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How healthy is dry-cleaning?

How healthy is dry-cleaning?

We’ve all done it–accidentally machine washed and ruined a “dry-clean only” piece.  It’s so frustrating–what happens in the washer and why is dry cleaning “safe” for these items?  According to Rinse, a dry cleaning and laundering service, “Dry Cleaning can be beneficial for garments made from fibers that don’t react well when exposed to water, like silk and wool. It’s also good for garments that shouldn’t be exposed to the heat of a traditional dryer.”  It consists of pre-treatment to stains, washing in a chemical solvent that is free of water, spin-drying, post-washing stain treatment and press, steam or ironing to make all clothing look new again. 

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, many kinds of petroleum-based solvents were used to wash clothes, because they remove stains better than soap and water, with less damage to the fabric.  Perchloroethylene (PERC) is one of several non-flammable solvents created to dry-clean during the petroleum shortage created by WWII, and it became the primary solvent used in the 1940’s through the end of the century.  However, it is discovered to be a respiratory and skin irritant, neurotoxicant, liver and kidney toxicant, and reproductive and developmental toxicant, as well as a probable carcinogen. (frontiersin.org)  Dry-cleaning machines using PERC have evolved to a 5th generation, which is a closed loop of washing, drying and recycling the solvent, so that operator and the environmental exposure to PERC is much lower than the 1st generation.  Despite these advances, residuals from the chemical in cleaned clothes and in the waste process are disturbing; the chemical will be outlawed in 2023 in California.   Alternatives range from n-Propyl Bromide (n-PB), which also has toxic effects, to high-flashpoint solvents, to the safest options, liquid carbon dioxide cleaning and Professional Wet Cleaning (PWC).  PWC uses good old water and detergent in a computer-controlled process.

As consumers, the dangers of residual dry-cleaning chemicals in our clothes may not be apparent, but they are there.  PERC vaporizes from clothing and is released into your home, according to a 2011 study.  Concentrations of PERC also increase as the clothing item is dry-cleaned several times, except for silk, which does not retain PERC.  If several dry-cleaned items are left in your car, levels of PERC can rise well above permitted levels by OSHA for workplaces using the chemical.  This suggests that those who deliver dry-cleaned clothing might have more exposure than even those who process it.

In 2021, 90% of dry-cleaning shops in France still use PERC, and estimates in the US may be as low as 65% (vice.com)  Kings County, Washington has been especially proactive in helping cleaners to switch to PWC.  Education on the machines and the process, as well as financial assistance to purchase new PWC machines has been key to the transition.   It’s certainly a looming deadline for California shops, but Minneapolis already forced the transition and became PERC-free in January 2018 (americandrycleaner.com)

Dry-cleaning has been in a slight decline because of the coronavirus pandemic (less in-office work days with less formal dress) and the development of fabrics that can be successfully laundered at home.  Still, if you don’t live in Kings County, WA, California, or Minneapolis, what can you do to reduce your exposure to PERC?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Familiarize yourself with how to hand wash delicate items, and it may eliminate most of your dry cleaning!  Take these tips from Town and Country Magazine.

  • If you do go for dry clean, air the items out of their bags in a ventilated space away from your home, like the open sunshine or in a carport. 

  • Investigate cleaners that use PWC instead of PERC.  Rinse.com is a delivery service that offers laundry, fold and dry-cleaning to areas in California and New York, and states that none of their cleaners use PERC, however not all of them use PWC because they don’t recommend wet cleaning for all items.  It may be a case of calling and asking “I have this item” and “what can/would your shop use to clean it”?

  • Be wise in purchasing new clothes–avoid “Dry Clean Only” when you can.  “Dry Clean Suggested” is a more flexible option, but “Hand Wash” and “Machine Wash” are definitely preferred!