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Drycleaners (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2011)
 
Go to Ratings of 362 Washington Area Drycleaners

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Drycleaners

Of the 363 area dry-cleaning shops we evaluated in our last full, published article, 48 were rated "superior" for "doing service properly" by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers, but 37 were rated "superior" by fewer than half of their surveyed customers. 

In many cases, we found that shops had prices 50 percent higher than nearby competitors. In fact, a few had prices twice as high as some of their competitors. 

But there are many cleaners that provide high-quality service at reasonable prices. Among the shops that got our top rating for quality, 60 percent had below-average prices. 

Our Ratings Tables will help you select a good shop. But keep your own eyes on quality: a shop's clerks should ask about any stains when you drop off garments; the shop should have a good system to keep track of your clothes; and, of course, the clothes should be ready on time, look good, and smell good when you pick them up. 

To get the best results, be sure to remove everything from pockets, check for any stains, and give the clerk all the information you can about stains and spills—including spills that have not left a visible mark. Before leaving your clothes, ask about the prices and check your ticket to be sure every item is listed. Don't lose the ticket. When you pick up your clothes, take a few minutes to check that they are fully cleaned, undamaged, and properly pressed. 

You may be able to avoid the cleaner—or at least reduce the difficulty of the cleaner's task—by taking a few steps to deal with stains on your own. But you can do more harm than good if you aren't careful. We give a few tips below. One key is to act on stains fast. 

Introduction 

It's your favorite outfit. It looks great. Whenever you wear it, you get compliments on it. But after yesterday, you know that if you wear it again without a proper cleaning, others will wonder if you're wearing a Jackson Pollock project. (The peas your toddler had for lunch...the wine you had with dinner...the mud when you slipped and fell...) 

What your outfit needs is a good dry cleaning to make it look new again. At most area drycleaners, that's what you'll get the vast majority of the time. But things do go wrong. Your dry-cleaning shop has to do each step in the cleaning process properly. Some don't. Also, some charge outrageous prices. 

What Should and Shouldn't Happen at the Shop 

The first step to ensure a successful dry-cleaning transaction is something you need to do. When you drop off your clothes, it's important you tell the clerk about any spots or stains and any special cleaning instructions. The clerk should mark stains, noting what caused them and how long they've been there. 

If a stain is missed, it may become set by the dry-cleaning process. If the cause of a stain is not noted, the shop's spotter can only guess how to remove it. If hidden spills aren't noted, the heat used in dry cleaning and pressing can cause the sugar from beverage spills to turn brown or "caramelize." These deposits can be removed if treated before heat is applied, but removal may be impossible later—especially in wools and silks, where the fibers absorb the stain. The tannins in coffee, tea, and many fruit and vegetable products can also develop into a stain if not removed before dry cleaning. In addition, you should tell the clerk about any stain removal methods you have tried at home. 

After dropoff, shop personnel will sort and tag clothes. They should check care labels and separate out "wash only" items and other items that require special treatment. They should further inspect each garment to be sure all spots are marked. Cuffs should be emptied and any frail buttons or ornaments should be removed or protected. Pockets should be checked and emptied—a pen, a crayon, or lipstick can cause total destruction. 

At this stage, some garments with stains should be pulled out for attention by the shop's spotter. Most garments either have no significant stains or have stains that will come out through routine dry cleaning. But typically about 10 to 20 percent need a spotter's special attention. 

The spotter's job is part art and part science. He or she works with an arsenal of steam, water, detergents, chemicals, brushes, and blotters. For best results, the right chemicals must be applied in the right sequence in the appropriate amounts for just the right length of time. Mistakes can have disastrous effects. For example, using ammonia on silk with certain types of green dyes may cause the fabric to change color; leaving a petroleum-based solvent on too long may cause it to dissolve a surface print; and using the wrong solvent may cause dyes to spread and discolor adjacent areas. 

The next step for items that have been treated by the spotter and for those that didn't require treatment is the dry-cleaning machine. This machine looks and works like an oversized front-loading washing machine. But, in the most currently used process, the liquid inside is dry-cleaning solvent rather than water. 

