Q: Every day my baby spits up all over my clothes, rendering them unwearable until they make a trip to the dry cleaner. Lately, I’ve been seeing organic dry cleaners pop up all over town, so I’m thinking of trying that. Are these dry cleaners truly better for me, for my baby and for the environment or is it all a hoax?

A: First things first. If your baby is spitting up all over your clothes every day, maybe it’s time to take the hint and stop wearing dry clean-only clothes. I, for one, never get dressed unless I absolutely must leave the house, so if my clothes get dirty, I can throw them in the washing machine. That’s the great thing about sweats and old T-shirts.

Now, let’s get down to business with organic dry cleaning. The truth is — it ain’t so organic. Or it is, but not what we think is organic.

See, chemists define anything organic to be anything containing carbon, and those things aren’t necessarily good for you. You see, dry cleaning really isn’t dry – it just means that instead of water being used to clean the clothes, a chemical solvent is used in its place. The substance used in most dry cleaners to clean clothes is perchloroethylene (try saying that 10 times fast, or at all), otherwise known as perc. The EPA has classified this handy little cleaner as a probable cancer-causing chemical.

Many organic dry cleaners use a solvent called DF-2000 (sounds totally organic, right?) to clean clothes instead of perc. A derivative of gasoline, DF-2000 is only slightly less harmful than perc.

I have a lot of organic dry cleaners in my town, so I decided to stop in and ask them what they use to dry clean the clothes. There are six cleaners that are all “organic” in a one-mile radius of my house alone! At the first couple of places I went to, the clerk behind the counter couldn’t even answer my question. A manager was summoned to tell me, that indeed DF-2000 was used in their facility to clean clothes in a “healthier” way. Another told me that perc was used to clean the clothes in their establishment, and the sign “organic” in the window only meant that they operated in an environmentally responsible way – meaning that they recycle those toxic perc containers, I guess.

But the clerk in the fourth store I visited was only too eager to answer my questions. In his store, they were actually using a method called wet cleaning, in which water is used to clean the garment, but in a computerized machine that prevents shrinkage and wrinkles. Prices there, however, were a bit steeper.

I went home to do a bit more research, and found out that wet cleaning actually works great for most garments and is actually a much greener alternative to either perc or DF-2000. Another alternative? Carbon dioxide cleaning, which turns CO2 into a liquid to clean clothes. 

Bottom line is this: If you’re looking for a greener way to dry clean, try finding a dry cleaners that uses a truly greener method here. If you can’t do that and must use a traditional cleaner, try letting your clothes air out in your garage or on a clothesline before taking them into the house. Seem annoying? Save yourself the trouble, and avoid buying dry clean-only clothes altogether.

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Photo: Sandralise/iStockPhoto

Are organic dry cleaners really better for the environment?
Advice columnist Chanie Kirschner treks to four businesses to find out what 'organic' really means to dry cleaners.