How Safe is that Wool Suit?

How safe is that wool suit?

Shopping at Rerun, my favorite consignment shop, I ran into an adorable wool suit dress that I just had to have. I checked out the tag and was terribly disappointed to run into those dreaded three words:


Leaving aside the costs, it seemed I had heard that dry cleaning is toxic for people and rivers. It made me ask: “How bad is dry cleaning anyway? Is there anything I can do about it?” There is really no better person to go to for answers on toxics questions than Metro’s Lisa Heigh.

Lisa tells me that the bad acting chemical in dry cleaning is perchloroethylene (or “perc”). When clothes are cleaned with perc, they off-gas this substance and it will enter the body through the air and skin. Even fairly low levels of perc have been linked to cancer and neurological damage.

What if I can’t give up suits for work?

Lisa led me to a study described in the Washington Post that explores whether perc stays in fabrics long enough to really create a risk. Researchers found that it did stay in fabrics for a while and that levels increased with repeat cleanings, particularly in wool.

In the study, researchers found that cotton and polyester absorption of the chemical leveled off after two or three cleaning cycles but that levels in wool increased with each of six cycles. Silk, by comparison, did not retain appreciable levels.

Lisa concludes, “I think it is important to air out your dry cleaned clothes before you wear them. How long? The longer the better. However, as the study above reveals…the more you get something dry cleaned, the more the chemical is loaded into the cloth… and also the material choices are important.”

So, are there greener dry clean options?

Visit Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute’s Fact sheet to explore the pluses and minuses of some potential alternatives. 

I for one, have renewed my commitment to leave clothes on the rack when I see the “dry clean only” tag, because I can do that. I have read the alternatives factsheet above and am not too convinced they are that great. But it is good to know that special occasion dry clean items should be allowed to breath after washing and washed infrequently.