Although there are several solvents available, the vast majority of drycleaners use a non-flammable solvent called perchloroethylene, or "perc." It dissolves oil-based soils like wax and grease and will carry away insoluble soils like sand and lint, but something more is needed for water-soluble soils like sugars and salts. To attack these latter soil types, drycleaners add a detergent to their solvent and make sure that the solvent contains a very small amount of water. For maximum effectiveness, the solvent in a dry-cleaning machine is typically kept at a temperature of about 80°F. 

There are several aspects of what goes on in this machine-cleaning phase that can affect the quality of results. We describe here the considerations in the most common processes. 

Because dry-cleaning solvents are expensive and because they can pollute the atmosphere and have adverse effects on workers if not carefully contained, modern dry-cleaning equipment is designed to reuse solvents again and again. Solvent is continually circulated through the dry-cleaning machine and then through a filtering system to remove the dirt that has been removed from clothes. In addition, the equipment contains a distiller that boils away and condenses a portion of the solvent to remove impurities. At the end of each job, as the liquid is evaporated out of the clothes, even the vapor is captured and condensed for reuse. 

Changing filtering material and heating a distiller are expensive. And some shops are less diligent than others about taking these steps regularly to keep solvents clean. If your shop lets its solvent get too dirty, your clothes are likely to come back with slight discolorations from dirt or dye left there by the solvent itself. Or the clothes may smell (properly dry-cleaned clothes should have no odor). 

While use of clean solvent is the most important element of quality control at the washing stage, results can also suffer if clothes aren't properly prepared for the machine. Items should be separated to be run in different loads, according to color and weight. As in your home laundry, running dark items with light items may ean that the light items come out less bright than they otherwise would. Some darks may suffer dye bleed, and may give off lint; these discoloring elements may be deposited by the solvent on the light items. 

Running heavy items with lightweight items may result in damage to the lightweight items as they tumble with the heavier pieces. Also, the solvent might not circulate so well through the lightweight items as it would if they were run by themselves. 

Delicate items should be put in protective net bags before cleaning and should be run for as short a cycle as possible. Otherwise, there's a risk of weave shifting or distortion of a garment's shape. 

After your clothes have been agitated, the drum spins to remove most of the solvent, and then the clothes are tumbled in warm air (up to about 140°F) to remove the remaining solvent. 

When the solvent has been removed, the clothes are again checked for stains, and the spotter may be called into service again. Perspiration stains may become apparent at this point, for example. And some caramelized sugar stains discovered now may be treatable. 

Next stop is the presser or finisher, who uses various steam-emitting forms and presses for a smoothed final product. For example, a suit jacket will be put on a mannequin form and steam will be released from the inside, followed by dry air, causing the form to balloon out snugly against the jacket. The jacket will then be pressed on a flat press, and the lapels will be pressed to maintain their roll. Naturally, there is much room for quality variation in finishing. 

The best finishers will have a keen eye for wrinkles and will do final touches with a hand iron. Less competent finishers might put too much pressure on a soft fabric, causing it to look matted or might press a fabric to the point that it acquires a glaze. Too much pressure on buttons can damage the buttons, causing them to crack or split (a common complaint we receive from dry-cleaning customers). 

From the presser, items go to an inspector. The best shops have a well-trained inspector who carefully looks over every garment and has the authority and the resolve to send any flawed item back for further processing. 

After inspection, items are bagged and stored for pickup. A good press can be ruined if too many items are crushed together in a single bag or if bags are too tightly pushed together on a rack. High-quality shops often protect the press of garments by placing tissue paper filler in sleeves and shoulders. 

