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Are Dry Cleaning Chemicals Bad for You?


Let’s get straight to the point. Yes, dry cleaning chemicals are bad for you. But keeping your wardrobe fresh and pressed is an important step to looking sharp; and many find taking their clothes to the dry cleaner the most convenient way to keep their wardrobes clean. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Exactly how bad are dry cleaning chemicals? Let’s get down to it and find out.

How Bad is Bad?

According to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board the chemicals used by most dry cleaners are classified as possible to probable carcinogens. Meaning: it is most likely these chemicals cause cancer. Along with the cancer risk, dry cleaning chemicals can cause:

  • liver and kidney failure

  • neurological damage

  • shortness of breath, dizziness, vomiting, and lightheadedness

  • problems with pregnancy and birth defects

In some cases, short term, direct exposure can cause unconsciousness and even death. So, that’s pretty bad.

What’s Causing It?

The culprit in all of this is perchloroethylene, or perc. As we’ve mentioned before, perc is known to be harmful to the environment, and has even been banned in the state of California. The good news: perc is regulated by the EPA. An individual’s risk of getting cancer is to be limited to 100 in 1 million. According to the EPA this means:

“...that a person living near a facility and exposed to maximum concentrations of a pollutant for a 70-year-lifetime would have no more than a 100 in 1 million chance of getting cancer as a result.”

Choose Wisely

Obviously, the more exposure you have to perc, the greater the risk. Working in or living near a dry-cleaning store or plant will cause more exposure, but even dry cleaning a piece of clothing can pose health risks.

Studies have shown that dry cleaning chemicals stay on clothes after they have been dry cleaned. It seems fabric choice can affect the amount of perc absorbed. Perc levels continue to increase in wool after each dry cleaning. In cotton and polyester perc is retained but levels out after two or three cleanings, and silk shows no signs of retaining perc at all.

Walk Your Pants

Since perc can enter the air in your house when you remove the plastic cover from your dry cleaning, it is recommended that you air your garments out first. Allow them to hang in the garage or on a clothes-line before taking inside. You can even learn from this story, and take your pants for a walk before you bring them home.

It is also recommended that if you smell dry cleaning chemicals on your garments, take them back to the cleaners and have them cleaned again; then find a new dry cleaner.

The Most Danger

Although dry cleaning your clothing items can expose you to dangerous chemicals, individuals living in the same building as a dry cleaning shop are prone to the greatest risks. Since perc can get in the air, dry cleaner’s neighbors can be breathing in perc without even knowing it.

Perc has a sweet, sharp odor. If you smell this in your home, call the health department and have them test the levels in your area. The perc levels around dry cleaning shops can vary; sadly it seems the work practices of the businesses, and not the equipment, are to blame.

What Can You Do?

Well, an obvious answer is to avoid dry cleaning your clothes all together. A good qualitysteamer can handle almost everything a dry cleaner can, without any of the harmful chemicals.

You can also check out the details in our handy list, which describes the following alternatives:

  • hand washing

  • brushing and spray cleaning

  • buying clothes that do not call for dry cleaning

If you just can’t let dry cleaning go, then find an eco-friendly alternative that does not use perc. Make sure you do your research, however. There are no government regulations on dry cleaning labels, so watch out for the use of the word “organic”. Perc is technically an organic compound since it is made of carbon molecules. Those that use wet cleaning and carbon dioxide cleaning are the best bet.

The Conclusion

Since the use of perc is regulated by the EPA, if dry cleaning is not a regular habit, you are probably in little danger if you find a responsible dry cleaner. But if you clean regularly, better safe than sorry.

  • If you clean on occasion:  find a trustworthy dry cleaner

  • If you clean daily or weekly: find alternatives to perc

Although it is disturbing that dry cleaning chemicals can be so harmful, it is good to know there are many alternatives available. Find what works best for you and what makes you feel the most comfortable, and rest assured that you can make more informed choices when it comes to clothing care.

Have you ever had problems with dry cleaning chemicals? Do you swear by your dry cleaner? Share your stories with us!