Guide to Non-Toxic Dry Cleaning
New York City has a reputation for many things. Among them is being the fashion capital of the world. With so many options for fashion available, it is no wonder that the dry cleaning business amounts to big business! We’ve done some digging and found out that not all dry cleaners are created equal. Not only is not every dry cleaner equipped for all the fashion options a well-heeled New Yorker may need serviced, but many use chemicals that are downright toxic.
Thanks to enhanced public awareness of toxic chemicals commonly found in dry cleaning products, many of us are wisening up and finding healthier options. While the first reaction may be to label it an ecological issue, there is also a dermatological side to chemical products as well. And it’s not just people with sensitive skin who react to their dry cleaned clothing; the toxins can build up in your body and, when your body hits its tipping point, all sorts of nasty health issues can result.
Dry Cleaning: An Unregulated Industry
So what does a savvy woman need to know about the laundry and dry cleaning business before rushing out to hand off your prized Pucci to total strangers for cleaning and maintenance?
The terms “Organic”, “Eco-Friendly”, “Non-Toxic” and “Green” are unregulated in the dry cleaning and laundry industry. They are used across the industry to describe more than one cleaning product and method, for marketing purposes rather than to accurately describe the chemical composition of the solvents and methods they use. In other words, you can’t trust it. If your cleaner claims to be earth-friendly, be sure to ask about the specific methods and chemicals she or he uses.
85% of the more than 35,000 dry cleaners in the United States use PERC as a solvent in the dry cleaning process. 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.
Choose a dry cleaner that clearly states their choice and methods of green alternatives for dry cleaning and don’t be afraid to ask questions. But no matter what, if you’re serious about going green, avoid ‘organic’ or ‘green’ dry cleaners using ‘alternative’ hydrocarbons. They are petroleum based no matter how they are marketed and advertised.
A Brief History of Professional Cleaning: Using Piss to Clean Clothing?!
The Ancient world was awash in what today we might politely call smelly odors. The Romans boiled down urine to obtain ammonia to clean their togas and dye fabric. And of course, there were always those citizens who could not afford such luxuries who had to make do with the local river or stream. The name for a laundry in the days of the Roman Empire was fullonicae and they tended to be the largest employer in a given area. The fullonicae amounted to big business even then, and the city taxed the collection of urine regardless of if it was obtained from farm animals or public latrines. The owners and authorities in the industry had their own guild system and wielded political clout.
While not as obviously disgusting as urine, when you learn more about PERC, you’ll wish they were still using piss to clean your clothing.
The dry cleaning industry has used a number of solvents in its long history to obtain results. Kerosene and petroleum based products were used from roughly 1850 to 1930 when the modern shift to tetrachloroethylene was made. When PERC was introduced, it was truly revolutionary. It was nonflammable, which was a big plus for an industry moving away from the labor conditions produced by the Industrial Revolution, it produced results that were effective and gentle on fabrics of all kinds, and it was a stable compound from a chemists point of view.
Modern Dry Cleaning: The Deadly Truth
Modern dry cleaning is based on the premise of using modern chemistry to clean clothing and remove stains without using water. In other words, they spray chemicals on your clothing, and then suck most of it off, along with all the dirt. They then press (iron) it in a big machine using high heat. So, while dry cleaning doesn’t use water, it isn’t actually a “dry” process, as clothing is immersed in the solvent and a detergent.
‘Green’ dry cleaning is a recent trend created by consumers who approached the industry and asked for an alternative option to chemicals that often caused skin rashes and simply smelled toxic.
The chemical solvent used by 85% of the dry cleaners in the USA is known as PERC, or tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene). While not as obviously disgusting as urine, when you learn more about it you’ll wish they were still using piss to clean your clothing. In fact, PERC is classified as a carcinogen (yeah, it’s been proven that it causes cancer) by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and has to be handled and disposed of as a hazardous waste.
The EPA has found that clothes dry cleaned with PERC can elevate levels of the toxin throughout a home and especially in the room where the garments are stored. Nursing mothers exposed to PERC may excrete it in their milk, placing their infants at risk. Animal studies and a study of 99 twins showed there is a “lot of circumstantial evidence” that exposure to perchloroethylene increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease ninefold. It’s also known to pollute the water supply, and contribute to smog when combined with other industrial chemicals. Many other states, and as many as 40 countries, are looking at doing the same. According to the EPA:
- Exposure to PERC has been demonstrated to produce irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes, kidney dysfunction, neurological disturbances, such as reversible mood and behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, dizziness, headache, sleepiness, and unconsciousness.
- Inhalation of PERC has been found to produce neurological effects, including headaches, impairments in cognitive and motor function as well as an impairment of color vision. Other effects were cardiac arrhythmia, liver damage and possible kidney damage.
- Studies of dry cleaning workers exposed to PERC suggested an increased risk for a variety of cancers.
- PERC pollutes air and groundwater and has been demonstrated to contribute to smog and water pollution.
PERC isn’t the only toxin added to your clothing when you dry clean, as not all stains can be removed by the use of PERC alone. Many require ‘spot cleaning’ with specialty solvents and sometimes completely immersed in other specialty solvents before being cleaned again with PERC. It has been shown that PERC is retained in small amounts in clothing and that levels do increase over time with repeat exposure.
The State of California has legislated the discontinuation of PERC from the dry cleaning industry by 2023. How the dry cleaning industry in California responds will create a new wave of technology and method that will create national precedent and produce new innovation.