Finding an Outfit You Can Trust 

At most shops, the dry-cleaning process successfully is completed almost every time. But some shops don't seem to provide consistent results, as evidenced by the ratings we receive from their customers and comments like the following— 

  • "Ruined a top, causing color loss in a number of spots. The owner denied there was a problem—although it was clearly visible—and then told me it was the age of the garment. He told me I could sue them and was very rude. Use them only for clothes you don't care about." 
  • "Numerous shirts [have been lost] and had the wrong shirts put in my order on more than one occasion. If this were a rare occurrence, I wouldn't even blink. But it appeared to be a trend for a while. I'm scared to take my clothes there now." 
  • "Never again. They pride themselves on delivery services and have lost my shirts twice and delivered another person's to me." 
  •  "Really rude. Broke/damaged/ruined many of my clothes including a Hugo Boss tuxedo. The absolute WORST!!" 
  • "The owner rushed me through pointing out trouble spots and as a result did not clean the garments properly. Worse, they ruined a plum-colored blouse—it is now missing color in some areas, is mottled in others, and is black down the placket in the front. The owner said ‘that is what you say' when I showed him another piece of clothing that was a comparable color to the original color of my blouse—essentially accusing me of lying." 
  • "Collars and cuffs on shirts remained dirty. Couldn't get simple stains off of suit jacket. They tried three times and said they are permanent stains. They would not refund money. Did not even get dirt off of cuffs. When brought to another cleaner, stains came out on first try." 

How do you find a shop that will do the job right? Our evaluation of area shops shown on our Ratings Tables should help you in your search. The table reports ratings we received from surveyed CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers when they were asked to rate dry-cleaning shops they had recently used. (For more information on our customer survey and other research methods, click here.) 

If you want to consider shops we haven't evaluated, you can ask friends for their experiences. Fortunately, almost everyone you know will have at least some experience with a drycleaner. The obvious advantage of our survey ratings is that they reflect thousands of customer experiences; since all shops seem to do the job right at least some of the time, it is important to get a lot of feedback to find the ones that fail most often. 

You will also get some insight as you begin to use a shop and can switch if you see trouble signs. Key points to check— 

  • Do clerks thoroughly inquire about stains when you drop off garments and carefully note information you provide? 
  • Can clerks give coherent answers when you ask about the feasibility of removing difficult stains? 
  • Are your clothes ready when promised? 
  • Do the clothes look and smell clean? 
  • Were the clothes pressed properly? One of the most common complaints we receive from dry-cleaning customers is that shops improperly press garments, leaving "double creases" and crushing or losing buttons. 
  • Does the staff seem to have an efficient system for finding your garments when you come to pick them up? 

Getting a Good Price 

Quality is only part of the picture. You'll also want to pay reasonable prices. 

Our Ratings Tables show shops' scores on our price index, which will help you select a shop that won't bust your budget. To prepare the price index scores, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our shoppers, without revealing their affiliation with CHECKBOOK, checked prices on 12 items. Our price index scores show how each shop's prices compared to the average of all shops' prices for items it quoted on. We adjusted the scores so that the average of all shops equals $100. A price index score of $125, for example, means a shop's prices were 25 percent above the all-shop average; a score of $75 means a shop's prices were 25 percent below average. 

The price index scores are a good predictor. For the most part, shops that are low-priced for some jobs are low-priced for all. 

As you can see, most shops were within 20 percent above or below the all-shop average. But there were a few at the extremes. Cleaning that might cost $30 at a lower priced shop might cost $60 or more at some of the higher priced shops. 

Fortunately, you don't have to pay a high price to get high-quality work. We found little correlation between price and customer satisfaction with service quality. Several shops had low price index scores and were rated "superior" for the quality of their work by at least 80 percent of surveyed customers, and a number of shops with high price index scores were rated "superior" by fewer than 60 percent of their surveyed customers. 

If you go to the cleaners only a few times a year with small loads each time, price won't matter much to you. But if you take larger loads that will cost $30 or so, the 30 percent to 40 percent price differences that we frequently found will amount to $9 to $12 per visit. That can add up over a number of visits. If a low-priced cleaner is not convenient to your home, you may want to consider dropping your cleaning near your workplace or at some other location you pass in your regular travels. 

You can easily get a feel for price levels at cleaners we did not evaluate. Table 1 shows the average prices we were given for the 12 cleaning jobs we priced; you can call shops to see how their prices compare on the same items. In comparing prices, be sure to give the same facts to each shop. Keep in mind that a garment with pleats or other special features might cost more to clean and press than one without and that some fabrics, colors, and sizes cost more than others. 

Don't assume because one shop in a chain has low prices that others will. Although some chains do have consistent prices from shop to shop, we found several chains with shop-to-shop differences in price index scores of 10 percent or more. 

