Dry cleaning is a process that uses chemical solvents to clean delicate fabrics. The precursor to dry cleaning was patented in 1821 and was first used commercially at the turn of the 20th century.
By the mid-1930s, the industry began using tetrachloroethylene. Though this chemical proved nonflammable and compatible with most fabrics, it also has been shown to have lasting health effects.
Common Chemicals Used in Dry Cleaning
Tetrachloroethylene – commonly referred to by its nickname “perc” – is a classified toxin and probable carcinogen. In addition to dry cleaning, the chemical is often used for degreasing metals.
In the short term, breathing high levels of perc is linked to multiple health effects including dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, lack of coordination, and irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract. Long-term exposure is linked to changes in mood, memory, attention, reaction time, and vision, and may cause cancer.
Scientists at Georgetown University found high levels of residual perc on some dry-cleaned fabrics. Because the chemical can enter the body through contact with the skin, any residual perc in fabric can mean exposure.
The researchers also discovered that after a week, the concentration of perc on wool reduced by half, indicating that the chemical vaporized off the clothing and into the surrounding air where it can be breathed in. Perc hangs around in the body longer than other solvents and likes to stick to our fat, so it’s best to avoid inhaling or having contact with the chemical.
Since 1993, the EPA has been working to reduce air pollution from cleaners using perc. However, the unstructured nature of the industry renders implementing sweeping changes difficult, and there are currently no federal regulations that limit the use of perc in commercial dry cleaning.
In recent years, new innovation has yielded alternatives to traditional dry cleaning. One example is wet cleaning – a water-based method that uses special soaps. Wet cleaning soaps are often enzyme-based that can be more biodegradable than dry cleaning. However, the ingredients used within various wet-cleaning products are usually considered trade secrets, and so it’s impossible to know if the process is free of ingredients known to be harmful. What we do know is that wet cleaning soaps can contain ethoxylated ingredients and harmful preservatives that would not be deemed Made Safe.
Another newer technique is “green” dry cleaning. While Green cleaning doesn’t use perc, many use harmful ingredients like ammonium quaternary compounds, siloxanes, and more.
While it’s encouraging that cleaners are exploring alternatives to traditional dry cleaning, Made Safe highly encourages you skip commercial cleaning altogether when possible. Check out our other tips for safer cleaning below.
Our Tips for Safer Laundry and Dry Cleaning
- Some dry clean only clothing can actually be hand washed, and this is the best way to ensure that you know exactly what your clothes are cleaned with. This article from The Laundress is a great place to start. While their products are not MADE SAFE certified, we like their home laundry tips!
- Be wary of “green” dry cleaners. Most aren’t green at all and may use ingredients that are harmful to humans and the planet.
- Buy machine-washable clothes. Check out our MADE SAFE certified laundry products to help you clean your machine-washable clothes without toxic chemicals.
- Ask your dry cleaner which solvents they use. If they do use perc, encourage them to seek other options, and consider cleaning your clothing with a safer method instead.
- If handwashing is just not an option, bring your fine fabrics to a cleaner that uses liquid carbon dioxide or the wet cleaning method to support cleaners who are moving in a better direction.
- If you do go to a dry cleaner that uses perc, don’t leave your dry-cleaned items in the car or other enclosed spaces for long. Hang items outside your house – ideally in the garage – for at least two weeks, to ensure the toxic chemicals are not vaporizing in your home.
- If you use an “organic” cleaning service, be aware that there is no standard for what it means to be an “organic” cleaner. Ask them what the standard means to them and what detergents or solvents they use.