Alternatives to Toxic Dry Cleaners
The safest option is to hand wash your delicate items at home, then take these clothes to a local cleaner for pressing only, to get a professionally crisp look without the toxins. If you’d rather forego do-it-yourself methods, two alternatives rise to the top in terms of environmental and health impacts: professional wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning.
There are no toxicity issues associated with either of these methods, says Peter Sinsheimer, director of the Pollution Prevention Center at Occidental College, who has been studying the effects of perc dry cleaning and its alternatives for over ten years. Professional wet cleaning is a safe, energy-efficient method of cleaning “Dry Clean Only” clothes that uses water as a solvent—rather than chemicals—with a combination of special soaps and conditioners. The best cleaners use natural detergents from brands like Seventh Generation.
According to numerous reviews on the most popular and common “green” or “organic” cleaning methods, these methods do get the job done. According to Sinsheimer, just about every garment that can be dry cleaned can be wet cleaned. Occidental did a comparison study between dry and wet cleaning methods, performed by establishments that switched from dry to wet cleaning, and found no major differences in quality.
Many cleaners juggle multiple methods. For example, at Meurice Garment Care, a cleaner with four locations in New York City and on Long Island, garments are cleaned with PERC, hydrocarbon solvents or water, depending on the fabric and stain — so make sure to specify what type you want, and tell them to put a note, in ALL CAPS, on your account they you’re severely allergic to PERC and hydrocarbon chemicals.
- GOOD: Wet Cleaning: When you have your clothes professionally wet cleaned, they are laundered in a computer-controlled washer and dryer that gently clean clothes, sometimes spinning as slowly as six revolutions a minute (a typical home washing machine may rotate clothes several dozen times per minute). These special machines can be programmed for variables such as time, temperature, and mechanical action, which allow cleaners to tailor the wash according to the type of fabric. It removes stains like coffee and wine with ease but be advised that Wet Cleaning was not as successful in removing oil or ink based stains. Most stains are water soluble, and most items labeled “dry clean only” can be professionally wet cleaned without shrinkage or damage, studies have found. Cleaners who use wet cleaning say it does a better job of removing some stains than traditional dry cleaning. Additionally, make sure to consult with their advisors before surrendering rayon, acetate or some silk fabrics.
- GOOD: Liquid Carbon Dioxide (CO2): In this process, clothes are placed in a specialized machine, which is emptied of air. The pressure in the chamber is raised by injecting gaseous CO2 (which has been recycled from factories), and then liquid CO2 is pumped into the mix. Clothes are rotated in a cycle that lasts five to 15 minutes at room temperature. The liquid CO2 dissolves dirt, fats, and oils in the clothing. At the end of the cleaning cycle, the liquid CO2 is pumped back into the storage tank, to be reused again, if possible. The remaining CO2 is released in the air. If you have an oil based stain such as lipstick and also coffee, Liquid CO2 is the way to go. It did however leave some ink and wine behind in several tests consulted. The good news about Liquid CO2 is that it produces the least amount of shrinkage of any of the green alternatives for dry cleaning. If a cleaner says it uses liquid CO2, ask if it does so with a Solvair machine. Solvair machines replace perc with dipropylene glycol n-butyl ether (DPnB) as a solvent—which is a suspected neurotoxicant, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Solvair machines rinse the clothes in liquid CO2, and so cleaners using them may identify themselves as liquid CO2 cleaners.
- BAD: Liquid Silicone / “GreenEarth”: Apparently, Liquid Silicone is one of the most successful new contenders for green alternatives in dry cleaning, but it’s also the one with the least amount of research on its environmental and human impact. The European Chemical Agency has reported that silicone liquid is very bioaccumulative, which means it has difficulty breaking down and is likely to accumulate in our bodies. While it was successful in removing all types of stains from fabrics without shrinking them, Dow Corning, D-5’s creator, did a study that revealed an increased risk of uterine cancer in female rats that were exposed to D-5, which has led the EPA to note that it may be a carcinogen (ie. cause cancer in humans and animals). Also, manufacturing D-5 requires chlorine, which releases carcinogenic dioxin during its own manufacture.
- BAD: PERC Alternative: Many PERC alternatives are still hydrocarbon based and no matter how they are advertised or marketed still have a toxic element and polluting effect on the environment. Perhaps the biggest offender among these supposed green alternatives is DF-2000. Exposure to this chemical was found to be carcinogenic to workers in the industry and is classified as a neurotoxin that produces skin and eye injury.
- BAD: Hydrocarbon: Hydrocarbon cleaning methods are not green at all. Hydrocarbon is a petroleum-based solvent and carries all the environmental concerns of petroleum, including the fact that it’s a VOC and a major source of greenhouse gases. Judith S. Schreiber, the chief scientist for the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State attorney general’s office, said the solvent, which is petroleum-based, is “a cleaned-up version of gasoline” and only slightly less toxic than PERC.
How to Find Non-Toxic Cleaners
- To find green dry cleaners that use wet cleaning or C02, go to ecovain.com (click here to search Manhattan) or search for wet cleaning facilities here.
- For more information and dry cleaners, see: nodryclean.com and igreenclean.org, or epa.gov
- In New York City, we recommend Green Apple Cleaners, which uses a combination of Wet Cleaning, CO2 and Kreussler, a new non-toxic cleaning solution.
Remember: When choosing a shop to clean your laundry, make sure to probe and ask several different employees (over several days or weeks), what they use to clean the clothing, and if they do it in-house or send it out. Ask if they always use that method or if you have to request it when sending in your clothing, and if it costs more. Check for inconsistencies in their answers, and if they send it out, call the company they send it to. After all, doing a little research upfront may end up saving your life in the long run.