Table 1
Price Variation for Some Common Dry-Cleaning Jobs
Description Lowest price 10th percentile Average price 90th percentile Highest price
Men’s two-piece wool suit (dry clean)100-percent wool gaberdine, navy blue, pants are not pleated, pants have cuffs, no stains$3.78$7.95$10.50$14.00$42.50
Men’s wool sweater (dry clean)Shetland wool, brown, no detailing, no stains$1.89$4.00$5.41$7.25$24.00
Women’s two-piece suit (dry clean)100-percent wool gaberdine, grey, plain skirt, no stains$3.78$7.97$10.52$14.00$42.50
Women’s silk blouse (dry clean)100-percent silk, pink, no gathers, no detailing, no collar, short-sleeve$1.89$4.00$5.81$7.25$26.50
Women’s wool overcoat (dry clean)100-percent wool, black, mid-shin length, plain, no stains$1.89$12.10$17.17$22.00$43.00
Men’s dress shirt (launder)100-percent cotton, white, on hanger, no stains$.95$1.22$1.69$2.35$15.00
Women’s skirt (dry clean)Polyester/rayon blend, navy blue, lined, knee-length, no stains$1.70$4.00$5.35$6.99$21.95
Men’s tie (dry clean)100-percent silk, all dark colors, plain, no stains but has creases from repeated wear$1.70$2.75$4.18$5.95$18.00
Men’s casual shirt (dry clean)100-percent rayon, light blue, short-sleeve, no stains$1.70$3.85$5.09$6.95$28.85
Women’s dress (dry clean)Polyester/rayon blend, tan, knee-length, no pleats, no gathers, sleeveless, unlined, no stains$1.89$6.14$9.72$13.33$39.50
Men’s slacks (dry clean)100-percent linen, beige, no pleats, cuffed, no stains$1.70$3.95$5.51$7.25$26.00
Women’s Oxford blouse (launder)100-percent cotton, white, no pleats, no gathers, on hanger, no stains$1.19$1.99$4.54$5.95$26.00

What You Can Do 

Regardless of which drycleaner you choose, your satisfaction will depend in part on you. 

When you take your clothes to be cleaned, remove everything from all pockets and look over the garments carefully for stains. 

If there are stains to be removed, point them out to the clerk and provide as much information about them as you can. The more the spotter knows about the substance that caused a stain, how long it has been in the fabric, and what, if anything, you have used to try to remove the stain, the better the chances it can be removed. Be sure to tell the clerk about any area of fabric on which there may be hidden spots—particularly where there has been a spill of a sugar-containing substance, such as a soft drink, white wine, or a fruit juice. The best approach is to pin a tag on each stain to ensure that all the needed information gets to the spotter. 

Many drycleaners can have your clothes ready the same day if you bring them in by a certain time. Some cleaners even offer one-hour service. Same-day service usually includes full treatment—spotting, pressing, and any other treatment needed. Some cleaners charge extra for same-day service, but others do not. One-hour service usually includes only basic cleaning and should not be used for garments that require special attention. In general, it is better not to ask for a faster-than-normal turnaround unless you absolutely must have the garment immediately. It makes sense to expect your clothes to get better treatment if the cleaner does not have to rush. 

Before you drop off your clothes and leave the shop, ask about costs. Find out if the amount includes any special services like waterproofing that you have not been told about and don't want. If a service isn't needed, ask that it not be done and that your bill be adjusted accordingly. Finally, make sure you hang onto your ticket. In case something goes wrong, the ticket will be your proof of the items you brought in and the treatment you agreed to pay for. 

When you pick up your cleaned clothes, bring your ticket with you. Take a few minutes to look over your clothes, checking to see that they are pressed properly, with lapels and collars lying flat, pleats straight and crisp, etc. Make sure the clothes aren't missing any buttons and are in overall good condition before you pay for the cleaning and leave the shop. 

If Things Go Wrong 

When you pick up your clothes from the cleaners, what if an item is still stained? Or what if you find a new stain that wasn't there before—a white dress comes back yellowed, for instance, or the fabric in your favorite jacket is so puckered it looks like seersucker? Sometimes clothes are damaged in the dry-cleaning process, and occasionally they are lost. 

