Why I (Almost) Never Dry Clean My Clothes

Photo by chrissie kremer on Unsplash

The last time I went to the dry cleaner was 6 years ago to have my wedding dress cleaned and pressed. It’s not that my family doesn’t own “Dry Clean Only” garments – I’ve just come to realize that dry cleaning is mostly a load of pricey, inconvenient, toxic B.S.

First of all, as a busy working mom, I don’t have time to go to the drycleaner. Second, I’m too cheap to pay $50 for someone else to do a load of laundry I can do myself for free. Also, I’m rather OCD with cleaning and I don’t fully trust that anything with the word “dry” in the title will actually clean my clothes.

But the most important reason I no longer choose to dry clean my clothes is because of the toxic nature of most dry cleaning processes. A majority of drycleaners use a solvent called Perchloroethylene, or perc, which is a carcinogenic chemical. Waste from dry cleaning facilities infiltrates the air, soil, and water, damaging the environment. A 2016 article in The Guardian reports that A 2009 study in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health found that living near a dry cleaner that uses perc increases the risk of developing certain types of cancers.

And you know that chemical odor you notice when you first unwrap your drycleaning bag? Yup. Every time you dry clean your clothes, you bring that into your home – where you allow it to disperse in the air you breathe, before placing it on your skin – your body’s largest organ.

Now I don’t claim to be a saint, but the older and wiser I get, the more I realize how harmful our everyday lives are to the environment and to our bodies. I hope that by being more mindful and proactive with my choices going forward, I can mitigate some of the past damage I’ve done to myself and my surroundings.

So what to do with all those “Dry Clean Only” garments?

Despite what the tag says, most items can be washed anyway – albeit very carefully. First, check the fiber content. Materials like cashmere, rayon, silk, wool, and alpaca are often labeled “dry clean only” because the fibers are delicate and apt to shrink or distort in the wash. These can be washed in COLD water – in the gentle cycle of your washer, or better yet by hand – with plain water or a gentle cleanser like Woolite. NEVER put these items in the dryer – it’s the actually the dryer which causes the damage and shrinkage. Reshape these items and lay flat to air dry.

Cotton garments, though not usually labeled “dry clean”, are also notorious for shrinking in the wash. Again, just wash with cold water and dry on low or air dry to prevent shrinking, color loss, or other damage.

Polyester is like the Twinkie of the fabric world – it is completely not-natural and can withstand just about anything. Throw these things in the wash without fear – they will survive an A-Bomb.

Spandex fibers can break down and become distorted in high heat, so be sure to wash and dry items with a high spandex content (like lingerie or leggings) with cold water, low/no heat.

Most leather items can be cleaned by hand as well. If I’m cleaning a leather jacket, for example, I turn it inside out, wipe down the fabric lining with a wet towel, allow to dry, then wipe the leather exterior with a gentle leather cleaner. Most feed and tack supply stores carry saddle soaps, or Weiman makes a good leather cleaning wipe.

Items with down feather fill? Also mostly washable. Wash cold on gentle, mild or no cleanser (harsh soaps can pull the natural oils from the feathers and leave greasy-looking stains of the fabric), and place in the dryer on low or no heat with a few tennis balls to re-fluff the feathers.

Still hesitant to wash those dry clean only things? An even gentler option is to place the items in a garment bag with a clean towel moistened with plain water, then place in the dryer on low heat for 20 minutes. The moist towel will steam clean the items without soaking them completely. Another option is to wipe a clean, moist towel thoroughly across your item to remove dirt and debris, then throw in the dryer for a few minutes to release wrinkles and freshen up.

These methods work for me 99% percent of the time. The only things I (begrudgingly) take to the dry cleaner are suede items and delicate things with lots of sequins and such. And I always look for an environmentally responsible “green” dry cleaner. If there isn’t a “green” cleaner in your area, and you have no option but to dry clean, then open the plastic dry cleaning bag outdoors and allow it to air out for at least an hour before bringing it inside.