What happens to clothes at the dry cleaners was always a bit of a mystery to me. I know there’s some sort of chemical process going on — how else could everything get so clean without falling apart? But while I’m careful about the products I use when I wash clothes at home and I’m concerned about dry cleaning chemicals, I haven’t asked my dry cleaner yet about the cleaning agents they use.
My concern about the possible health risks of dry cleaning began when I noticed some dry cleaners posting signs saying they’re “green” or “organic.” I started wondering which chemicals they used and if the claims of safety were real. I also wondered if the regular — apparently non-green, non-organic — dry cleaners were a safe place to take my clothes.
How dry cleaning works
Most dry cleaners clean your clothes using a solvent called perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene. Commonly called PERC, this solvent dissolves oil, grease, ink, and wax without affecting fabrics.
Dry cleaners wash clothes in this solvent instead of soap and water. Then clothes are spun to wring out most of the solvent and dried. Any residue that remains in clothes can get trapped in the fabric, especially if the clothes are covered in plastic bags. That’s why it’s recommended you remove the bags once you pick up your clothes.
Is PERC safe?
Regular, direct exposure to PERC may have real health risks. But getting your clothes dry cleaned is unlikely to harm you. Dry-cleaned clothes expose you to PERC levels that are slightly higher than what’s normally found in the outdoor air, but both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Cancer Society have said these trace amounts aren’t harmful.
Health risks are higher for people regularly exposed to PERC, particularly people who work in the dry cleaning industry. Research done in mice and observational studies of people show that if enough PERC is inhaled or ingested (by drinking contaminated water, for example), it may cause health problems. Potential risks of regular, direct PERC exposure include:
- Cancer: High-quality epidemiological studies have linked PERC exposure to bladder cancer and to two types of blood cancer: non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma, according to the EPA. The agency also has said that PERC exposure might be linked to esophageal, kidney, lung, cervical, and breast cancer, but study results are limited. Based on the findings, the EPA classifies PERC as a cancer-causing chemical if a person has regular, significant exposure to it.
- Neurological problems: Short-term exposure to PERC may irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs. Other effects may include nausea, facial flushing, and an abnormal heartbeat. Inhaling high levels of PERC, which could happen to people who work at a dry cleaner and are exposed to the fumes on a regular basis, can cause behavioral changes, impaired coordination, dizziness, headaches, and sleepiness, according to the EPA. The EPA requires dry cleaning facilities to control PERC emissions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also has set limits on PERC exposure in the workplace and recommended protective equipment and respiratory protection for workers.
- Other problems: Regular exposure to large amounts of PERC also may cause liver and kidney problems and affect the immune system. Babies who are exposed to significant levels of PERC in the womb may have a higher rate of cancer and heart defects.
California is in the process of phasing out PERC by 2023. Other states are considering a PERC ban or offering incentives to business owners who switch to safer dry cleaning methods. Also, the EPA has said dry cleaners that operate in residential buildings must phase out PERC by 2020.
What about “green” cleaners?
You MIGHT be better off using a dry cleaner that bills itself as being “organic,” “green,” “nontoxic,” or “environmentally friendly,” but it’s hard to know for sure. These terms don’t have a specific or legal meaning in dry cleaning advertising and claims tend to be unconfirmed. For instance, an investigation of six businesses in Los Angeles, California last year found that none of them had any evidence to back their “green” claims. These terms sound good but they may mean nothing and may just be marketing tricks.
Also, dry cleaners may use the term “organic” no matter which cleaning chemicals they use. While we may associate “organic” with products that are safe and nontoxic, there’s little regulation of what “organic” means in the dry cleaning business. All it means for sure is that the cleaning method includes the use of carbon, which could apply to just about all methods of dry cleaning. (PERC is carbon-based, so it can technically be called organic, too.)
Also, while “organic” or “green” dry cleaners may use solvents other than PERC in an attempt to be healthier, these solvents aren’t necessarily better for our health. Some cleaners have switched from PERC to a petroleum-based industrial cleaner called 1-bromopropane, and others have started using a silicone-based solvent with the trade name “Green Earth.” Although less well-studied than PERC, there’s some evidence that these solvents pose risks to the environment and to human health. Some animal studies have found that regular significant exposure to either one may be linked to cancer and neurological problems.
It’s important to know that green certification for dry cleaners only requires businesses to use alternative methods 60% of the time — so up to 40% of their cleaning may still use PERC.
There are two healthier dry cleaning options available, if you can find them in your area: professional wet cleaning and a liquid carbon dioxide process.
- Wet cleaning uses a mild biodegradable soap to launder clothes in a carefully controlled amount of water. Wet cleaning should be done by someone experienced and knowledgeable about different fabric types and proper ways to press and finish garments. Even then, it may not work as effectively as dry cleaning for structured garments, such as suit jackets.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning washes clothing in liquid CO2 instead of water or PERC. Because the CO2 is recycled from other uses, the process doesn’t contribute to the carbon footprint or generate hazardous solid or liquid waste. The process is considered a good option to traditional dry cleaning, but it isn’t widely available. It goes by several trade names, including Cool Clean Technologies, which uses CO2 only, and Solvair, which also uses a chemical solvent called dipropylene glycol n-butyl ether. Whether dipropylene glycol n-butyl ether is environmentally safe isn’t known yet, so right now it seems as if Cool Clean Technologies may be the better choice.
How to reduce dry cleaning health risks
If you don’t have a dry cleaner nearby that offers wet or CO2 cleaning, there are other ways you can reduce any health risks from dry cleaning:
- Dry clean less of your clothing. You can safely wash some clothes labeled “dry clean only” at home and save money at the same time. Manufacturers often put this label on clothes to protect themselves if a garment shrinks or loses its shape, but washing on the gentle cycle and air drying is safe for many of these items. For example, I hand wash my silk and linen tops and most of my wool and cashmere sweaters without any problems. Be sure to lay them flat or hang them to dry instead of using the clothes dryer.
- Open the plastic bag outdoors. After you pick up your clothes from the cleaner, take off the plastic bag and air your clothes outside out for a minute or two before bringing them inside.
- Sniff your freshly dry cleaned clothes. If your clothes smell like chemicals, they could have excess PERC on them. Ask the dry cleaner to redo them without PERC or take them to a different dry cleaner.
- Avoid home dry cleaning kits. Manufacturers haven’t provided information on the chemicals used in these kits, so it’s impossible to know if they’re safe. Consumer agencies have found that they don’t clean well anyway. They also give clothes a strong perfume smell that you may not like.
- Buy more wash and wear items. When shopping for new clothes, look for those made with fabrics that are easy to wash at home, such as cotton, acrylic, and nylon. Besides limiting any potential exposure to chemicals, you’ll spend less time and money at the dry cleaner.
I wear more washable clothes today than I used to, but I still rely on dry cleaning to keep my suits looking good. Since this is unlikely to change, I plan to ask my local dry cleaner about how my clothes are cleaned. Since English isn’t the primary language spoken at my dry cleaner, having a conversation about chemicals could be hard — but I’m going to try. If I find out that they’re using PERC or other risky cleaning solvents and don’t offer safer alternatives, I’ll start searching for a new dry cleaner that does.
Have you cut back on dry cleaning? If so, do you have any advice on keeping your dry clean-only clothes fresh?