My days always go better when I take a morning walk. Even when I feel I don’t have time, if I can fit in a quick loop, my mind is clearer, my mood more balanced, my spirit better positioned to see the world and my place in it.
And there’s nothing like the smells that drift over the countryside—orange blossoms, jasmine…and fabric softener? I can always tell which house has gotten an early start on the laundry by the scents wafting to me as I pass. And out in the country where I am, with houses a minimum of two acres apart, that waft is coming quite aways.
Fabric softener, and its cousin dryer sheets, have been around for so long and are such a part of many laundry routines that my trying to convince you to stop using them might sound flat out weird. Like my telling you to stop using turn signals or QWERTY keyboards. But that is exactly what I’m about to suggest (signals and keyboards aside).
Fabric softener and dryer sheets are all one topic because dryer sheets are merely squares coated in dry fabric softener. Their purpose and function are nearly identical. They only differ in their method of delivery.
How fabric softener works
Fabric softener is lubricant for fabrics. I realize that doesn’t sound very attractive. What happened to the snuggly bears and bursting flowers?
Fabric softener works by depositing a thin film, usually made from a silicone such as dimethicone or cationic quaternary ammonium compounds, aka “quats.” This coating increases lubricity so that your hand slides smoothly over the fabrics and the fabrics slide smoothly against each other. It’s the same technology that is used in many hair conditioners—sometimes even the same ingredient.
This lubricant on fabrics also reduces static electricity. Its positive charge absorbs the excess electrons of negatively charged fabrics. Those excess electrons are what’s responsible for the unpleasant shock we get when excess electrons leap to the nearest conductive material—a doorknob, a light switch, a friend.
The coating can also reduce wrinkles. Silicone softeners do this by encasing fabric fibers in an elastic network. This network aids the fabric in recovering from a crease or other deformation. The coating also helps the fabric respond more to the heat of ironing.
The final feature of fabric softener is often the one people prize the most: their fragrance. Fragrance is a huge selling point for all laundry products. Laundry manufacturers used to rely only on promises of getting laundry clean, but then they learned that consumers were much more swayed by how the laundry smelled. Since the fabric softeners always come after the cleansing cycle, they are able to deposit a plentiful load of scent on the fabrics.
What’s the problem with all that?
So, with all this talk of softening clothes, reducing static, smoothing wrinkles, and smelling flowery (sort of), I’m not doing a great job convincing you of the ills of fabric softeners. Here’s the downside.
These lubricant residues build up on fabric in wash after wash, creating a layer of dinginess over time. New clothes stop looking so new. This gives rise to the need for laundry stripping to purge the fabrics of this build up and restore their brightness. Look up “laundry stripping” to see what I’m talking about. It’s not pretty. This build-up and stripping process degrades the fabrics and decreases the lifespan of the item. (For a quick side-plug, if you launder with Dr. Bronner’s products and with boosts per my green laundry guide, you will not need to strip your laundry!)
Certain fabrics should never be laundered with fabric softeners because it interferes with the function of the fabric. Moisture-wicking fabrics used for athleticwear advise not to because the residue coats the pores in the fabric, inhibiting their ability to absorb moisture. Similarly, cloth diaper washing instructions discourage fabric softener because such a layer of lubricant makes the diapers less absorbent. The same holds true for towels. While the idea of softness sounds pleasant, in these three scenarios, it nullifies the fabrics’ basic function.
You’ll also find cautions against the use of softeners on waterproofed or flame retardant fabrics, though those properties carry their own host of problems.
And about that fragrance
And then we get to the problem of fragrance. Fragrances in laundry products are strong and enduring. Many problematic chemicals lie within the realm of fragrance, and its 3,100 potential ingredients.
I completely understand the associations of the smell of laundry and clean. It is a major part of how laundry products are sold. Advertisements focus on the blissful inhalation of finished laundry which transports the sniffer to the land of beauty, calm, and accomplishment. People might say they want fabrics to be clean, but in reality they might just want them to smell clean, or what they’ve been trained to think clean smells like.
With laundry fragrance, the stakes are so much higher because the scents are intended to last an extra-long time. One major brand of fabric softener touts “just-washed freshness for 100 days” and another promises “weeks of lasting freshness.” If these scents are designed to cling to fabrics for several cycles of the moon, imagine how long they will cling to the inside of your lungs? These fragrances are meant to stick around on whatever surface they find themselves, be it your clothes or your skin or your lungs.
But what is so bad about these long-lasting smells? There are insinuations that fragrance in fabric softeners and other laundry detergents cause maladies as severe as cancer, but these are hard to prove. Cancer is a “slow hazard” which requires years to manifest and whose cause is hard to isolate. However, a 2011 study identified acetaldehyde and benzene in dryer vent emissions when scented products were in use. These are both known human carcinogens. Five additional substances found in the emissions are on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPAs) list of hazardous air pollutants.
Now that fragrance ingredient disclosure is required in California, per the 2017 Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, we can see all that the simple word “fragrance” in an ingredient list contains. In one popular name brand, I counted 43 ingredients categorized under the word “fragrance.” That is a lot to track, and within these extensive lists, there are a host of problems.
