When it comes to which common commercial cleaning product produces the most household toxins (and the nastiest), it’s hard to work out whether the prize (or anti-prize) goes to the artificial musks and other scented stuff used in air fresheners or whether it should go to dry cleaning fluid. And when you think that soft toys and the like are held close to children’s faces overnight (not to mention all those other fabric worn or kept near the face), this is positively scary. What is that horrible chemical compound (perchloroethylene, also known as perc) doing to you?
Some British dry cleaning providers have cottoned onto this and are starting to offer “greener” alternatives for cleaning laundry. This method uses a silicone based product that is gentler on the environment and on you, although it’s not 100% ideal.
So what do you do with those delicates to clean them without ruining them? How do you clean soft toys?
The short answer is: handwashing. Let’s face it: people have worn and washed silk for centuries before some scientist came up with perc in the laboratory. And if the stuff disintegrated at the first touch of water, we wouldn’t have worn it, any more than we wear fabric made from spider’s webs (however, given that spider webs are tougher than high-tensile steel weight for weight, maybe some enterprising scientist ought to find some way to them into a natural alternative to Kevlar).
It gets even better with woollen garments. These can be washed in warm or cool water in a machine on the delicate cycle (slow spin, short wash) and dried flat by the sun and air rather than in a dryer.
But handwashing is by far the best method. And for cleaning soft toys, the method is so easy on skin and easy full stop that small children can do it.
How do you set about cleaning clothes by handwashing? Simple. First, take a bowl or bucket of warm water – it should be the temperature of a comfortable bath. However, if anything you are washing has bloodstains or other stains from protein (egg, semen, etc), then wash the item in cold water. Next, get a bar of soap. Any ordinary soap that you use for washing hands will do. Swirl the soap around in the water until the water goes slightly cloudy. Alternatively, make some soap gel and put about a cup full into the water.
Now you can put the items to be washed in. If any of the items is not colourfast – jewel coloured sari fabrics often are not – then wash these separately. In the case of sari fabrics with bands of contrasting colour, you may need to spread out the garment flat and spot treat it so the different coloured dyes don’t bleed into each other much. Or else just spot-clean the fabric. But colourfast things can all go into the bucket together. Swirl the items around a few times, and dunk them up and down. Don’t be too vigorous – treat the delicates with care.
Give each item a bit of separate attention. Lift each one up, check it for any visible dirt and work it up to a good lather in your hands. Scrunch the foamy item around a few times in your hands – don’t wring or rub it too much.
Now comes the rinsing. Tip the soapy water out, then gently squeeze each item to get the worst of the water out. Refill the bowl or bucket with fresh water – either cool or warm. Swirl everything around and watch the water go cloudy with soap. Then repeat this process for a second rinse.
Those wanting to live more sustainably will do to bear in mind that the soapy water from the washing stage of the cycle can be thrown over the roses to deter aphids. The water from the rinsing can be used to water the garden.
Lastly, squeeze each item out and put them to dry. In the case of underwear, they can hang on the line. Woollens should be dried flat. And soft toys, as they take ages to dry, can be put through the spin cycle of the machine without any harm to get the worst of the water out.