The remedy depends on who is responsible. Dry-cleaning problems may be caused by any of three sources—the drycleaner, the manufacturer of the garment, or you. If a garment is damaged through proper cleaning by a process authorized on the Care Labels, it is the manufacturer's fault. If a stain or other damage you've caused can't reasonably be expected to be cured, then it's your fault. If a garment is damaged because a drycleaner uses a cleaning process not authorized by the care label, or doesn't use reasonable care (for instance, damages a garment in the pressing process), the damage is the drycleaner's fault. 

If you believe your drycleaner is responsible for a problem, such as a missed stain or a new one, ask that the work be redone. A reputable shop will be happy to do it over at no cost. If the shop admits an error that resulted in permanent damage to your garment, the shop should pay you for the garment and should waive cleaning charges. Unfortunately, you can't count on being paid what it will cost to replace the item. The "Fair Claims Guide," published by the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI) and widely used by drycleaners, consumers, and mediators, says a drycleaner is obliged to pay you the replacement cost of the garment only after adjustment for its condition, and based on the unused portion of its life expectancy. The guide includes life expectancy tables—two years for a tie, for example, and three years for a women's blouse. 

If the drycleaner denies responsibility for a permanently damaged item, there are other steps you can take. You can ask the shop to send the garment to DLI's Textile Analysis Laboratory for a determination of responsibility. (You can't submit the garment yourself, but a drycleaner that is a member of DLI can submit it for a fee.) 

DLI is able to determine the cause of damage in many cases. If DLI determines that the garment is defective or if its care label is incorrect, then you will be advised to take the garment, along with the laboratory report, to the store where you purchased the garment and ask for a refund. The store should reimburse you. The store can often, but not always, return the defective or mislabeled item to its manufacturer. If DLI determines that the drycleaner is at fault, then DLI will notify the drycleaner. Drycleaners that are members of the DLI, and even those that are not, usually cooperate with a DLI laboratory judgment and compensate you according to the "Fair Claims Guide." 

Although the DLI process is often helpful, keep in mind that the cleaner won't always be blamed even if it did a below-standard job. For example, if your garment comes back with a stain that the shop caused to be permanently set, DLI probably won't know whether the shop could have succeeded by using a better sequence of stain removal steps. Furthermore, even if the stain could have been removed by the optimum procedure, DLI may not be able or inclined to say that the procedure your shop used, and failed with, was an unreasonable (negligent) approach. 

If you can't reach agreement with a shop, you can complain to a local government consumer agency or the Better Business Bureau. If a shop refuses even to send a garment for analysis by the DLI, these offices will help you submit the garment. 

Out, Out the Spot Yourself 

There are considerable risks to do-it-yourself approaches to stain removal. Your efforts might set a stain so that a drycleaner will never be able to remove it, cause dyes to migrate and stain otherwise undamaged areas, create a light spot by removing dye, damage fabric by abrasion, leave a ring around the area of treatment, or damage a garment in other ways. It is always safer to use a professional cleaner, who has both the supplies and the knowledge to do the job properly or to recognize that a stain can't be removed without damage to a fabric's fiber or dyes. Using a professional makes particular sense if your garment is very expensive, has great emotional meaning to you, or is especially delicate. 

Nonetheless, it is possible to remove many stains yourself, and you may wish to remove simple stains from basic garments that are not especially valuable to you. 

Be Quick 

Even if you will be sending your garment to a professional cleaner, you'll help matters by quickly removing as much staining matter as you can. A step that is always safe is to blot up any liquid immediately. Use an absorbent white cloth, tissue, or paper towel. First touch it to the edge of any standing liquid so that you can draw off the liquid without forcing more into the fabric. Then blot the fabric by pressing absorbent pads from both sides. 

At this and at all later stages of stain removal, continually change the absorbent material so that there is always clean material against the stain. Be careful not to transfer the stain by allowing dirty portions of your pad to come into contact with the garment. Also, don't rub. Rubbing can change a fabric's surface texture so that even when the stain is removed, the garment won't look right. 

