember the sweet sharp smell that hit you when you dropped off or picked up clothes at the dry cleaner. That was from perchloroethylene (“perc”) used in most dry-cleaning shops in this country since the 1930s. Known for its excellent cleaning power, perc is stable, nonflammable, and gentle to most garments. The only problem is that it is a recognized toxin for both humans and the environment. In 1993 California became the first state to adopt regulations to reduce perc emissions from dry-cleaning operations. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that Perc is a “likely human carcinogen” and finally imposed national standards for dry cleaners to phase it out its use by 2020 (that’s still 8 years too long for me).
Here is a guide to some DO’s and DON’TS when cleaning your delicate garments:
• DO be wary of dry cleaners that advertise themselves as “organic,” “environmentally friendly,” “green,” “non-toxic,” “environmentally preferable” or similar. The dry-cleaning industry or the government does not regulate the use of these terms.
• DO seek out professional dry cleaners that wet clean your garments. Although this process has been around for years, machines have become more sophisticated, consisting of computer-controlled commercial washers and dryers, specialized detergents (that are milder than home laundry products), and tension finishers to re-stretch the fabrics. Wet cleaners claim they can successfully clean and protect silks, woolens, linens, suede, and leather fabrics.
• DO seek out dry cleaners using liquid CO2. This process uses naturally occurring, nonflammable gas to dissolve dirt, fats, and oils in clothing. Clothes are placed in a specialized machine for five to 15 minutes. At the end of the cleaning cycle, the liquid CO2 can be reused again. While CO2 is a greenhouse gas, no new CO2 is generated with this technology, so it does not contribute to global warming. The main drawback is that, while the CO2 itself is both cheap and abundant, the cost of a CO2 dry cleaning machine is very high, so it may be difficult to find a dry cleaner who has adopted this method.
• DO NOT take DRY CLEAN ONLY tags too literally. You can wash many delicates like rayon, angora, silk and cashmere at home using a variety of natural cleaners you have in your kitchen or medicine chest. (See source below for a guide to do-it-yourself suggestions.) If you want a professionally crisp finish, you can always take them to a dry cleaner to press.
• DO your research. Check out the safety of solvents such as hydrocarbons (petroleum-based), silicone-based (like GreenEarth), and glycol ether (like Rynex or Solvair) which are relatively new compared to perc. Data on their health and environmental impacts are still being gathered. GreenEarth and Solvair contain suspected neuro-respiratory and kidney toxins and possible hormone disrupters, according to the EPA.
• DO NOT get too close to freshly dry-cleaned clothes, especially wool. It absorbs and holds onto chemicals more than other fabrics. Although many shops have shifted cleaning facilities off-site, it doesn’t mean residual toxins aren’t still hanging around in your garments What’s more, if you tote your fresh cleaned garments in your car and it is hot out, that can add to their toxicity! Better to put them in the trunk and take the plastic bag off them before putting away in your closet.
• DO ask questions to your dry cleaner such as the following:
o How do you clean garments?
o How do you dispose of hazardous waste?
o Do you recycle?
o What kind of packaging do you use?
o How do you deliver and transport garments?
In the near future, hopefully consumers will have a wider range of environmentally safe cleaning processes to choose from. According to Alan Spielvogel, technical director of the National Cleaners Association, ultrasonic energy and environmentally friendly solvents are the new generation of advances to watch for. Next time you spill some red wine on your new sweater, reach for the white vinegar in your kitchen cabinet and be good to yourself and the environment!
*Addendum: I was just at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore, Md., and picked up Bayberry Naturals Aloe and Shea Shampoo and Soft and Pure Conditioner to wash my white silk camisole in. It came out beautifully. Also, I learned that Ecos Free and Clear Natural Laundry Detergent (available at Whole Foods) is now used by wet cleaners. To Your Health!
www.nodryclean.com: list of wet cleaners and CO2 cleaners in the U.S.
www.care2.com/greenliving/dry-cleaning-alternatives.html: methods for at-home wet cleaning
Dry cleaning image via Shutterstock