'How does dry cleaning work?' is a common question people ask. They really want to know - 'Does it clean?' and 'Is it really necessary to spend the extra money?'
Traditional dry cleaning isn't really 'dry' cleaning - it uses fluids called
dry-cleaning solvents that clean without water. Animal-based fibers such as wool and silk, as well as some man-made fibers such as rayon, can be damaged if exposed to water.
Normally dry cleaning is recommended if the manufacturer believes that normal household laundry methods may damage the product. This could be because of the delicacy of fibers, linings, dyes, or trims.
Ninety percent of the industry uses perc (perchloroethylene),a chemical known to cause cancer in humans. Perc has also been declared by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to be a persistent, bio-accumulative environmental toxin.
A few years ago an at home dry cleaning kit using perc-infused pads in a large plastic bag in the dryer became available. Although this has some merit to 'freshen up' clothes, it does not provide proper cleaning.
This creates a (small) perc exposure risk to your health, but the potential of additional perc being released into the ground water. Also, be warned that the dryer heat has its own risks, and can shrink your clothes, especially wool.
Once you have a basic understanding of the answer to the question how does dry cleaning work, it is easier to understand some of the healthier and/or environmentally friendlier alternatives.
In the mid 1990's, Canadian governments, environmental groups, and the drycleaning industry came together to develop a pilot project for an environmentally-friendly alternative to perc.
Wetcleaning uses machines that provide very carefully controlled volumes and temperatures of water to clean even the most delicate fabrics. The machines also have completely controllable tumbling/agitation. It is the high level of control that allows this process to successfully replace traditional dry-cleaning.
This water-based process has been shown to be a viable alternative for the following: silk, rayon, cotton, cashmere, angora, linen, wool, blends, wedding gowns,comforters, and blankets
Silicone Based Cleaning
Dow Chemical manufactures D-5 (Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane), a silicone-based solvent used as an alternative to perc, that is considered environmentally safe, and is therefore exempt from the major U.S. regulations governing hazardous waste disposal.
Although D-5 appears to be environmentally friendly, there are growing concerns that exposure may damage the liver. D-5 has been found to cause cancer in rats, but it has not been confirmed if that risk is the same in humans.
CO2 Based Cleaning
The newest perc-free dry cleaning technology features liquid CO2. Specially engineered cleaning machines use pressurized liquid CO2 as the cleaning solvent. This provides an effective, environmentally safe cleaning process. The CO2 machine operates like a traditional front-loading dry cleaning machine, with a range of wash and extract cycles, but without the heat which sets stains and wrinkles. The solvent is natural, odor free and 98% is recovered at the end of the cycle and reused
Sometimes dry clean only fabrics can be washed by hand in cool water with a gentle detergent, and hung or lain flat to dry. You should consider this on a case by case basis. If your clothing item is lined, be warned that linings do not seem to tolerate water washing well. If you choose to wash at home, don't be surprised if the lining eventually disintegrates.
Wool knit sweaters can be washed by hand or in the gentle cycle of some washers, and then blocked and lain flat to dry. Wool slacks, skirts and jackets can theoretically be washed the same way and then hung to dry, however in my experience, it may be nearly impossible to press them nicely at home unless you have a really good steamer.