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Dry cleaning is actually not dry at all. Say what? Dry cleaning involves the use of liquid chemicals, just not water. The chemicals used in dry cleaning are the definition of hazardous, and they're unquestionably bad for the environment. Luckily, new methods can get your clothes just as clean without the toxic backwash. Be careful, though: some of the new "eco-friendly" dry cleaning processes may not be as friendly as they claim.
Why You Should Use It
Traditional dry cleaning uses a nasty chemical called perchloroethylene, affectionately known as "perc." The dry-cleaning process was discovered back in the late 1800s, when someone spilled turpentine on a stained tablecloth and all the stains disappeared. Back then, people thought it was a fine idea to pour toxic chemicals on clothing, then wash them down the drain into the water supply. Now we know that perc is an air pollutant that also causes cancer. And yet, dry cleaners keep using it. Only since the early 2000s have we come up with alternatives that get your clothes clean without using a poison.
Eco-friendly dry cleaners use a few different methods. The best seems to be compressed carbon dioxide -- yes, the same carbon dioxide that forms a large part of our atmosphere. You can't get much more natural than that, and Consumer Reports actually found that CO2 cleaning works just as well as perc. Two other methods use hydrocarbons and silicone, but to get this to work the "natural" chemicals must be combined with some less-than-kosher solvents. They also happen to be less effective at cleaning your clothes than CO2.
Where to Get It
Green cleaners are still just breaking into the market, so they can be hard to find. If you live in a major city, you'll probably have a choice between a CO2 cleaner and one of the other methods. If your town is more rural, anybody boasting "eco-friendly" cleaning, even if it's not the best kind, is still a better bet than the perc-user down the block. More environmentally-friendly dry cleaners are popping up all the time; try searching local directories or asking your local Chamber of Commerce. If you're having no luck, the EPA has published a list of green cleaners and wet cleaners.
DIY Cleaning Tips
It doesn't get greener than doing it yourself, and many clothes that say "dry clean only" on the label can actually be cleaned by hand at home. Try steaming your clothes if they're only lightly soiled, or hand-wash your wool sweaters, cashmere and solid-colored silks in cool water, but skip the dryer. Try lemon juice, vinegar, club soda and good old sunshine to lighten stains. You can also try at-home dry cleaning kits: they don't contain perc, but they do contain chemicals.