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Why (& How) to Ditch Fabric Softener & Dryer Sheets

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.

For de-wrinkling

  • 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.

For Scenting

  • 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.”


[1] Montazer, M. and Harifi, T., 2018. Nanofinishing of Textile Materials. Woodhead Publishing, pp.83-94.

[2] Kessler R. Dryer vents: an overlooked source of pollution? Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(11):A474-A475. doi:10.1289/ehp.119-a474a.

[3] 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.

[4] Rosalind C. Anderson, Julius H. Anderson (2000) RESPIRATORY TOXICITY OF FABRIC SOFTENER EMISSIONS, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, 60:2, 121-136, DOI: 10.1080/009841000156538.

[5] Reeder MJ. Allergic Contact Dermatitis to Fragrances. Dermatol Clin. 2020 Jul;38(3):371-377. doi: 10.1016/j.det.2020.02.009. Epub 2020 May 4. PMID: 32475515.

[6] 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.

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Amanda says:

You have convinced me – thanks!
Just the Dr Bronner Baby liquid soap from now on.

Donald says:

Lisa I have a qestions on using Vineger for softening laundry. How much and do you mix it with the laundry soap or put it in the softener compartment. I have a front loader machine.
Thank you
Don

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Don- It’s great to hear you’re giving vinegar a try in your laundry! Put it in the fabric softener compartment before starting the load, and it will be automatically dispensed in the rinse cycle. Front loaders are typically HE (high efficiency), in which case use 1/2 cup (120 mL) per load. For more tips on laundry, take a look at my laundry care post, https://www.lisabronner.com/green-laundry-care-with-dr-bronners-video/

Pattie says:

I quit using fabric softener several decades ago. Been using white vinegar in my wash loads ever since. Love the non scented clothes!

Frances says:

Ps) I’ve been using vinegar for years- 1/3 c in my HE washer.
It is easy, low impact, inexpensive and leaves no fragrance at all once the cycle is complete. Toss in the dryer and clothes come out clean snd most importantly fragrance free Win win win!

Frances says:

Thanks for this informative article. I shall pass it along to friends who continue to use hyper fragrant products in their laundry.
My biggest headache inducing frustration is smelling neighbors stinky laundry emissions and the smell of it clinging to everything… including the books I borrow from the library.

Is there a group I could join to persuade big industry to make changes?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Frances – There is movement towards fragrance-free work environments with advocacy groups who definitely welcome more voices in their midst. I realize you’re not talking about work places, but I would think the conversation could carry over to any shared spaces. The Breast Cancer Prevention Partnership (BCPP) has been doing some pivotal advocacy work. Look around their website for how to add your voice.

Here are a couple other sites working on fragrance-free policies (again in the workplace, but perhaps could be adapted):
American Lung Association – https://www.lung.org/getmedia/5fc10542-f957-42ac-950a-7b5a79f702a1/fragrance-free-policy.pdf.pdf
The Chemical Sensitivity Foundation – https://www.chemicalsensitivityfoundation.org/fragrance-free-workplaces.html
https://www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/hr-topics/risk-management/Pages/Air-Quality-Fragrance-Free-Policies.aspx

Lea says:

Hi Lisa, thank you for this information. I stopped using fabric softener years ago. Someone I know who repairs dryers said that if you use fabric softener to take out the lint screen every so often and wash it. The fabric softener creates a buildup on the screen. It became more of a hassle to do that, so I just stopped using fabric softener.

Hussein says:

My family and I have been Dr. Bronner customers for many years, mainly for your Vegan products. We also admire the philosophy of your grand-father, the founder of the company, and how you all strive to continue the good work that he has done. We also read your articles, which are usually informative. Also, from everything that I have read about your company policies and the way you treat your employees are truly impressive, and you should be an example to follow for all companies.

As usual, this article is very informative, but we were very disappointed to see that you recommend using dryer wool balls. Any product derived from a non-human animal inflicts harm and cruelty on those animals. We hope that your company will avoid promoting any such cruelty. The cruelty in obtaining wool is not just for clothing, but applies to all wool products. For more information about the cruelty of the wool industry, please see the documentary Earthlings, or take a look at the following link: https://www.bustle.com/articles/148252-7-reasons-wool-is-cruel-unnecessary-just-plain-baaaa-d .