One example of a fragrance ingredient that can be problematic is limonene. Limonene is a common naturally occurring compound, found in many essential oils. Within whole essential oils, it is not a problem. However, limonene can also be added to products as a separate ingredient in a concentrated form. I found it as such in all but one major brand of fabric softener, including one brand that touts itself as “green”. When it is added seperately, it can become a source of problems. The acetaldehyde I mentioned above that had been found in laundry fumes is likely not on ingredient lists. However, when this concentrated limonene becomes airborne, such as during laundering, it reacts readily with ozone and forms acetaldehyde as well as formaldehyde (another known human carcinogen). This is why acetaldehyde can show up in emissions when none is present in ingredient lists.
But the elusive cancer connection aside, there’s a larger body of evidence linking laundry fragrance to more immediate maladies such as respiratory ailments and migraines. One 2016 study found that more than 12.5% of respondents reported irritation from scented laundry products that were vented outside. Another study found that laundry detergent and rinses disrupted the integrity of bronchial cell barriers, even at highly diluted concentrations. Yet another study of fabric softeners found emissions of several known irritants that caused sensory irritation (affecting the eyes and upper respiratory) in 61% of breaths, as well as pulmonary (lung) irritation and limitation of airflow.
Concerns with fragrance residues on laundry are further intensified because, unlike other surfaces in our house that we casually touch, we are in constant full-body contact with the fabrics we launder. We wear them, we dry with them, we sleep on them. Fabric softeners intentionally leave residues. This makes exposure from direct skin contact very high. Studies show that 5%–11% of the general population exhibit signs of allergic contact dermatitis from fragrance when tested in a controlled patch testing. That’s approximately 1 in 10 of us.
Environmental problems from fabric softener
So far, I’ve discussed the impact of fabric softener on you and your stuff. But what about the impact on the rest of the world? One study out of Japan identified fabric softeners and laundry detergents as the most toxic of household detergents that could end up in waterways.
The silicones and quats of fabric softeners do not biodegrade in water, which makes them problematic for wastewater treatment as well as septic systems. They can form a waxy layer on the surface of wastewater and septic tanks. Further, the quaternary compounds in fabric softeners have disinfectant properties, and at volume can disrupt the needed bacterial action septic systems use to operate. Septic service companies regularly advise against using fabric softeners in houses with septic systems. Recommendations from Purdue University advise against fabric softeners as they can lead to early septic system failure.
Can you circumvent this concern of fabric softeners by using dryer sheets instead? After all, with dryer sheets, nothing goes down the drain. However, the residue and fragrance impacts are the same. And as far as environmental impact, you are exchanging one problem for another. Dryer sheets also have an after-life issue. They are a single use item, conventionally made out of nonwoven polyester which does not break down. There have been advances in green technology, creating sheets made from compostable materials, but anything that is short-term o single-use is an incredible waste of resources and something we need to move away from.
What can you do with all this? It’s hard to give up years of habit! Here are some ideas.
7 Alternatives to Fabric Softeners and Dryer Sheets
For softening & static reduction
- Use vinegar in place of liquid fabric softener or spray a clean washcloth lightly with vinegar and toss in dryer.
- Use 4-6 wool dryer balls for softening, static reduction, and reducing drying time.
- Air dry clothes to reduce static caused by friction of fabrics rubbing together.
- Remove clothes from dryer immediately at the end of the cycle and fold or hang.
- Wet your dryer balls or dampen a washcloth or hand towel and throw them in with the wrinkled clothes. Check after 20 minutes.
- Air dry clothes.
- Use well-sealed herbal sachets in the dryer. Lavender, mint, and lemon balm are great options.
- Store clothes with herbal sachets.
- Store clothes with a cotton pad sprinkled with a few drops of essential oil. Be sure the essential oil does not touch clothes to smudge them.
- Accustom yourself to less scent in your fabrics.
Getting rid of the scent
Perhaps you’ve been in this reverse situation: A friend has blessed you with a large bag of hand-me-downs for your ever-growing munchkin. The only problem? Whoever had them before you used fabric softener like it was going out of style. Three washes later, and you can still smell it on the clothes. Here are some tips for removing the scent of fabric softener:
- Add 1 c. (240 mL) vinegar and ½ c. (120 mL) baking soda to the wash cycle. (Halve these amounts for HE washing machines.)
- Soak the clothes in the washer with water and 2 c. (480 mL) of vinegar for 20 minutes before laundering.
- Dry the clothes on the line in the sun.
For more ideas on the best ways to dry clothes, check out my article “Sunshine and Sachets: Best Ways to Dry Clothes.”
 Montazer, M. and Harifi, T., 2018. Nanofinishing of Textile Materials. Woodhead Publishing, pp.83-94.
 Kessler R. Dryer vents: an overlooked source of pollution? Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(11):A474-A475. doi:10.1289/ehp.119-a474a.
 Ming Wang, Ge Tan, Andrzej Eljaszewicz, Yifan Meng, Paulina Wawrzyniak, Swati Acharya, Can Altunbulakli, Patrick Westermann, Anita Dreher, Liying Yan, Chengshuo Wang, Mubeccel Akdis, Luo Zhang, Kari C. Nadeau, Cezmi A. Akdis, “Laundry detergents and detergent residue after rinsing directly disrupt tight junction barrier integrity in human bronchial epithelial cells,” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 143, Issue 5, 2019, Pages 1892-1903.
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 Mikio, Kikuchi & KITORA, Yumi & NAKAMURA, Naoko & MEZAKI, Yuka & TABEI, Kaori. (2004). Hazard Evaluation of Household Detergents, Fabric Softeners, Shampoos and Conditioners by Acute Immobilization Test Using Daphnia magna. Journal of Japan Society on Water Environment. 27. 741-746. 10.2965/jswe.27.741.