Dirty Laundry Cleans Up Its Act

By Elizabeth Marglin

We’ve always found that newly dry-cleaned clothes smell noxious, and now we know why. The most common solvent used in dry cleaning—perchloroethylene, aka perc—causes major problems for both people who work with it and the planet. Besides being a carcinogen, perc is a classified hazardous waste, spewing its guck into the atmosphere, landfills, and aquifers. In 2007, California banned any new dry cleaners from using perc-centric machines, and the state outlawed the carcinogen from all dry cleaners as of 2023. “It’s not even all that great for your clothes,” says Jon Simon, owner of Parkway Custom Drycleaning in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which uses biodegradable hydrocarbon to clean garments. “Perc can make fabrics shrink and become more brittle.”

So what to do with those designer duds? Seek out local establishments that offer less toxic (and better-smelling) solutions, such as liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) pumped through a high-pressure washer; hydrocarbon, a relatively mild petroleum distillate; new silicone-based cleaners (greenearthcleaning.com); and high-tech, computer-controlled wet washing. Or how about a little DIY wet washing? The gentle cycle on your home machine works fine on most fabrics, even cashmere. Better yet, stage your own “dry-cott”—next time you feel the call of retail therapy, just say no to high-maintenance threads.