I am no fashionista, but I do appreciate good quality clothing. My one problem is that most women’s clothes now seem to need special care like handwash or dry clean only. The expense of dry cleaning is one drawback, but so are the chemicals used to clean the clothes.
When I saw an “organic” dry cleaners open in my town, I decided to dig into the details on organic dry cleaning and find out if it was a good as it sounded.
What Is Organic Dry Cleaning?
The EPA definition of organic dry cleaning compounds is very broad. In fact, any cleaner that contains carbon can be considered organic. This includes the chemical percholorethylene or “perc.”
Perc has been shown it may contribute to cancer, including tongue cancer, in garment cleaning workers. It is also devastating to the environment. President Bush charged the EPA with completely eliminating its use in dry cleaning by 2020.
Ironically, in order to “dry clean” clothes, they are first soaked in perc and tossed in a drum. So dry cleaning actually wets clothes! (Crazy, right?)
Most organic dry cleaners use one of three processes, GreenEarth®, CO2 dry cleaning, or hydrocarbon dry cleaning. Each of these is considered environmentally friendly and non-toxic.
GreenEarth® Dry Cleaning
GreenEarth® is the most popular and original organic cleaning method. It was developed to replace perc but has some of the same problems. GreenEarth® is actually a chemical called decamethylyclopentasiloxane or D5.
It isn’t without its problems though. D5 has been shown to increase the growth of malignant tumors in garment cleaning workers in a 2007 OEHHA report. D5 may also negatively affect the nervous system, bile formation in the liver, the immune system, and fatty tissue.
What’s more, D5 has a very long half-life making it a persistent chemical once released to the environment.
Hydrocarbon Dry Cleaning
Before perc was available, all dry cleaning was done using hydrocarbon compounds. These worked well but are combustible, so dry cleaners adopted the perc method. However, now the tide has changed and perc is being phased out and replaced with a new breed of hydrocarbon cleaners.
While hydrocarbons are considered safer than perc, there may be serious side effects. Hydrocarbons have been shown to affect the nervous system causing everything from light-headedness and dizziness, to unconsciousness and death if inhaled. More data is needed to really know any long-term effects.
Regardless of toxicity of hydrocarbons, these compounds are highly flammable. This is the reason they were abandoned in the first place. Accidental combustion is a risk for workers and nearby residents and businesses.
Hydrocarbons are also volatile carbons that contribute to smog. Since they are petroleum-based, they also carry all the same negative environmental effects as other petroleum waste, like car exhaust.
Doesn’t sound too “organic” to me!
Co2 Dry Cleaning
CO2 dry cleaning uses carbon dioxide, the same gas used to make seltzer fizzy, to clean clothes. The process is actually fascinating. It has been praised for being environmentally friendly by the EPA, the Natural Resources Defence Council, Greenpeace, and Consumer Reports.
According to the patent information, the ability of carbon dioxide to change states is what powers CO2 cleaning, not harsh chemicals. Carbon dioxide is converted to a liquid in order to clean the clothing. The liquid CO2 washes away particulate, dirt, and toxins from the clothing. In order to “dry” the clothes, the CO2 is converted back to a gas. There is no residue or waste from this method.
Most of the carbon dioxide used in CO2 cleaning is actually recycled industrial waste. Even better, the CO2 used in the process can also be recycled. Any CO2 that may be released in the process can be used and turned into oxygen by plants and trees. This is a natural process that happens every day, so there is absolutely no environmental impact!
Not only is CO2 cleaning healthier for the garment industry workers, consumers, and the environment, it actually better for clothes. CO2 dry cleaning is a cold process, unlike every other method that requires heat. Heat breaks down the fibers of clothing, wearing them out over time.
The CO2 method eliminates fading, shrinking, and pilling. Also, stains will not accidentally get set by this method, so clothes will always look their best. My favorite part of this method is that there is no residue left on clothing and no “dry cleaning” chemical odor.
In researching dry cleaning, I came across a new method called wet cleaning. As I mentioned above, every dry cleaning method uses some kind of liquid. It is considered dry, though, because no water is used.
Wet cleaning changes all of this. Its primary cleaner is water. Specially formulated detergents and softeners are also used in wet cleaning to clean the garment. Clothing items are agitated in the wet cleaning solution, then basically hung to dry, before being pressed by special pressing machines to eliminate wrinkles.
Wet cleaning has become the latest trend in more eco-friendly commercial cleaning. However, how environmentally friendly is it. Since detergents and softeners are added to the water, it is only as safe as what is added.
Since it is a primarily water-based method, waste goes directly into sewer systems, eventually emptying into water supplies. Waste from perc dry cleaning is contained and disposed of as toxic waste. Neither is ideal, but flushing more chemicals into waterways does not seem healthy.
Wet cleaning has other drawbacks, too. Since it uses water, it is not safe for all fabrics (like many that are labeled dry clean only). Wet cleaning can stretch fabric or cause them to bleed.
So what’s a mom to do?
How to Safely Clean Dry-Clean-Only Clothing
Dry cleaning is changing and there is hope that it will be healthier for consumers and the environment soon. However, just choosing organic dry cleaning isn’t enough. Asking questions is essential!
- CO2 dry cleaning is the safest bet for healthy clothing and no environmental impact.
- Wet cleaning can be a good choice, if the detergents used are safe, non-toxic ones.
More and more, people are experimenting with how to clean dry-clean-only items at home, also. While this is not foolproof, I have cleaned some of my dry-clean-only clothes successfully after researching how to treat each fabric.
Either way, education is the key to making the best choice. Taking the time to first see if a garment could be home laundered, probably by hand, can save money and support a healthy lifestyle. If home laundering isn’t an option, exploring the dry or wet cleaning options in the area will take a little effort but be well worth it.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
How do you clean dry clean only clothes?