We’ve all been there. You just found the perfect wool sweater, ethically made silk dress, or ultra-cozy throw blanket, only to glance at the tag and read those three little words: “Dry clean only.” Ugh.

Dry cleaning is a necessary evil for most of us. Whether you’re required to wear suits or business casual to work, have an eye for delicate fabrics, or make a seasonal visit to get your winter coats cleaned, at some point we all find ourselves standing at the dry cleaning counter watching the clothes go by on those mesmerizing racks. But have you ever wondered how dry cleaning works and why so many clothes and bedding are required to be washed this way?

While it may seem relatively new, the concept of modern dry cleaning has been around for a while, originally patented as “dry-scouring” in March 1821, by Thomas L. Jennings (interesting fact, Jennings was the first Black man to be granted a patent, although attempts were made before him). But despite the name, dry cleaning isn’t actually a dry process. It describes the method of using liquids other than water to clean clothing, upholstery, bedding, leather, and other delicates. Early liquids, also called solvents, included noxious chemicals like kerosene, gasoline, and turpentine. Later, after some reformation in the 1930s, dry cleaners switched to perchloroethylene (also known as perc or PCE) and decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (also known as GreenEarth), two chemicals that are still used today. In the dry cleaning process, detergents are mixed with these solvents to clean clothes that might not otherwise be suited for water.

Dry cleaning is often used for fabrics that are either too delicate for a standard washing machine (like silks and lace), are too heavy, or are at risk of shrinking (like wool and cashmere). But if words like perchloroethylene make your environmentally-minded ears perk up, you’re not wrong to be concerned. Most of us know that dry cleaning isn’t great for the environment, but it’s also pretty terrible for our own health as well. ‘PERC’ in particular should be avoided. Along with posing a huge environmental risk — even minimal contact with PERC could cause headaches, dizzy spells, nausea, drowsiness, and skin and respiratory irritation — it has been identified as a probable carcinogen by California’s Prop 65 (source). Clearly, it’s something you want to avoid. 

But if your clothes or bedding is labeled as “dry clean only,” what else can you do?

While “green” dry cleaners exist, not all of them pass muster when it comes to their environmental impact. And let’s be honest, getting to the dry cleaners and then picking up your items is a major hassle. The good news? Most of your dry clean-only items can be cleaned at home without any of the nasty chemicals and solvents required by the conventional method.


1 – Hand Washing

While hand washing your clothes isn’t always feasible or right for the fabric, many “dry clean only” clothes can be carefully hand washed using a mild, eco-friendly detergent like Planet Inc. Delicate Laundry Wash. What fabrics can be hand washed? Most sweaters, silks, lace, and many vintage fabrics, so long as you’re careful. Fill a small basin with water, add detergent, and press the water through the fabric, as opposed to wringing it. Rinse in the same way and press the water out. Roll in a clean towel and press the remaining water out and either hang or lie flat to dry (most sweaters should always be dried on a flat surface, like a laundry rack.


2 – Wash Bags + Gentle Express Cycle

If you don’t want to spend your weekend hand washing your clothes, investing in a few wash bags and premium gentle detergent can expedite the process. Wash bags cut down on the abrasion your clothes experience in the washing machine, and an express cycle cleans your clothes without putting them through the beating of a full cycle (plus, are your dry clean only clothes really that dirty?). When washing clothes like this, it’s important to remember that they still need to be air-dried. Always hang or lie flat to dry before steaming out any wrinkles.


3 – CO2 Cleaning

CO2 cleaning, or liquid carbon dioxide cleaning, could be an alternative to look into for larger dry clean only items like jackets, suits, and blankets. Of the four “green” dry cleaning methods offered in the U.S., CO2 cleaning is one of two that is considered truly Earth safe. The CO2 cleaning process involves placing your items in a large, washing machine-type drum where the air is then sucked out and CO2 injected. Because the CO2 is a byproduct of other industrial practices, this method is considered one of the least impactful dry cleaning practices available. However, CO2 cleaners can be hard to come by due to the cost of obtaining a machine (the CO2 is nearly free, but the machines can run upwards of $40,000). The next time you need to go to the cleaners, try searching for a CO2 dry cleaner near you!


4 – Professional Wet Cleaning

Another professional and more eco-friendly dry cleaning option is wet cleaning. A similar service as professional laundering, professional wet-cleaning uses milder soaps and detergents to clean items with water and then treats stains afterward. Because professional wet-cleaning also includes steaming, pressing, and stain treatment, it can be a more planet-friendly option for those who want their special clothing and bedding items to look their best while minimizing their impact on the planet. Professional wet-cleaners are also easier to come by than CO2 cleaners, so you may have better luck accessing the service near you.


Do you have tips for caring for your dry clean only items? Share with us on social but tagging @AvocadoMattress and #AvocadoGreenMagazine!

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