Confession of a dry-cleaning addict: I don't care if my clothes are clean. I just want them to smell nice. I hear this is a side effect of giving up cigarettes—I just quit after 10 years of smoking, and I now spend a lot of time sniffing smoky garments and a lot of money getting them dry-cleaned, even the ones without a "dry-clean only" label. I complained to friends about the skyrocketing costs (last month I was the third-highest spender at my local cleaner's) and learned a lot had changed in fabric care while I was busy smoking. In fact, a new market had been born: home dry-cleaning products.
But let's back up for a moment: What exactly is dry cleaning? Technically, it's not even dry. It's just a process that wets clothes with something other than water—something that isn't likely to shrink fabric or the threads that hold a garment together and that doesn't destroy fussy hems, delicate materials like cashmere and silk, or the linings that give shape to jackets and dresses. That something is perchloroethylene, a chemical solvent. The Environmental Protection Agency says it's safe to wear, but I wouldn't drink it.
Deemed moderately toxic, perchloroethylene is in the same category as chemicals like nail polish remover, bleach, and gasoline. Sounds harsh, but keep in mind that these are usual suspects in households and would only be harmful if you used them to do something for which they were not intended—like replacing rum in a tropical cocktail. The International Fabricare Institute, an organization for professional dry cleaners in existence since 1833, agrees with the EPA that you shouldn't be overly fearful of perchloroethylene, comparing it to saccharin—another "safe" compound that gives lab rats cancer; I do drink the latter but will pass on the former.
Safety fears aside, it's pretty great stuff for spiffing up your clothes—though maybe not as essential as some fabric care tags would have you believe. Because the Federal Trade Commission requires only one care instruction per label, even if more than one applies, it's hard to figure whether you're supposed to dry-clean something or not. According to Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, "a label that says 'dry-clean' tells you neither that you can nor that you cannot also wash the article without harming it."
But my goal wasn't to see what I could hand-wash. My goal was to learn whether the home cleaning products could match a professional dry cleaner's ability to get smells out of clothing. I tried three methods: Febreze, a spray that promises to eliminate pesky odors from fabrics; Dryel, a home dry-cleaning kit (both products are made by Procter & Gamble); and my professional dry cleaner, Eddy's.
Assembling the Troops
I rounded up three long-sleeved, button-down shirts, typically the kind I send to the cleaners even though they could be washed and ironed at home. Soiling them with cigarette smoke was out of the question for my newly purified sense of smell, but I had something equally foul at my disposal: my husband's sweat. Since the objective was to get the shirts as stanky as possible, after he wore them I put them in a plastic bag with a pound of jumbo-shrimp shells wrapped in wax paper. I left the bag on my balcony overnight in 82-degree heat to marinate. The next day, the shirts would have put a longshoreman to shame.
Method: Professional Dry Cleaner
Shirt: Worn for 16 hours, including on subway platforms in 93-degree heat, to a smoky pub where greasy burgers and four pints of beer were consumed, and, finally, to Madison Square Garden for a Radiohead concert. (And, of course, they got the shrimp-shell treatment.)
Cost: $4.50 per shirt (this is dry cleaning, remember, which is more expensive than wash-and-press jobs).
How it works: The shirt is dropped into a rotating cylinder within a small tank. A chemical solvent is pumped into both tank and cylinder, then is circulated. The solvent does its business on the shirt, lifting stanks and stains. Said solvent is drained and any excess wrung from the shirt. The cylinder stops. Warm air is then circulated through the cylinder to vaporize any solvent left on shirt. Neat-o.
The experiment: I dropped the shirt off. I picked the shirt up. (I'm lying; my husband dropped the shirt off, and I got it delivered home.)
Time: 24 hours.
Result: A solid Grade A. It just smelled clean. Not floral, not summer rain, not sporty. I loved it.
Background: Launched in 1998, Febreze was a pioneer in the burgeoning fabric care field. But I was confused about the difference between it and, say, Chanel No. 5 because both products are administered exactly the same way. According to product literature, Febreze is more than perfume: Its "molecules penetrate into the fabric, cleaning away odor-causing molecules as it dries." Ingredients are "water, alcohol, odor eliminator derived from corn, fragrance." That "odor eliminator derived from corn" part is the ticket; the chemicals involved in dry cleaning are all ethylene or vegetable-based.