If the staining matter is pasty, rather than liquid, use a butter knife or spatula to remove as much paste as possible. 

Get on to the next steps as soon as possible since many stains set with time. 

Be Prepared 

Before proceeding, check your garment's care label. Your methods will differ depending on whether the label calls for washing or dry cleaning or offers both options. You'll also need to heed warnings about such other factors as colorfastness, temperature tolerance, and tolerance for bleach. If a label says "professionally dry clean only," don't try to remove a stain yourself. 

If you have any question about a fabric's response to a cleaning agent you might use, pretest it. Try the agent on a hidden area, such as the tail of a blouse or shirt, a hem, or an inside seam. Check whether dye comes off and look to see what the fabric looks like after the agent dries. 

Prepare a work area for yourself. It should be made of a hard material that won't be damaged and won't transfer color to your garment when in contact with stain remover. A glass surface is ideal. You might spread aluminum foil and then work on the surface of an upside-down glass pie plate. 

Dry-cleaning solvents and some other chemicals you may work with are poisonous. Wear rubber gloves and avoid skin contact with these materials. In many cases, the vapors are harmful and some solvents are highly flammable. So be sure to work either outdoors or in a well-ventilated area away from any flame, including pilot lights on a stove or water heater. Don't smoke. 

The tips that follow are very brief. For any but the simplest stains, it's a good idea to get more extensive spot removal information. You can order How to Clean and Care for Practically Anything for $11.95, plus $3.50 for shipping and handling, from Consumer ReportsBooks by calling 800-500-9760 or by visiting www.consumerreports.org

Greasy or Waxy Stains 

Certain stains are greasy and must be removed by agents that can dissolve or break up the greasy material. These include salad oils and cooking oils, butter or margarine, road oils and tar, and waxes. 

If the garment is washable, you may be able to remove a greasy stain by working detergent or a laundry pretreatment product into the stain, then rinsing in warm water. Often, however, you'll need a grease solvent, which you can buy at any supermarket or hardware store. For non-washable items, a grease solvent is your only option. 

Saturate the stain with the grease solvent and blot it, holding an absorbent white pad behind the stain so that the staining substance can pass through and be absorbed away. Repeat this process until the stain appears to be removed. 

Ordinary Non-greasy Stains 

Many stains are not greasy and can be removed with water. These include soft drinks, many fruit juices, alcoholic beverages, candy (other than chocolate), ketchup, coffee, food coloring, and ink from felt-tip pens (not ballpoint). Tea can be very difficult to treat, particularly since a tea stain can be set by many detergents and other products. 

If a garment is washable, many stains are removed by ordinary laundry methods. It's a good idea to let a garment soak in cool water for a half hour or more before washing. A more conservative approach for washable garments, and the only approach for non-washable items, is to sponge the stain with cool water. If that doesn't succeed, you can work detergent or a laundry pretreatment product into the stain and then repeat the cool water process. 

Combination Stains 

Some stains contain both greasy and non-greasy substances. These include chocolate, cream, ice cream, gravy and meat juice, mayonnaise, and lipstick. 

These stains should be treated first as you would treat a greasy stain and then, after drying, as you would treat a non-greasy stain. 

Other Stains 

Some stains require special treatments. Common examples are— 

  • Blood—Use the method for non-greasy stains, but if that doesn't work, put a few drops of household ammonia (diluted half and half with water) on the stain, repeat your treatment with detergent and water, and then rinse. 
  • Chewing gum—Scrape off the gum; this will be easier if you rub it with ice first to harden it. If there is still a stain, sponge it with a grease solvent. 

Final Advice 

If you're uncertain about the right treatment for a stain or put a lot of value on the garment, take it to a drycleaner. If you have already made some efforts to treat the stain, be sure to describe exactly what you have done. 

Unfortunately, when you remove a stain, you often leave a discolored ring that is equally unattractive. This ring may result from the wicking of fabric sizing or dye material to the outside of your wetted area. To minimize this problem, lightly wipe the outer edge of the treated area with solvent or water, whichever you are using for the cleaning. Brush toward the center of the treated area. 

