Society is ever-changing and we are increasingly spoiled by choice; this includes our dry cleaning options too. There are so many options available to us and it is important to understand what works best for our individual needs. 

We typically feel better about the products we use if they are labeled as ‘organic’ and ‘non-toxic’ because it is better for our health and the environment. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but when it comes to dry cleaning, the concept of organic and non-toxic dry cleaning is often confused. They’re actually very different things!

When we think of ‘organic,’ we usually think of food that does not contain any pesticides or fertilizers… But this is not the same with dry cleaning. ‘Organic’ substances can also be toxic in the dry cleaning process. 

What Really is Organic Dry Cleaning Then? Is Dry Cleaning Toxic?

Traditional dry cleaning is known to use a common toxin called perchloroethylene, which is a human carcinogen (also referred to as perc). When a person is exposed to perc, they can inhale it or it can be absorbed through their skin. Prolonged exposure to perc can cause a number of health problems, from impaired cognitive performance to cancer. 

But what is noteworthy here is that perc is considered organic. For this reason, you should be wary of the organic signs in your dry cleaner’s window because that does not always mean the products are toxin-free. As there is no official certification process for organic dry cleaners, understanding the difference between organic and non-toxic dry cleaning practices is key. 

The majority of dry cleaners in the United States (around 80%) still use perc despite the United States Environmental Protection agency (EPA) listing it as both a health and environmental hazard. 

Since the 1990s, the EPA has taken a few steps to regulate the types of dry cleaning chemicals used and has been encouraging commercial cleaners to use more environmentally friendly detergents and solvents.

What is Non-Toxic/Green Dry Cleaning?

Non-toxic or green dry cleaning refers to any alternative dry cleaning method that does not include the use of perc. 

organic dry cleaning

So, what are the different types of dry cleaning options available? 

  1. Hydrocarbon dry cleaning: 

Hydrocarbon dry cleaning is also considered “organic” and follows the traditional solvent method that is used with perc but, instead, uses a hydrocarbon solvent instead.

This method was used before perc was readily available and while it worked well in practice, hydrocarbon compounds are combustible (meaning they catch on fire easily) and were proven to be a bit of a hazard for dry cleaners. 

And while hydrocarbon dry cleaning is considered safer than using perc, hydrocarbon dry cleaning also possesses some serious side effects. Studies have shown that hydrocarbons can impact the nervous system, causing dizziness, nausea, and unconsciousness. More prolonged exposure and inhalation of hydrocarbon compounds can even result in death.  

  1. Liquid carbon dioxide dry cleaning:

Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning uses liquid CO2 as the cleaning solvent alongside detergent. 

CO2 is liquidized by placing the non-flammable and non-toxic gas under immense pressure. This same method is used to provide the fizz we all know and love in our carbonated drinks. 

The process of liquid carbon dioxide cleaning involves placing clothes into what looks like a traditional dry cleaning machine. The cleaning drum is inoculated with carbon dioxide in both liquid and gas form to clean your clothes. The liquid CO2 is then recollected into a holding tank for reuse later. 

This method is more environmentally friendly for a number of reasons. 

  1. The CO2 is captured as a by-product of existing industrial processes and is continuously reused. 
  1. Less than 3% of CO2 used in liquid carbon dioxide dry cleaning is lost in the atmosphere after each load of clothing, which means less impact on global warming. 
  1. Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning requires less energy since there is no solvent that needs to be heated. 
  1. CO2 is a naturally occurring substance. 

But while the latter point is great for the environment and means that CO2 is not costly to obtain, the dry cleaning machines needed for this process are highly expensive (averaging around $40,000) which makes it a difficult method for small business owners to provide for their consumers. 

[ Related: The Best Non-Toxic Laundry Detergents By Category ]

3. Wet dry cleaning:

It sounds ironic to be talking about wet cleaning in the context to dry cleaning, but it works! 

Wet cleaning uses water as its primary garment cleaner alongside mild detergents and softeners. Pieces of clothing are mixed in the wet cleaning solution before being hung to dry. They are then ironed using special pressing machines to get rid of any wrinkles in the fabric. 

This method is one of the safest professional ways to clean clothes as there is no hazardous waste produced in the process and there is no air pollution created. 

But it is important to be aware that wet cleaning has its drawbacks. As water is its primary cleaner, it is not safe for all fabric types and can result in garments stretching and bleeding. 

Notably, the latter two dry cleaning options – wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning – are the only cleaning methods that are recognized by the United States as being safe for both the environment and consumers. 

The state of California is taking a leading stance on the matter of non-toxic dry cleaning and is on a mission to phase out the use of perc by 2023. To encourage green dry cleaning, the state offers grant money to drycleaners that switch to liquid carbon dioxide or wet cleaning, both of which have their benefits. 

  • Liquid carbon dioxide is one of the safest ways to clean your clothes while having minimal impact on the environment. 
  • Wet cleaning is a great choice for certain garments of clothing if the detergents used in the process are toxin-free. 

Additionally, an increasing number of people are experimenting with home laundering for various reasons such as, cost-effectiveness and the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. This practice involves doing research on your fabrics carefully to make the best choice for you. 


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Image Credits: Nathan Dumlao, Waldemar Brandt, Liza Summer