Shirt: Worn for about 15 hours, enduring dinner at a Mexican restaurant where countless garlicky dishes were consumed; shrimp à la balcony for dessert.
Cost: $4.99 for a standard size (500 milliliters), regular strength bottle. Estimated cost per shirt: approximately 50 cents.
How it works: Point and shoot a spray bottle filled with a chemical solution onto fabric. Directions say to spray evenly until fabric becomes slightly damp.
The experiment: It took exactly 100 squirts to wet the entire shirt. Damp is an understatement; the shirt was too soaked to wear.
Time: The shirt took 73 minutes to dry.
Result: My pal Omar, an Ecuadorian architect and certifiable neat freak, raved madly about Febreze's good smell. He's right. The scent is generic but pleasant; rather like a bar of Ivory soap. In terms of effectiveness, the shirt smelled about 90 percent better. Keep in mind that I sprayed it 100 times. When I really dug my nose into the armpits, though, they still smelled a tad ripe. That said, I was impressed with Febreze's effectiveness. I would have worn the shirt again; my husband, though, could not separate the image of his shirt surrounded by hideously fishy and warm shrimp shells and opted not to.
Advantage: Repeated use costs nothing after the initial investment. If the armpits of my shirt were not up to my satisfaction, I could have sprayed on more until they improved.
Verdict: B-plus. I'll use it again. If you are so lazy like me that you send your clothes to the dry cleaner just to make them smell good, this is the stuff of dreams. It's easy to use, cost-effective, and smells really good.
Background: Dryel is a much more complicated than Febreze. It comes in a nifty waxed paper bucket topped with an iMac-turquoise plastic top, and inside is a whole bunch of stuff, including a specially wrapped booklet that explains it all—many marketing dollars were spent on packaging alone.
Shirt: Worn in a sports bar wherein tens of gallons of beer were consumed by my husband and his swilling band of colleagues. Plus a night camping out with the shrimp shells.
Cost: $10.99 for the kit, which includes a plastic bag that holds the shirt while it's in the dryer, plus four sheets of "dryer-activated cloth." With this equipment, the maximum number of items that can be cleaned is 16. Estimated cost per shirt: approximately 69 cents.
How it works: You've used spot remover, right? You pour some liquid cleaning fluid onto a cloth, and you rub the spot with it. That's how Dryel works—only the cloth comes preloaded with cleaning fluid, and it's dry instead of wet, and it's activated by the heat of your dryer. And instead of standing there rubbing a shrimp-shell-reeking Brooks Brothers shirt like an idiot, the dryer tumbles the cloth around the shirt until it's clean, at least in theory.
The experiment: I used the solution on the "strong underarm odors," then I threw the shirt in the bag and tossed it into the dryer.
Time: 20 minutes to get proper change for dryer; 10 minutes to dab and rub stain remover; four minutes to set up bag and nestle cloth inside; 30 minutes in dryer on high setting.
Result: The shirt smelled better, but in a surprisingly less consistent way than the Febreze job. The odor was strongly perfumish in a lily-of-the-valley sort of way. Sadly, the armpits were not what they should have been. "Cat piss," my husband declared upon sniffing. And this was after they'd been treated with stain remover.
Advantage: Spinning the garment in the dryer is a nice touch—it fluffs the clothing, which simulates the actual effect of dry cleaning.
Verdict: C. For merely lifting bad smells, Dryel was a disappointment. But I would use it again for other projects. For instance, my down comforter—it would take a lot of Febreze to spray the whole thing down, and dry cleaning would cost $40.
Despite my tendency toward excess, I'm not going to be severing my relationship with Eddy's anytime soon. Unlike Febreze, which I found to be a delightful breath of fresh air, so to speak, dry cleaning actually deep cleans clothes while making them smell better. Bonus! Unlike Dryel, it doesn't make my stuff overtly perfumey or require additional skills such as a sniper's marksmanship with stain remover, the foresight not to lose little baggies containing cloths that have been drenched in special chemicals, or even the investment of a significant amount of time. And time is money. But old-fashioned dry cleaning wins because to me smell trumps both.