It is used by millions across the world as the best and the most effective method of cleaning delicate fabrics and woolens. Yet, few are aware of the harmful chemicals employed in the process of dry cleaning. These chemicals linger long after the clothes have come back from the dry cleaners, and need to be used with great caution.
 The Process
The process of Dry Cleaning essentially involves these steps –
- First, every fabric/cloth sent to the dry cleaner is tagged for identification. Any existent stains, tears, rents, missing buttons etc are also identified.
- The dry cleaner identifies and marks the stains he has to specifically work on, with a chalk. These are pre-treated to aid their removal.
- The clothes are put in a machine and cleaned with a solvent.
- Then any stains that still remain are removed with stronger cleaners.
- Finally, the cleaned clothes are pressed, folded and packaged.
The dry cleaning industry began in the 19th century, to clean textiles and delicate fabrics that could not be washed with water and detergent. Unfortunately, the first few liquids used for dry cleaning -- gasoline and naphtha, were so highly inflammable that the industry soon began looking for safer alternatives. Its search evidently ended with the discovery of the chemical perchloroethylene (commonly called perc), and today, eighty per cent of American dry cleaners use Perc.
 Did You Know?
- In 1855, Jean Baptiste Jolly, a French dye-works owner, noticed that his table cloth became cleaner after his maid accidentally overturned a kerosene lamp on it. So, the concept of Dry Cleaning was born.
- Never leave dry cleaned clothes in sealed plastic bags – air them to allow the fumes of the toxic dry cleaning chemicals to dissipate!
- Delicate fabrics like silk have been traditionally cleaned in India using a soapnut (reetha in Hindi) solution.
 Impact on Health
Perc may be less flammable than gasoline and naptha, but it has other terrible effects on our health. Perc is outlawed in many countries, and California plans to phase out perc by 2023, with a ban on new Perc equipment in effect soon.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has recommended that Perc be handled as a human carcinogen, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified it as a possible human carcinogen. Studies of dry cleaning workers exposed to Perc and other solvents suggest an increased risk for a variety of cancers. In addition, it is known to have the following side effects upon being inhaled --
- Irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes
- Kidney dysfunction
- Reversible mood and behavioral changes
- Impairment of coordination
- Drowsiness and even unconsciousness.
Other effects noted in humans include cardiac arrhythmia, liver damage and possible kidney effects.
Perc released into the air is also an environmental concern as it pollutes air and ground water.
 Alternative Dry Cleaning Materials
Given the rising body of evidence about the ill effects of Perc, it is not surprising that the hunt for safer alternatives is on. Here are some --
Some Petroleum-Based solvents are safer to use than Perc, but they are still irritants and emit noxious vapours. However, the problem is that technically. Since any carbon-containing compound is classified as being `organic’, many savvy dry cleaners use these alternatives, and claim that they are using `organic’ solvents. They are not wrong, but this may be quite misleading for lay consumers, for whom organic has a different meaning altogether, that refers to something that’s all-natural and safe.
So, if a dry cleaner offers organic dry cleaning, it may be worthwhile to check to see what exactly they mean.
Silicone-Based Solvents -- Siloxane D5, a silicone-based chemical is a solvent that has long been used in personal care products. While the jury is still out on its toxicity, it does remain an acceptable dry cleaning solvent alternative.
Liquified Carbon Dioxide is a relatively new, high tech solvent being used to clean fabric. The carbon dioxide is extracted from existing industrial processes, thereby utilizing emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Since minimal carbon dioxide is lost into the air with each load of clothing, its impact on global warming is minimal. This method of cleaning also uses less energy than traditional dry cleaning, which involves heating the solvent. This is how it works – under high pressure, carbon dioxide becomes liquid and may act as a carrier for detergents just like water in the washing machine. The best thing is, once the cleaning process is over, it returns to the gaseous state, and may be reused over and over again. Clothes cleaned by in this process dry instantly, are cool to the touch and have no odor.
While this is the most efficient way of dry cleaning and is eco-friendly too, there is a flip side to carbon dioxide cleaning.
- The detergents used in this method may release noxious vapours.
- The equipment for carbon dioxide cleaning is very expensive and is all licensed by the company that developed the method.
Professional Wet Cleaning – all textiles may be washed with water and detergent efficiently, provided the job is performed by professionals with skill and special equipment. This is the safest cleaning method – no vapours, no hazardous chemical use, no hazardous waste generation, no air pollution and reduced potential for water and soil contamination.
- The best thing to do to protect against the ill effects of dry cleaning is to only buy fabric that may be easily washed at home. Buying clothes that so not need to be dry cleaned saves money as well as protects your health and the environment.
- Many textile manufacturers tag their products with a “dry clean only” label to avoid any liability in case something happens while washing. But all cotton, synthetics and most woolen fabrics can be safely washed at home. And when in doubt, remember to hand wash – not machine wash!
- For garments that have been dry cleaned the regular way, it is important to air them well before storing them. Never leave them in their plastic wrapping.
- To locate the nearest carbon dioxide cleaning service in the US, visit Find a CO2 Service. To find dry cleaners that use silicone-based solvents, go to Green Earth Cleaning.
- The Process of Dry Cleaning
- Health and Safety During Dry Cleaning
- Reducing the Ill Effects of Exposure to Dry Cleaning compounds
- For Safer Dry Cleaning