Perc and Its Alternatives 

Perchloroethylene (or "perc") remains by far the most common dry-cleaning solvent used nationwide. But since it can be a hazardous air pollutant and is a suspected human carcinogen, the EPA has instituted rules governing perc emissions. As a result, drycleaners located in residential buildings or located near sensitive populations (such as, nursing homes or daycare centers) will have to stop using perc-based machines by 2020. And all drycleaners have had to reduce perc emissions by using newer equipment that has lower perc emissions or by using different cleaning techniques. In some areas, local and state governments have been working to further curtail perc's use, or even to ban it altogether. 

In regions where drycleaners have been forced to use alternatives to perc, most have begun using hydrocarbon-based solvents. These solvents are petroleum based, and include trade names Ecosolv (Chevron), DF-2000 (Exxon), Sol 140 HT (Shell), and Hydroclene (Caled Chemical). Studies of these solvents' effectiveness for the most part conclude it cleans as well as perc does, but hydrocarbon-based solvents can't exactly be considered green alternatives. They are volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that can contribute to smog and produce hazardous waste that needs to be carefully controlled and captured. 

Another alternative method compresses carbon dioxide gas into a liquid state that, when combined with a detergent, cleans clothing. Tests conducted by Consumer Reports and others have shown that this method can be as effective as traditional dry cleaning—in fact, Consumer Reports found that this alternative produced better results than the perc-based method. Further, the liquid carbon dioxide has little environmental impact—the carbon dioxide itself is recycled from other industrial uses. But few shops have adopted this method. 

Since 2000, a small number of cleaners have been experimenting with a silicone-based solvent marketed under the name "GreenEarth." This solvent is a modified liquid silicone—a clear and odorless liquid—similar to the basic ingredients used in underarm deodorants, cosmetics, and shaving lotions. Consumer Reports' tests found that the technique worked almost as well as traditional, perc-based methods. 

But there have been recent health concerns over the use of the silicone-based solution. Preliminary research studies found that exposure to high levels of D5—the solvent used in GreenEarth's process—caused cancer and may have caused liver damage in laboratory rats. Industry groups have insisted that their own research shows these results are specific to rats, and that other tests show that D5 is safe to humans. 

Nationwide, the most widely used alternative to perc-based dry cleaning is called "wet-cleaning," a non-toxic, water-based cleaning method. This process basically uses a high-tech washing machine that works in conjunction with stretching devices that help retain garments' sizes and shapes. Results of tests comparing the effectiveness of wet cleaning to the perc-based method have been mixed. In tests conducted by the EPA, participants rated wet-cleaned clothes as high as, or higher than, dry-cleaned clothes. But Consumer Reports' tests found that the wet-cleaning method shrank several sample dry-clean-only garments, and Consumer Reports suggests that only clothes labeled as "hand-wash only" be wet-cleaned. Wet-cleaning equipment is gaining in popularity among drycleaners; typically, shops that do have wet-cleaning equipment use it for some types of garments, and use the perc-based method for others. 

Although some shops for years have been positioning themselves as "green" cleaners, we are really just now beginning to see real movement toward the use of these alternative methods. At the time we went to print with this issue, few shops in the area were currently using alternative methods, and since this field was changing so rapidly, we did not try to identify those that did. But you can ask shops you're considering about the availability of these options. The more often shops hear from customers who are interested in alternatives to perc, the more likely they will be to invest in new equipment. You can check with the following websites that list cleaners that use alternative methods to see if there is a cleaner in your area that claims to use a method of interest to you: 

Care Labels 

Care labels, required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for all textile clothing, can be a big help to you in buying and caring for garments. Every garment must contain a permanent label specifying a regular care procedure or saying that there is no safe procedure. The label must warn of any harm that might result if you or a drycleaner does what might reasonably be expected in following the specified care procedure. 

The broadest care label is "wash or dry clean, any normal method." This means the garment can be machine washed in hot water (up to 150°F), machine dried at a high setting, ironed at a hot setting, bleached with all commercially available bleaches, and dry cleaned with all commercially available solvents. Most labels are more restrictive. 

