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All Washed Up: The Real Dirt on Dry Cleaning

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Some rules are okay to break. Eating ice cream before dinner probably won’t spoil your appetite (unfortunately), and throwing your “dry-clean only” clothes in the washing machine probably won’t ruin them. Of course, there’s a time and a place for professional cleaning services—sometimes DIY just won’t cut it—but understanding what dry cleaning actually entails may make it less attractive, if cost alone isn’t enough to do so. It’s time to dissolve some of the mystery surrounding this obscure process.


All Wet
The first misconception about dry cleaning is that it’s, well, dry. True, there’s no water involved, but the clothes you drop off are soaked in a liquid solvent, according to Debra Luhring and Nate Marks of TLC Home. In 1855, Jean Baptiste Jolly, a French dye-works owner, noticed that the dirt on his tablecloth disappeared after his maid accidentally knocked over a kerosene lamp. He decided to offer a new service at his company, “dry cleaning,” using gasoline and kerosene instead of soap to clean clothes and fabrics.


Americans have adopted the dry-cleaning process only within the last seventy-five years, and after World War II switched to using perchlorethylene (PERC) as a solvent. PERC works better and requires smaller equipment than the volatile chemicals the French used, but it presents its own set of big problems. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Daisy Chan, PERC is classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Indeed, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied dry-cleaning workers over a thirty-six-year period and found that they were 25 percent more likely to die from cancer than the general population is.


Unfortunately, PERC exposure isn’t limited to those who work at dry-cleaning businesses or who dry-clean their clothes. With more than thirty thousand dry cleaners in the United States, Cindy Stroup, of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said in 2003 that at least half of the national priority sites for toxic cleanup are contaminated with PERC, and even though the EPA has tightened regulations to prevent PERC dumping, violators abound. “There is no doubt that there is a significant health and environmental risk with PERC,” says Stroup.


Reacting to increased public concern about PERC, some dry-cleaning businesses have gone “green” and are using water and carbon dioxide (CO2) as alternative solvents. Wet cleaning uses water and mild detergents in what the EPA calls “one of the safest professional cleaning methods”; it involves “no hazardous chemical use, no hazardous-waste generation, no air pollution, and reduced potential for water and soil contamination.” CO2 cleaning uses liquid CO2, along with detergent, and uses less energy than traditional dry cleaning but releases about 2 percent of the CO2 into the atmosphere.


Beware of “organic” dry cleaners that use a solvent called DF-2000, which is actually a petroleum product. (It’s organic the same way gasoline and PERC are: it contains a chain of carbon atoms.) Those who are concerned about the environmental impact of cleaning their clothes would do best to heed Stroup’s advice: “Virtually everything that can be dry-cleaned can be wet-cleaned.”


A Dry Cleaner Can’t Change Your Spots
Stains require immediate treatment. Even those powerful chemicals your dry cleaner uses won’t be much help if you spill coffee all over your blouse and don’t take care of it yourself first. You might as well finish the job and save your money, as long as you use an appropriate stain remover that won’t damage the fabric.


According to Karl Huie of Eco Dry Cleaners, in an interview with Luanne Bradley of EcoSalon.com, polyester, nylon, and bamboo are perfectly safe to throw in the washing machine, while cotton, leather, silk, and cashmere may shrink. But Ann Meeker-O’Connell of HowStuffWorks.com debunks the myth that these delicate fabrics must be handled by a professional. She tests several of the home dry-cleaning kits now on the market, which “simply take advantage of some pretty basic chemistry (the generation of steam from water, for example),” and finds that the average person could clean sixteen garments for the price he or she would usually pay for one garment to be cleaned professionally, and without using harmful chemicals that accumulate in the environment.


Women Get Taken to the Cleaners
The AFL-CIO reports that women still make about seventy-eight cents for every dollar a man earns, on average. And, according to Chan, we spend more of that income on dry cleaning than our male peers do. In a sampling of New York City cleaners, the Wall Street Journal found that women usually pay twice as much as men, even for similar garments like dress shirts. “Gender-pricing [in the dry-cleaning industry] has been going on for years,” Chan quotes Ron Berry, senior vice president at the Council of Better Business Bureaus, as saying.


The International Fabricare Institute (IFI), a Maryland-based association representing six thousand dry-cleaning-business owners, argues that women are charged more because their generally smaller sizes don’t fit the machines that clean men’s shirts, so they have to be cleaned by hand. Still, “for something that’s common to both sexes, it’s hard to see why there’s any price difference,” says Berry.


Don’t Get Taken to the Cleaners
There’s pretty strong evidence out there against dry cleaning as the best treatment for even the most delicate fabrics. It’s pricey, unhealthy, harmful to the environment, and (especially for women) an all-around rip-off. Considering even the time and cost of experimenting with home dry-cleaning kits and the risk of ruining valuable clothing items, in most cases, bypassing the cleaners is a smart move.



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