Dry Cleaning Facts


Dry cleaning is a process that cleans clothes without water. The cleaning fluid that is used is a liquid, and all garments are immersed and cleaned in a liquid solvent.

The most commonly used chemical in the dry cleaning process is called perchloroethylene (‘PERC’).  I read one stat saying more than 90% of dry cleaners in Australia regularly use ‘PERC’ as their principal cleaning agent. That chemical smell on your drycleaned clothes is perc.

PERC is a volatile organic compound (VOC) meaning it changes easily from a liquid form to vapour. Many VOCs are also hazardous air pollutants and are in our everyday products. PERC is a Class 6.1 Toxic Substance.

The Australian Institute of Dangerous Goods Consultants defines PERC as:

“… substances liable either to cause death or serious injury or to harm human health if swallowed or inhaled or by skin contact”

This is an excerpt from the NSW government’s Managing Drycleaning Waste’:

“In NSW, under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997, PERC needs to be properly managed so it does not harm people or the environment. This particularly applies to the solvent and waste generated by the dry-cleaning industry. PERC is listed as a suspected cancer-causing agent by the World Health Organisation’s website. PERC and its wastes are also toxic to land and water ecosystems. When substances containing PERC are not properly stored, handled and disposed of, they can harm our environment.”

Clinical studies reveal that perchloroethylene has widespread health concerns:

“Short-term exposure to low levels of perchloroethylene can cause dizziness, inebriation, sleepiness, and irritated eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and respiratory tract. Direct contact with perchloroethylene liquid or vapor can irritate and burn the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.

“Short-term exposure to high levels of perchloroethylene can cause buildup of fluid in the lungs, eye and respiratory irritation, severe shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, sleepiness, confusion, difficulty speaking and walking, and lightheadedness.

“Long-term exposure may also damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys; it can also cause respiratory failure, memory loss, confusion, and dry and cracked skin. If you are pregnant, long-term exposure to perchloroethylene may damage a developing fetus.”


There are studies showing links to cancer.

The Asthma Foundation of Victoria is sufficiently concerned to throw its sizeable weight behind a new dry cleaning company that utilises the latest non-toxic, chemical free Wet Cleaning technology.

Willoughby Council in NSW did a study in February 2008 and this is an excerpt from their report:

“Like many chlorinated hydrocarbons, Perc is a central nervous system depressant, and inhaling its vapours (particularly in closed, poorly ventilated areas) can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness, and death.

Perc has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Group 2A carcinogen, which means that it is probably carcinogenic to humans’. The main effects of exposure to Perc in humans are neurological, liver, and kidney effects following acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure. Adverse reproductive effects, such as spontaneous abortions, have been reported from occupational exposure to Perc; however, no definite conclusions can be made because of the limitations of the studies. Results from other epidemiological studies of dry-cleaners occupationally exposed to Perc suggest increased risks for several types of cancer. Animal studies have reported an increased incidence of liver cancer in mice, and kidney and mononuclear cell leukaemia in rats. (USEPA 2007)”

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Green dry cleaning generally refers to all processes of cleaning ‘dry clean only’ garments without the use of perc as the solvent. I have come across 2 processes:

  1. This method uses liquid CO2 or liquid silicone (made from sand) and is considered green due to being a more environmentally safe method of cleaning than petroleum-based perc.
  2. Wet cleaning is widely considered the most green method for professionally cleaning clothes and uses an advanced wet-cleaning process that won’t harm your clothes or environment.


I wash our shirts and have the local drycleaner press them. If you have dry-cleaned clothes in your wardrobe, if possible take them out and air them in the sunshine. Refer to pages 59-61 in my book Organicise.

Further reading

The Californian government has established a grant program to eligible drycleaners in the state that are willing to transition from the use of Perc machines to alternative non-toxic and non-smog forming technologies such as water-based and CO2 cleaning systems.

Feb 2017: “Assembly Bill 998 (AB 998) established the Non-Toxic Dry Cleaning Incentive Program to provide financial assistance to the dry cleaning industry to switch from systems using perchloroethylene (Perc), an identified toxic air contaminant and potential human carcinogen, to non-toxic and non-smog forming alternatives. The legislation also requires the Air Resources Board (ARB) to establish a demonstration program to showcase these technologies statewide. AB 998 requires ARB to impose a three-dollar ($3) per gallon fee on the importers of Perc for dry cleaning operations commencing January 1, 2004. This fee will increase one-dollar ($1) per gallon per year from 2005 through 2013. As required by the legislation, the majority of the funds collected by the fee will be used to provide $10,000 grants to assist dry cleaners in switching to non-toxic and non-smog forming cleaning technologies such as wet cleaning and carbon dioxide (CO2) cleaning. The balance of funds will be used to establish the demonstration program.”

This site is a wonderful resource, 'environmental health concerns and toxic chemicals where you live, work and play'.

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Stay safe,