Dry-Clean Only? Nah, There Are Cheaper, Safer Ways

Avoid toxic chemicals and save money by learning how to gently clean clothes made of certain fabrics.

April 13, 2009

Dry clean, shmy clean. Avoid unneeded chemicals and cost by cleaning that spot yourself.

Under the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency planned by 2020 to phase out a harmful dry-cleaning solvent used only in stores located in apartment buildings. That would ban the chemical in question, perchloroethylene (PCE, or perc), in just a small percentage of dry-cleaning venues. PCE has been classified as a probable cancer causer by the EPA and has been linked to kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage. Some cleaners have already stopped using the chemical, but nearly 30,000 dry cleaners in the U.S. still clean with PCE. You don’t have to wait for an EPA ban to keep the chemical out of your clothes, though. To save money and avoid PCE exposure, ignore that "dry-clean only" tag.

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Follow these tips to get all your clothes clean without shrinking them into baby-size skirts and shirts:

• Wool—This naturally flame-retardant fiber should be gently hand-washed with a mild soap in 100-degree (Fahrenheit) water. Throw a little distilled white vinegar in the water when you rinse, and then lay it flat and stretch it to its original size to dry. Always keep wool out of the sun to dry. (You’d wash cashmere, alpaca, angora, or mohair using the same method.)

• Rayon—Hand-wash in cool water with soap or detergent and rinse. Don’t twist or wring out the water; press it out of the garment after rinsing.

• Silk—Use your hands to swirl silk around in 100- to 120-degree water with some gentle castile soap that has a neutral pH. Hang indoors to dry because UV rays can damage silk. Instead of ironing on low, hang the article in a steamy bathroom to get out any wrinkles.

For more tips on wet-washing and green living, read Home Enlightenment: Create a Nurturing, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Home by Annie B. Bond (Rodale, 2006).