There are many possible care label restrictions. For example, washing temperatures may be limited to warm (87°F to 111°F) settings; "hand" washing may be required; a "professional" dry-cleaning process may be required, meaning that a consumer-operated coin machine isn't acceptable; and there might be a specified drying procedure, such as drying flat or drying in a heated cabinet rather than a tumbler. 

Manufacturers aren't required to specify more than one procedure, and some do specify only one procedure even if others would work. Some manufacturers may specify dry cleaning only because they are concerned that consumers might not competently follow a washing procedure. On the other hand, some manufacturers may specify machine washing—which makes the clothing attractive to consumers concerned about the cost of care—and may not mention dry cleaning just because they don't want to go to the expense of testing the dry-cleaning procedure. 

But many garments really can be cleaned only by one procedure without danger of dye bleeding, shrinkage, or other damage. If you ask a shop to dry-clean an item labeled for washing, the shop may ask you to sign a waiver of its responsibility for damage. 

Kits You Can Use 

Advertisements for Dryel, Dry Cleaner's Secret, and other at-home dry-cleaning kits claim to give you an at-home alternative for cleaning and freshening clothes that are labeled as dry-clean only or hand-wash only, or that have other special-care labeling. These kits come with a treated piece of cloth that is supposed to clean your garments when tumbled in your clothes dryer with them. 

The products are constantly being reformulated, but tests performed years ago by Consumer Reports of these types of products found that they, for the most part, did a fairly good job of removing odors and cleaning lightly soiled clothes. Home dry-cleaning sheets also worked well on some stains, but not all. 

The main attraction of at-home dry-cleaning kits is cost. A six-sheet package of either Dryel or Woolite Dry Cleaner's Secret costs about $8 to $12; as you can see from Table 1, you can save quite a bit by using these kits. 

There is some danger of setting certain stains by using such products, and you can't expect garments to come out with the pressed look you expect from a professional cleaning. On the other hand, these products might be just the answer for freshening up a load of sweaters. 

Cleanable Clothing, Proper Care 

You may be able to help hold down your dry-cleaning bills and keep your clothing looking good by paying attention to a few clothing selection and care tips— 

  • Before purchasing a garment, check the care label. You'll save money if you can wash, rather than dry clean, an item, and don't mind ironing it on your own if it needs it. 
  • Be wary of purchasing items, such as suedes, that are difficult to clean. Worse still are items that drycleaners will consider unserviceable—for example, garments that require the body to be cleaned one way and the trim another way, unless the trim can be easily removed. 
  • Store your clothes carefully. Don't cram them together in your closet. To keep their shape and freshness, clothes need room to "breathe." Sweaters should never be hung like a shirt over a hanger; their weight can stretch them out of shape. Store them folded instead. Let a damp or wet coat dry before hanging it in your closet. 
  • When your clothes come back from the drycleaners, don't store them in their plastic bags. They should be allowed to air out. To protect them from dust, cut the bag just below the shoulders and leave the top part over the clothes, or store them in fabric garment bags. 
  • Hang clothes properly. Hang jackets unbuttoned on wooden or plastic "wishbone" hangers rather than wire ones. Make sure no bulky or heavy items are left in the pockets. These can pull the garment out of shape. 
  • Brush your clothes frequently, but gently, with a soft bristle brush or light-colored sponge. This helps keep dirt from settling into the fabric. 
  • Never press clothes that are dirty or stained. The ironing can set some stains and further embed dirt in the fibers. 
  • When storing clothes for the season, put them in bags with mothballs, but don't allow mothballs to come into direct contact with your clothes. It is best to place the mothballs in a separate paper or cloth bag. 
  • Be careful about perspiration and deodorant. While perspiration can harm your clothes, so can deodorant. When applying deodorant, perfume, or body lotion, be careful to let it dry before dressing. Underarm shields are recommended for silk, which is readily stained by perspiration. 
  • Don't leave your garments in sunlight or other direct light for long periods. Sunlight, and even artificial light, can cause fading. 
  • Although good home care can save trips to the cleaners, be sure to have your clothes cleaned when they are dirty. Stains set with age, and ground-in dirt can cause fibers to wear. Also, fabric-damaging insects are attracted to dirty garments. 


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