Updated: Apr 26
One of the first things I do when considering purchasing a new piece of clothing is reviewing a care tag. The tiny, almost unnoticeable care tag offers critical insights about a garment. Each tag has to indicate whether or not an item must be professionally dry cleaned. The answer to this question very often seals the fate of the garment I am thinking of buying.
An item can be marked Dry Clean or Dry Clean Only. The one-word difference makes a huge distinction. The Dry Clean Only tag means that an item must be professionally dry cleaned. The label with Dry Clean could mean that there are other possible ways to wash a garment.
Materials That Require Dry Cleaning
Garments made from wool, silk, leather, suede, rayon, and linen should be professionally dry cleaned. These materials are sensitive to water and harsh chemicals and can be critically damaged if washed in a laundry machine.
You can laundry garments made from cotton and synthetic materials like polyester. It is a good practice to test your detergent mixed with water on the inside of a garment the first time you are washing it. Pay attention to delicate embroidery, beads, and sequins; these can get damaged in the process. The safest way to wash delicate garments is in laundry bags to avoid tangling and stretching.
Dry Cleaning Process
When you come in to drop off your clothes, cleaners first review your items for stains or damage. If there are stains, they will pre-treat them with a particular solution. Then clothes are loaded into the machine that looks a lot like a typical washer. The difference is that instead of water and detergent, this machine is using the chemical solvent solution. The clothes are quickly soaked and spun in the solvent. Then rinsed and air-dried.
The Dangerous Solvent Solution
The simple dry cleaning process sounds like a safe and effective way to clean clothes. Unfortunately, the danger lies in the chemical solvent that is widely used.
Most, but not all, dry cleaners use perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, PCE, or perc solvent. The chemical solution is deemed toxic to people and the environment. (ChemicalSafetyFacts.org, Perchloroethylene).
"Perc is a synthetic, volatile organic compound (VOC) that poses a health risk to humans and a threat to the environment. Minimal contact with perc can cause dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and skin and respiratory irritation. Prolonged perc exposure has been linked to liver and kidney damage, and cancer. Perc has been identified as a "probable" human carcinogen by California's Proposition 65." Green America, Green Dry Cleaning.
The perc solvent has a broad reach that extends beyond dry clean workers. Dry cleaned clothes retain perc particles and travel with us into our homes, cars, and offices. The solvent continues to evaporate, contaminating the air we breathe. The chemical also pollutes water and soil since it is not fully captured post use.
Next time you visit your dry cleaners, ask what solvent solution they are using. The more you know, the more power you have to make the right decision.
Viable Safe Alternatives
There are two exciting alternatives to using the perc solvent: wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning. Both are non-toxic and present a safe option for garments marked Dry Clean or Dry Clean Only.
I. Wet Cleaning
The wet cleaning requires special computer-controlled machines that allow cleaners to control temperature, pressure, water, and detergent ratio. They offer endlessly customizable settings to ensure that garments are not damaged and adequately cleaned.
"Professional wet cleaning is an environmentally friendly and toxic-free alternative to conventional dry cleaning. It uses small amounts of water and biodegradable soap in computer-controlled machines to clean even the most delicate of fabrics. This method of garment care isn't just effective at removing stains and odour. It also extends the longevity of your clothes by ensuring fibres are protected." Environmental Defense, Rethink Dry Cleaning.
II. Liquid Carbon Dioxide Cleaning
This process also requires special washing machines that pump the air out of the inner drum. The drum is then filled with the CO2 gas, followed by liquid CO2. The liquid CO2 can dissolves dirt, fats, and oils in the clothing. At the end of the cycle, the liquid CO2 gas is recaptured, and the rest is released into the air. The CO2 used in the cleaning process was previously captured post-manufacturing and thus is not contributing new green gasses to the environment. (Green America, Green Dry Cleaning)
Both alternatives are safer for people and the environment. Yes, they both require an initial investment of money and training. But in the long run, they are better, greener, and safer.
Additional Dry Clean Costs To Consider
I. Extra Expenses
It is not a secret that dry cleaning costs more than laundry service. So when you are buying an item requiring special care, make sure you have the budget for dry cleaning costs.
Pro Tip: Many eco-conscious brands offer elegant and modern dresses, blouses, and pants that can be safely washed at home, saving you a trip to cleaners. The latest fashion innovations allow new brands to tap into a vast world of exciting new materials that do not require dry cleaning yet offer 100% style.
II. Extra Time
Dry clean items also require a time investment. Hypothetically, it might seem simple to drive by cleaners to drop off and pick up your items. But in reality, these trips will require additional time, planning, and determination.
III. Wear and Tear
Items that are marked dry clean marked so because the materials are delicate and require extra care—the extra care during the cleaning process and while you wear them out. The delicate materials could be damaged by water, rough surfaces, or an accidental snag. Aside from fancy balls, you would have to be in a constant state of alertness.
There is also a chance that expensive and delicate clothes would end up at the back of your closet because you are scared to wear them. Not only would you be wasting your money but also filling up your wardrobe with clutter.
The next time you are buying an item that requires Dry Cleaning, keep in mind the financial, environmental, and emotional costs of owning a delicate garment. Sometimes it is worth it, like a classic leather jacket or chic suede pumps. But sometimes it is better to pass up a silk blouse for a cotton one. The choice is entirely yours, and as long as you have all the facts, you will make the right decision that fits your lifestyle.