The dirty secrets of dry cleaning
Q. Dear Umbra,
My dry cleaner offers my dress shirts on hangers (in a plastic bag) or folded, wrapped around a piece of cardboard, with a paper band around it, in a reusable paper bag. Which is better? To be honest, closet space is at a premium with my better half sharing the house, so if you would please come down on the side of shelvable folded shirts I’d appreciate it.
A. Dearest Paul,
Sometimes, in the course of my work, I am asked to go above and beyond my role as an environmental advice-giver and serve as a relationship referee to boot. I’m happy to do so — living sustainably with other human beings is often a matter of negotiation, compromise, and occasionally calling in a neutral third-party judge on the subject of closet space. But like the oracles of old, I cannot be swayed simply by your desire for folded shirts. It is my task to weigh the evidence and give my counsel independently and truthfully. In short, I calls ’em as I sees ’em.
What I’m seeing right now is a different, more important question. Ask not which method of packaging at the dry cleaner is best. Instead, let’s ask: Do I really need to dry clean my shirts in the first place?
My guess is you probably don’t, Paul — problem solved! And you can still have your shelvable shirts. Allow me to explain.
Dry cleaning — a process that uses liquid chemical solvents to remove stains and dirt — should be avoided for a number of reasons. One, it’s expensive and time-consuming (drop-offs, pick-ups, deliveries, oh my). Two, it doesn’t clean dress shirts as well as laundering. And three/four/five, it typically uses a very noxious solvent called perchloroethylene, or PERC, a carcinogen that endangers dry-cleaning employees, offgasses into your home, and pollutes the air and water around us. The less of this stuff in circulation, the better.
True, there are “greener” dry cleaners out there using other solvents, but some of these alterna-chemicals have problems of their own. A silicone-based solvent called D5 (brand name GreenEarth) is also suspected to be quite toxic, and its production releases the dreaded dioxins; another hydrocarbon treatment may be related to everything from skin irritation to central nervous system damage. A third method using liquid carbon dioxide is a safer choice, and commercial “wet cleaning” is considered the best of all — if you must have your shirts professionally freshened up, that is.
But as I said, Paul, I don’t think you do have to. I can’t claim to be a true expert in men’s fashion, so I turned to two sources that are: Esquire and GQ. Both of these menswear bibles agreed that dress shirts made of cotton are just fine cleaned in your home laundry. Also OK: linen, cashmere, polyester, acrylic, and nylon. To do it right, use the delicate cycle with gentle detergent and cold water, then skip the dryer and hang them to dry. Easy, right? And you don’t even need to wash them after every wear, especially if you favor undershirts. (Note: If you’re a brights kind of guy and you’re worried about colors bleeding in the wash, check for colorfastness first on a hidden swatch.)
Now here’s the one place where I suspect you might miss the dry cleaner’s: You’ll still need to press and fold those shirts to get them in tip-top shape for the shelf. Ironing isn’t exactly fun, I know, but it is a skill we all should master. My advice: Turn on some music every Sunday night and get in a pressing groove for the week ahead. You’ll probably come out ahead timewise, now that you’ve eliminated all those runs to the cleaner’s. And think of all the cardboard, paper bands, and bags you won’t be using.
If you just can’t quit the occasional professional cleaning, Paul — maybe you have something woolen or sequined that really needs attention — please do opt for wet cleaning whenever possible (find an option near you here). While you’re at it, why not ask them to just fold your shirts, no packaging required? Hanging aficionados can go with a reusable garment bag and BYO hangers. Either way, you’ll look sharp while reducing waste — and, I hope, restore harmony to your closet along the way.