A couple years ago, I happened to be walking down the main street of the beautiful Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia and noticed that two dry cleaners had big signs in the window that said “Organic Dry Cleaning”. I used to wear dry clean-only clothes and suits when I worked in corporate America (in my last lifetime), but I have to admit that I rarely ever took them to the cleaners. I will admit to using those at-home dry clean steam bag kits (before I knew better) on occasion, or I would take my chances with good old cold water and the gentle cycle in my washing machine, then laying the garments out flat to dry. I have to say that even though it was time consuming, I never ruined any of my nice suits or other garments.
Now in my life as a busy work-from-home mommy, I cannot be bothered at all by any item of clothing that cannot be machine washed and dried. I just do not have the time. I rarely even have time to iron. But, since I had always suspected that the dry cleaning chemicals were probably not the healthiest, I was glad to see not one but two “organic” dry cleaners nearby should I ever need to have something professionally cleaned.
If you have been following the Toxies (in case you don’t know, the Toxies are a hysterical satirical “award show” featuring the worst of the worst of toxic chemicals found in everyday items, services, etc. There were categories for worst ______, and readers got to nominate their “favorite” toxins for each category) you may know that this year’s winner for Worse Dressed is perchloroethylene (AKA “perc”), which is the chemical solvent used by 85% of America’s dry cleaners. It is considered by the EPA to be hazardous to people as well as the environment, and is listed on the American Cancer Society’s list of Probable Carcinogens. This chemical can be absorbed by the skin via contact with the “clean” clothing, and is also very likely to enter the body by inhalation.
Even minimal exposure to perc can cause issues like “dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and skin and respiratory irritation. Prolonged perc exposure has been linked to liver and kidney damage, and cancer.”
Not so fast. While some of the dry cleaners that market themselves as “organic”, “green”, “environmentally friendly”, “natural”, etc. are legit, many of them are using the word “organic” to deceive people into thinking they are using safe and green dry cleaning methods. These days, the word “organic” often refers to foods and product ingredients that are free of pesticides, hormones, steroids, antibiotics, etc. In biology and other life sciences, organic means “derived from living organisms”. However, in chemistry, an organic substance or compound is anything that contains or has ever contained carbon.
In terms of chemistry, perc is an organic compound. As are formaldehyde, phenol, petroleum, PABA, bisphenol-A (BPA), and a whole slew of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are known toxins and potential carcinogens. Unfortunately, when many of us see a sign that says “Organic”, we immediately assume the product or service is well intended and safer for us and for the environment. We don’t even bother to ask the shopkeeper what actually makes their store organic. Since perc, as well as some other toxic dry cleaning solvents (like DF-2000, hydrocarbon, or D5 silicone) are technically organic in terms of chemistry, these facilities cannot be blamed for false advertising. They can, however, be blamed for being deceptive jerks for using semantics to take advantage of people’s good intentions.
Fortunately, there are some professional dry cleaning methods that actually are safe and environmentally friendly. You just have to do your homework and ask these places what methods they use. The two methods you want to look for are professional wet cleaning and liquid CO2 cleaning. These methods are non-toxic, environmentally-friendly, and they still remove stains as long as the cleaners know what they are doing.
Professional wet cleaning uses a sophisticated computer-controlled machine that very gently launders the clothes using safe and gentle detergents that are pH-balanced to remove the majority of all stains (water-soluble). Tough oil-soluble stains are pre-treated first with a safe solvent. Studies show that professional wet cleaning is just as effective as traditional dry cleaning, is free of VOCs, and is more energy efficient. You just want to ask what detergents and solvents the cleaners use to make sure they are not using toxic solvents like petroleum-based hydrocarbon, DF-2000, or D-5 silicone (GreenEarth method).
Liquid CO2 cleaners use the liquid form of carbon dioxide to dissolve stains, in addition to detergents that are safer and gentler than household laundry detergents. One might be concerned that this procedure might emit excessive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. However, the CO2 that is utilized in liquid CO2 cleaning is “captured as a by-product of existing industrial processes, thereby utilizing emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere; since only about 2 % of the CO2 is lost into the air with each load of clothing, its impact on global warming is minimal.” The only thing you have to watch for with companies that claim to use liquid CO2 cleaning is what machine they use. If they use a machine called Solvair, they are substituting the chemical glycol ether for perc, which is classified as a hazardous chemical as well as an immediate (acute) health hazard by OSHA. The companies that use these Solvair machines can still market themselves as liquid CO2 cleaners because they rinse the clothes in liquid CO2.
I still believe that even dry clean-only clothes can be safely hand washed or washed with a very gentle detergent on the delicate cycle and laid flat to dry. But if you are too nervous to risk your expensive silks, cashmeres, business suits, or evening gowns; or if you are super-busy and don’t think you have the time—that does not mean you are stuck being constantly exposed to perc and other harmful dry cleaning chemicals. You just have to do your homework and ask lots of questions.
Don’t be shy…speak up and ask your dry cleaner to switch to a safer method.
Truly green dry cleaning facilities really are popping up everywhere, especially if you live in an urban area. But if you don’t live near one, there are a few online that will clean your clothes for you through the mail. Always remember that change comes with education. The more people demand safer and greener professional dry cleaning services, the more will open.
*”Organic Cleaners” image from Fashion Phoenix.