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April 12, 2011

Do-it-yourself Non-Toxic Dry Cleaning (and cheap too)

The chemicals used in traditional dry-cleaning are absolutely disgusting. Here's an inexpensive, extremely effective DIY solution.

If you’ve ever known a theatrical wardrobe mistress, you’ve met someone who’s smart and under-appreciated.  

Without the calm grace of the wardrobe mistress, most theatrical productions would unravel faster than a chorus girl’s virtue on opening night.  

Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating.  But have you ever wondered how you’d keep sweaty actors’ costumes fresh night after night for weeks on end when you can only send out the smelly clothing for dry cleaning once a week?

The question occurred to me when I was in the cast of  a long-running production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Every night for months we sang, we danced, we perspired, we bowed and then left our costumes draped in soggy folds, hastily flung on hangers as we fled the pong of the dressing room.  

And yet every afternoon when we returned to the theatre, there hung our chiffon finery, fresh and odorless on the rack. 

Cynthia Dale and Mag Ruffman in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, circa 1981

Greener Cleaner

Being a flippant 23-year-old I never bothered to ask the wardrobe mistress her secret and I’ve regretted it ever since, especially since I travel a lot and there’s never time to get things dry-cleaned on the road.  So I was pretty happy when I ran across the arcane solution this week in my copy of Natural Home magazine.  

I’m pretty excited about this secret formula because it’s non-toxic to the point of being drinkable, in stark contrast to traditional dry cleaning’s ghastly chemicals.  

Perchloroethylene, for example, is used by an estimated 80-90 percent of all dry cleaners.  It’s a neurotoxin, causes cancer in lab rats, is a major groundwater contaminant in more than 25 percent of water supplies (U.S.), and is also acutely toxic to wildlife, especially fish.  

A U.S. study found that food stored with dry-cleaned clothing for one hour in a car absorbs elevated levels of perchloroethylene.  EPA studies found that after visiting a dry cleaner, people have perc in their breath.  I can think of things I’d rather breathe.  

The dry cleaning industry is gradually reforming (California is phasing out perc use by 2023) to a wet-cleaning process that is way less damaging to anything with a face.

In the meantime, if you’re not a fan of having your clothes off-gas volatile organic compounds, you’ll probably want to know the wardrobe mistress’s secret.

And this secret is great for travel too, when limited packing space often necessitates washing stuff in the sink at night and then putting it on damp the next morning.

Pitz Spritz

Okay, ready to hear the secret?  Here it is:

Vodka. Good old fermented potatoes!  

How does it work?  The alcohol in vodka kills the bacteria that cause odor.  

So all you do is spritz sweaters, shirts, sports jackets and even shoes with a quick blast of vodka and let ‘em dry.  The vodka evaporates quickly, so the garment can be warn again in short order.

This spray-on odor remedy is freakishly effective.  It won’t damage delicate fabrics or make colours run.  It won’t leave an evaporation ring.  It makes clothing smell like it hasn’t been worn.  Ever.  

So now you know.  Take everything whiffy out of your laundry basket and give it a mist of cheap vodka. You’ll save money, protect the environment, and in a social emergency you can drink it.

Oh, and next time you attend the theatre, stand at the stage door after the show and ask to see the wardrobe mistress.  If she deigns to emerge from her backstage haunt to grant you audience, you will meet an illuminated soul.  She may even be holding her spray bottle of vodka.  Thank her for all of us.




I used this the other day Mag, recalling your previous advice, on a silk tapestry and it worked marvelously ... Thanks!

bathroom lighting

Wow good advice, definetly trying this


I have to ask I often have problems with getting smells out of the under arms of clothing, although I have washed them through really well, there is no getting away from the fact that the smell is still present, do you have any ideas on how to remove them completely.


I have a comment for Joanne above, apparently white vinegar works for smells in clothing.


Alcohol (as in vodka) removes odors from clothing - it's amazingly effective. Vinegar does too, but don't use vinegar on silk - it tends to eat the fibers and you can end up with weak spots in the fabric, if not holes!

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Mag's Books

  • : We're All In This Together

    We're All In This Together
    Based on four years of interviews with Steve Smith, Mag's unconventional biography reveals the personal stories, sorrows and joys that continue to inspire the man behind the Red Green legacy.

  • : How Hard Can It Be?

    How Hard Can It Be?
    Mag's quirky and entertaining book of home improvement projects for beginners.

Nota Bene

  • It’s never too late to be who you might have been. - George Eliot (1819-1880)
  • Simplicity of character is the natural result of profound thought. - My fortune cookie