You Might Be Wasting $$$ On Dry Cleaning

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Congratulations! You just scored a designer dress at a decent price. Now, let's just add an extra $100 onto that credit card bill — because that's how much your new fave dress will cost you in dry cleaning for a year.

In fact, an industry report from First Research found that an average businessperson spent somewhere between $500 to $1,500 on dry cleaning in 2012 — and thanks to the pink tax, prices are even higher for women. So what would you do if we told you that 90% of your closet can probably be washed at home?

Turns out, the world of garment care tags is a little more complicated than "dry clean" and "machine wash." The FTC dictates that for apparel, manufacturers must "provide complete instructions about regular care for the garment, or provide warnings if the garment cannot be cleaned without harm." Furthermore, the care tag should warn against processes that might harm your precious clothes — i.e., if ironing them will ruin it, it should say, "Do not iron."
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Even "dry clean only" is supposed to be backed up with proof that any other method of washing will destroy the piece. But according to Gwen Whiting of The Laundress, oftentimes, clothes can be mislabeled. Even more confusing? The FTC considers "experience and industry expertise" to be "reliable evidence," alongside other methods such as fabric testing.
This is where things get a little shady. Brands might have industry expertise, but "brands will default to 'dry clean only' because it's safer for them," Whiting says. "Whether it's the brand that's making the decision or the factory that makes the garment for the brand, they're going to be defaulting to the label that's in the best interest of the brand."

So how can we decode how to actually wash your clothes without spending a ton of money on dry cleaning? Ahead, six major questions, answered.
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1. What exactly is dry cleaning?

As many stories have revealed, dry cleaning is a chemical process — but it's not technically dry. "You're basically putting your clothes in lighter fluid," Whiting says. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it's not far from the truth.

Dry cleaning was first invented using turpentine, an extremely flammable liquid. Nowadays, most dry cleaners use perchloroethylene (perc), which has similar stain-lifting properties. When you drop off your clothes, they get sorted into different piles based on color, get pretreated with chemicals, and then dumped into a vat of this man-made chemical.

"All your clothes are just going into a vat of solvent and you have no regulation of how often that vat of chemicals is swapped out," Whiting says. Knowing all this, it seems like your precious delicate silk dresses might not be treated as delicately as you'd like.

Dry cleaning does work better than water in certain instances, because water is notoriously bad at dealing with oil-based stains. Perc, which is water-free, is good at it. But per the Environmental Protection Agency, perc is considered a toxic air pollutant and could cause a myriad of health problems if you're overexposed to it. Many states are looking to phase out the use of perc in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Still, this level of chemical treatment should be your last resort, Whiting says. "It’s just a very aggressive process that isn’t necessary most of the time."
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2. So what fabrics can you actually wash?

Despite what your care tag might say, you can put silk in water. You just have to be a little careful about it.

In fact, silk, wool, cashmere, and cotton can all be washed. According to Whiting, all natural fibers can be washed — just not left soaking for 15 minutes in strong detergent. "You can't just take your wool sweater or silk dress and hand wash it in your everyday detergent," Whiting says. "For wool, you should use a non-detergent product that won't strip out the oils." A shampoo-based or non-enzyme soap will suffice, she says.

Silks, on the other hand, have fibers that become more delicate when wet, so you can still wash them in water, but opt for detergents created specifically for silks and delicates.
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3. What should you NOT wash in water?

Truthfully, "the majority of synthetic materials are abominable," Whiting says. "You can’t even destroy them in a landfill."

Still, there are exceptions. "Some fabrics are really susceptible when they absorb water and they don't have resilience," Whiting says. "That's where you can't physically get certain fabrics wet, because they'll shrink or expand and not return to its original shape."

Most rayons can be washed. Most of the time, viscose cannot be washed — and fabrics are often mislabeled. Viscose is particularly tricky: After touching water, it can shrink or distort. Polyamide blends, in the meantime, can do the opposite and expand. When you see these fabrics and the tag reads, "Dry clean only," follow those directions.

As for leather, suede, and fur with skin? Opt for specialty cleaners. But if you have a piece featuring fur without skin or washable leather (typically a leather accent or trim), you can go ahead and wash that by hand.
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4. But it's not just about fabric, is it?

Construction is equally important in determining the washability of your fave clothes.

According to Whiting, structure-based additions, like padding, internal structure, and interfacing, can be lost after washing. "Yes, you can wash silk, but you can't wash a tie made of silk," Whiting says. "It will get distorted." Look out for shoulder pads and other accents that might cause problems.

The same goes for heat-treated pleats that aren't created with stitching. Without using the right technique, these extra accents could be lost.
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5. How can you tell if you can wash it yourself?

If you're feeling iffy about a particularly questionable item, Whiting recommends spot treating the product — especially if you think the item is rayon but misprinted as viscose.

First, identify if you're testing for color bleeding (in a nice printed shirt) or if you're worried about the fabric itself.

For color bleeding, dip a small hidden area of the fabric, like a seam or a hem, into warm water. If the color bleeds into the water, proceed with caution — it's likely the color will bleed out. For single-colored items, this might be fine, but if you have stripes, patterns, and more, you may want to err on the side of dry cleaning.

If you're testing for durability of fabrics, follow the same procedure. This time, note if the fabric changes in shape and texture — is it rough? Is it warping? Allow your garment to dry before making a decision, since some fabrics won't change immediately.
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6. Are there companies you can trust?

Companies might default to dry cleaning to be safe, but many shoppers do buy products while thinking about the cost of aftercare. So when it comes to trusting garment tags, Whiting says that mass-market manufacturers will likely do a good job.

"More mass manufacturers [like H&M] do have better testing standards of garment labeling," Whiting says. "Very few things will probably be 'dry clean only,' because the price point of the garments doesn't yield well to that expense. So those companies go out of their way to make garments that are washable."

When we reached out to H&M for comment, it directed us to read about the company's environmentally friendly Clever Care system, which was initiated at the end of 2014 to create a more sustainable system of cleaning clothes. One of the main tenants? "Dry clean only when necessary."
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