You pick up your dry cleaning and feel good. Your clothes have been purified, starched, pressed, and returned in a sanitary plastic Good as new, right? Hardly. Dry cleaning is toxic process that not only leads to an array of annoying symptoms, but can cause illnesses as serious as cancer. Many of us use it because we don’t know After all, math so many of the labels demanding “dry-clean only,” how can you avoid its. The truth is that many fine fabrics don’t need to be dry-cleaned. As we discovered by doing a series of washing tests on silk, rayon, wool, and linen, you can hand-wash-and even machine-wash – many of these fabrics at home. And for the couple of fabrics that cannot be washed at home, there’s a new kind of professional cleaning – known as “wet cleaning” – that will get these clothes healthy clean.

Clean, but Caustic

Dry cleaning is not “dry” at all, the process involves immersing clothing harsh chemical solvents. The solvent used by most dry cleaners is perchloroethylene, or perc, a highly toxic carcinogen that is known to have harmful effects on the central nervous system and most major organs. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Healthy found that dry-cleaning workers have a significantly increased risk of cancers of the esophagus, intestines, and pancreas. And in another study, researchers found an increased risk of leukemia and bladder cancers in populations exposed to drinking water contaminated with perc.

How much perc does it take to be harmful? The maximum safe level of perc is 100 ppm (parts per million). And yet, one study measured 350 ppm in a car containing fifteen pounds of dry-cleaned clothes-that’s about five pairs of slacks or three wool suits – in just fifteen minutes. Another study found that even after the levels of perc dropped in the air, high levels were detected in the breath of people exposed to the chemical, indicating that perc accumulates in the body.

Perc residue on your clothing can leave you with a number of irritating symptoms as it evaporates. Short-term exposure to perc – as you would experience while wearing a freshly dry-cleaned garment – often causes eye, nose, and throat irritation and nausea. Long-term exposure to very low levels-like those that might found in a closet or bedroom containing dry-cleaned clothes – affects your mood, memory, and coordination.

Why, then, do so many of us make weekly trips to the dry cleaner? In large part because of a “dry-clean only” myth that has been perpetuated by litigation wary clothing manufacturers. According to an industry insider, if a consumer follows washing instructions and a garment shrinks or loses its shape, the manufacturer has to accept the return. Because dry cleaning has long been the only guaranteed way to protect against shrinkage, manufacturers overlabel clothes “dry-clean only” to limit their liability.

It’s Better at Home

To avoid the health risks of dry cleaning and still have clothes that appear professionally cleaned, you have two options. One is washing at home using the guidelines starting on page 42. And the other is a new professional technique known as “wet cleaning.” To find out what works – and what doesn’t – we road tested a range of home-washing methods on several garments (all labeled “dry-clean only”) made out of silk, rayon, wool, and lines. For each fabric, we tested hand and machine washing with a small amount of vegetable oil-based laundry soap, as well as line and tumble drying. Our reviews were based on cleaning power, as well as whether the clothing retained its shape, size, and original appearance.

SILK. Silk is considered one of the most delicate fabrics and an automatic choice to send to the dry cleaner. But in our tests, silk was the winner overall when it came to washing at home. We washed all different types of silk: the thin, sheer kind; the velvety, shimmery kind; and the old-fashioned tightly woven kind. We tried hand washing, machine washing, line drying, and tumble drying Silk withstood it all. Like any fabric, the silk that was line-dried required a warm iron, but looked new after that. Tumble-dried silk looked a little billowy, with a softer finish, but when ironed, it returned to its original crisp, starched look.

RAYON: Rayon was a bit more temperamental, possibly because there are so many different qualities and weaves of this man-made fiber (which is processed from wood cellulose). A couple of pleated, soft, cotton like rayon skirts lost all sign of pleats and would likely require a professional pressing. When tumble-dried, these skirts shrank a tiny bit. A line-dried, glossy rayon garment ended up very wrinkled, but after we ran an iron over it, it looked like new. The one total bust was a machine-washed, line-dried rayon jacket. it came out with serious wrinkles, lost creases, and an overall unpleasantly bulky shape.

