Dry Clean Only? An Eco Expert Tells Us When It's Safe to Ignore Labels

dry cleaners

“Can you do a diatribe on dry-clean-only labels?” asked my editor friend, Tam, citing the numerous times she threw caution to the wind and hand washed a garment despite the dry-clean-only instructions.

Yes, Tam, we can do that. We at EcoSalon are here to please the frugal green crowd looking for ways to avoid high cleaning costs, as well as the toxic detergents regularly used by conventional cleaning companies.

For some answers, I turned to Karl Huie of Eco Dry Cleaners in the San Francisco Bay Area which goes by the motto: “We are not business people capitalizing on the green movement, we are an established dry cleaner changing an industry.” Huie won the 2009 Francine Levien Activist award, which recognized him for taking a leadership role in promoting the health of the community.

Huie’s parents first opened a cleaners in 1969 which he and other family members converted into an eco company in 2007 with stores in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of the city and across the Bay in Sausalito, Calif. (Marin’s first and only certified green cleaners). The Pacific Heights Cleaners is seen as a demonstration site for a statewide program.

They are what’s considered a wet cleaners, which means they use a water-based solution made of natural soaps and conditioners; and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Cleaning, which uses compressed liquid CO2 with detergents.

In other words, they really know how to handle wet clothes, which according to Huie, is the criteria for cleaning your own garments without professional help.

Luanne: Which fabrics are safest for DIY cleaning at home?

Karl: I think polyester and nylon are probably the safest, including recycled polyester from PET bottles, because the plastic in it will hold everything together. Bamboo is an organic product that cleans very nicely and is easily accessible if handled correctly, but you have to be careful not to put too much agitation to the rayon because that will cause it to break or get fuzzy.

Luanne: What about cotton fabrics? You would think you could clean those yourself.

Karl: The risk is shrinkage. That can happen with leather, too, when people try to clean it themselves. The other day a customer brought in a leather jacket they shrunk wanting to know if I could stretch it back out. I also get customers bringing in cotton clothes with stains they tried to remove. They bring them in still wet in plastic bags. You have to have some experience with material and know how to handle it when it is wet.

Luanne: I’m always surprised when I hear friends wash their own sweaters. I’m always afraid the texture will get ruined.

Karl: Generally, silks and cashmeres are not easy to handle. It doesn’t so much have to do with getting them wet but the pH balance of the water and the detergent you use. The wrong balance can alter and shrink the wool and strip off oils  that can cause the texture to change.

Luanne: I never go near any garments with hand beading or special stones but people question why they can’t be hand washed with care. What’s the best thing to do if you aren’t sure?

Karl: Any time not sure how to handle something it is best go get advice from a pro. If you are a regular customer of mine I’m happy to tell you how to take care of it. All the time people bring in items for me to fix after the damage is done.

For some great tips on hand washing or dealing with stains, such as salad dressing spills or chocolate messes, you can go to Karl’s blog, Your Green Dry Cleaner. On the site is a section about cleaning items yourself.

Karl advises:

“Just because something is washable doesn’t mean that’s the best way to handle it. If you’ve got good quality jeans, sweaters, linens, bedding, etc. you want to protect them. Dry cleaning your fine things extends their longevity, keeps color from fading and prevents shrinkage. Plus you get a professional’s skills in stain removal. Talk to your dry cleaner to determine the best way to protect and preserve all your fine things.”

Image: sfllaw

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.