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Is it safe to dryclean baby clothes? - Answered

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Baby blankets on a chair

If you have baby clothes made of a delicate fabric, you might be wondering if it's safe to dryclean baby clothes. Maybe you have a special heirloom item that you're not sure if you can safely wash.

The answer is not as completely clear-cut as you might think, but based on the information I'll show below, drycleaning baby clothes is unsafe. So don't do it! I'll show you a safe method of cleaning stains on delicate fabrics instead.

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The types of chemicals used in drycleaning

Dry cleaning does not involve some sort of air-blown cleaning, sadly. Instead it washes the garment in solvents that are not water or water-like (reference 1), which is why it's called dry cleaning. So the garments are still washed in liquids, but these liquids contain strong chemicals that are very different to your standard water-and-detergent mix of your home washing machine.

The arguments for and against dry cleaning baby clothes

Dry cleaning chemicals have been shown to be unsafe in large quantities, such as at levels that drycleaning workers are exposed to (reference 1). Equally alarmingly, traces of these dry cleaning solvents have been shown to be present in the dry cleaned garment afterwards (reference 1). You don't want those on your baby's skin. Remember, any chemical exposure of any kind is always going to pose more of a risk to the very young than to adults.

On the flip side of the coin, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) states on their website that it's safe to dryclean baby clothes (reference 2). But hold on a minute! Before you zip off to the drycleaners with your baby clothes, let's take a look at what evidence the ACSH has for this.

They literally say "According to the American Council on Science and Health, dry cleaning generally poses no health risks to children The chemicals used in the process are not hazardous at the levels consumers are exposed to." (reference 2). But this does not mean it's safe for babies! They base their whole argument on the fact that chemicals used are not hazardous at the levels consumers are exposed to - but this means the average adult consumer, not children or babies. They're presumably extrapolating to children and babies from what they've seen in studies geared towards adults. Even worse - they don't actually cite any sources for the studies they're basing their argument on.

By contrast, the article by Vice Media (reference 1) says that drycleaning does carry some health risks and that a major problem is that different dry cleaners use different types of solvents based on what machines they use. This means some dry cleaners are using safer chemicals than others, but it turns out that even the safer chemicals are not all that safe (reference 1).

What is the reason for the 2 opposing viewpoints?

If Vice Media says that drycleaning is unsafe (or at least carries some health risks) and the ACSH says it's safe for baby clothes, why is there this discrepancy?

I looked into the ACSH and it turns out that it's considered by some to be a pro-industry scientific advisory group (see reference 3). Therefore some people may conclude it's possible that the ACSH is not entirely unbiased in its opinions. Also, although the ACSH claims to give evidence-based facts, they do not back up their viewpoint cited in reference 2 with any specific scientific studies as evidence.

This brings us to another likely reason for the opposing viewpoints as to whether drycleaning is safe for baby clothes: a lack of studies specifically looking at babies and young children. Conclusions from studies with adults are not always going to apply equally to those who are more sensitive to chemicals, such as babies and young children. However, it would be highly unethical to purposely expose babies and young children to dry cleaning solvents just to determine whether or not it's safe. So for good reasons, it's unlikely that we'll see studies geared towards the safety of dry cleaning chemicals towards babies and children.

What does this mean for you and your baby?

Based on the information given above, the bottom line is that to be safe, you should not dry clean baby clothes.

You might be wondering what you can do if you have a stubborn stain on a delicate fabric. The good news is that yes, there are things you can do. First of all, remember that even for clothes that say dry clean only, the clothes are still sloshed around in liquid at the dry cleaner, they're just not water-based liquids. So it's not like these types of clothes can never be washed, but it's equally true that you can't just throw it into your machine on a regular cycle.

Here I'll list a variety of options you can use instead of dry cleaning.

How to safely clean baby clothes that can't be washed in a regular washing machine

Here are 3 options for how to wash baby clothes made of delicate fabrics or which for other reasons shouldn't be washed in an ordinary wash cycle. I recommend starting with the first option since it's less likely to cause any damage to the clothing and if that doesn't work, then move onto the second method, and so on.

Understand that with any of the methods below there is always some risk of damage to the garment - but at least it's better to risk harm to the garment than to your child.

If you use one of these methods, you might like to be cautious and test it out on a small inconspicuous area of the garment first, or on a similar item of clothing that is less important to you. This way you can see how it looks before attempting the method on a more visible stained area or on the whole garment.

Option 1: Spot cleaning

If you have a localized stain on an item that is otherwise fairly clean, spot cleaning is all you need. Dab a tiny bit of baby detergent onto the affected area with your fingertip and add a few drops of cold water. Then use a sponge (an ordinary kitchen sponge is fine) to gently rub the detergent into the area. Then rinse out the sponge with water and use it to remove the baby detergent from the area - rinse and repeat a few times.

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Option 2: Hand washing

This method is ideal for when you want to wash the entire item of baby clothing but in as gentle a manner as possible. Fill a sink or bucket with cool or cold water and add a little baby detergent as the water is running.

Is the garment stained? If so, you may pretreat any stains as in the previous method but without removing the baby detergent. Then add your baby clothing in and gently swish it around to help move the water in and out of the garment. Repeat these movements several times then let it soak for 15 - 20 minutes (reference 4). Do not wring the item! Then empty the detergent water and replace with cool or water, and repeat the swishing movements to help rinse out the detergent. Replace with fresh water and repeat several times.

Then remove the baby clothing and gently (without wringing!) squeeze out some water by pressing it against the side of the empty sink or bucket. Then get most of the remaining water off by laying the item flat on your most absorbent towel and roll it up to gently squeeze out more water.

Then lay flat to dry on top of a fresh towel. Flip the garment over every few hours to let the other side dry (reference 5). Once it is completely dry, you're done.

Option 3: The delicate cycle using cold water on the washing machine

As mentioned earlier, pre-treat any stains. Place your baby clothing in a mesh laundry bag to keep it safe. Ensure that your machine is set to use cold water and set it on the delicates cycle. If you don't have a delicates cycle then pick most gentle and brief wash setting available (see reference 4). Then add your detergent and the baby clothing in the mesh laundry bag and run it on the delicates cycle that you picked.

Place flat on a towel and flip the garment over every couple of hours until it's dry.

Cited sources

  1. Hay, M. (2019, June 5). How Dangerous Are Dry Cleaning Chemicals? Vice.
  2. Is Dry Cleaning a Bad Idea for Baby Clothes? (2016, March 7). American Council on Science and Health. See also copy at
  3. How interest groups behind health-care legislation are financed is often unclear. (2010, January 6). Washington Post.
  4. Are There Other Options When A Clothing Label Says “Dry Clean Only”? (2020, December 18). MindBodyGreen.
  5. Garrity, A. (2023, March 27). The Most Effective Way to Hand-Wash Clothes in Your Sink. Good Housekeeping.
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