WOOL. Wool garments come in so many shapes and sizes – from sweaters to jackets to socks – with some labeled “dry-clean only” and others not. For our road test, we chose several wool suits and a wool sweater. We found wool sweaters can be washed at home in cold water (by hand or in the delicate cycle) and hung over a chair, or laid flat, to dry When just slightly damp, you can fluff them in the dryer on a cool setting for a couple of minutes. But don’t put wool in hot water or in a hot dryer, or you’ll end up with a doll-size sweater suitable for Barbie. We also discovered that tailored wool jackets and trousers cannot be washed at home. No matter what washing or drying technique we tried, these wool garments lost their shape. The cuffs and pocket flaps came uncreased, collars and lapels wouldn’t he flat, and shoulder pads bunched up. Additionally, the acetate and rayon linings became wrinkled beyond repair.

LINEN. Linen is such a big investment that many manufacturers label it “dry-clean only,” but linen (which is woven from flax) is actually a very hearty fabric. We tested two skirts, a jacket, and a vintage dress. They held up well under hand and machine washings with tepid water and a mild detergent. The dark skirt lost a little dye in the water, but not much. All of the line-dried garments needed a hot iron, but ended up looking great. The only trouble we found was with the vintage linen dress. When tumble-dried, it shrank a bit.

Home-Washing Tips

Of course when washing “dry clean only” garments at home, the old rules still apply. To control running dyes, wash brightly colored fabrics like red, blue, and purple separately (you’ll probably want to do these by hand), and wash only black, navy blue, and other densely dark colors together Don’t wring hand washed garments. Just squeeze out all excess water before hanging or laying flat to dry.

Wet Cleaning

With public concern about hazardous chemicals on the rise, and the problem presented by home-cleaning garments such as wool suits, “wet cleaning” may be the future of professional garment care. Wet cleaning combines and washing, spot cleaning, steaming, and high-tech washing machines designed to control the cleaning process by regulating water temperature and drying time. Much more sophisticated than your home washing machine, wet-cleaning machines use computer microprocessed agitation so that fabrics don’t become tangled and lose shape, and the temperature is precisely controlled to eliminate shrinkage. Wet cleaners also offer services such as expert spot cleaning and pressing. Wet cleaning is considered just as effective as dry cleaning and costs the same. Plus, your clothes come back softer and smelling fresh.

To find a wet cleaner in your area, you can contact Aqua Clean, which maintains a list of cleaners that use environmentally sound cleaning methods. To obtain a copy of the list, call 516-371-4513. If you don’t find one already set up in your area, encourage your local dry cleaner to switch over.

Tricks of the Trade

For tailored garments, vintage linen, or clothes with linings or delicate buttons that need a professional’s touch, try these four strategies to minimize your trips to the cleaner:

Brushing. Debra Lynn Dadd, author of The Nontoxic Home & Office recommends brushing your clothes with a lint brush to remove surface dust and lint.

STEAMING: Simply hang garments in a steamy bathroom while you’re taking a hot shower. The tiny airbone water particles penetrate the fabric to remove odors (such as cigarette smoke and perspiration), wrinkles, and surface dirt without affecting the shape of the garment.

OUTDOOR FRESHENING. Hanging garments outdoors on a sunny, breezy day can also help with odors. In fact, this often leaves clothes with a pleasantly fresh scent.

SWEATER FRESH. Finally, you might try a product called Sweater Fresh (available from Natural Lifestyle mail order, 800-752-2775). To remove odors and wrinkles, you simply spray garments with this nontoxic liquid and tumble dry on low heat for a few minutes.

As a final note, if you find you must dry-clean, use common sense to lower your exposure to perc. As soon as you bring home your dry cleaning, take it out of the plastic and hang it outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Clean only a few garments at a time, and don’t wear them right away.