Best regards,
Hussein.

Oscar says:

What in the world is a HE machine?
Does the explanation have to be so lengthy?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Oscar- Thanks for noting this, as there may be others not familiar with this term. HE is short for a High Efficiency washing machine. They use less water per load than a standard washing machine, and have been common in Europe for quite some time.

Marie LaValley says:

Thanks for the insightful article…fabric softener does stink!!! I can smell the toxic compounds wafting out of homes dryer vents daily and you provide great tips on how to avoid them!

Limonene is the second most common terpene found in nature. Limonene is not a “bad” ingredient as it is found is a myriad of essential oils (as a natural component of the oil) and in this form it is “safe” for most.

However, it can be a potential allergen for the skin (and lungs (ie: essential oil diffusing)). Many responsible cosmetic companies list it as such on after the INCI. Many Bronner’s soaps, balms and lotions contain limonene as part of the essential oils used to scent them (I feel these should be listed on the label as potential allergens and perhaps the EU labels do). Again, topical applications with small amounts of essential oils that contain limonene are safe for most people.

Anyhow, I feel like this article might “scare” people into avoiding limonene thinking it forms acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and cancer when in fact “the bad” is the result of ozone-initiated reactions with terpenes.

Often the public read and remember the “fear” parts of things they encounter but mostly I hope they remember the great tips on how to avoid fabric softeners ;).

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Marie – Thank you for bringing this point forward. After reading your thoughts, I hope I re-clarified in the article the difference between naturally occuring limonene found commonly in essential oils and limonene as a distinct and distilled ingredient. I appreciate your thoughts.

Mike N says:

Your recent post “Why (& How) to Ditch Fabric Softener & Dryer Sheets” IS A MASTERPIECE!!!! Thank you, Lisa

Stella says:

I appreciate the subject but please could you guys work on brevity please. Vinegar… Yikes… There must me another option especially for those of us who don’t have space to air try laundry.

John says:

Thank you for posting this article. Our family ditched dryer sheets and fabric softener 7 years ago and never looked back. Really the only changes we made is using wool balls in the dryer and using an organic non-perfume ridden detergent that rinses well. Our clothes are completely fine (and I have 3 girls).

One thing we notice is how desensitized people are to these fragrances (febreeze included). Similar to a teenager overdoing it on perfume or people who overdo it with scented candles, I dont think they understand how much they’re dosing themselves with fragrance/chemicals. I can smell it when a dryer sheet addict walks into the room.

The only problem is that it can make buying the kids second-hand clothes difficult as the dryer sheet smell almost never comes out. We have a set of six shirts hanging in the garage right now that we tried stripping with vinegar twice, but it’s still stinking up the garage.

Faith says:

Another issue with dryer sheets is that they are highly toxic to dogs if the dog decides to lick them. I stopped using them years ago and use vinegar instead. The vinegar does not leave a scent. I for one do not miss the fragrance at all. Thank you for such an informative article!

Stephanie says:

I have been using vinegar and wool balls for a few years but my clothes still have some static from the dryer…do you have any suggestions? I made my own wool balls from 100% wool yarn but maybe I need to purchase a better quality?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Stephanie- Static is caused by fabrics rubbing against each other in the tumble dryer. Synthetic fabrics build up the most static, and drying them separately can help. Other ways to reduce static cling are to reduce the drying time, and air drying clothes.

Nina says:

I’ve been using clean tennis balls in place of the wool balls as a cheaper option. You can also apply a few drops of essential oil on the tennis/wool balls in the dryer. Love the vinegar idea! I’ve also been using that Lysol laundry sanitizer in place of fabric softener since my hubby works at a hospital. Do you think it could cause the same issues as fabric softener?

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Nina- Lots of great ideas here! Regarding the Lysol laundry sanitizer, I have looked into laundry sanitizers especially in light of the last two years. The research is showing that there is nothing that they kill that isn’t already impacted by detergent, hot water, and hot drying. There is nothing in Lysol’s laundry sanitizer that functions as a fabric softener. The purposes of the ingredients are completely different. All four of the active ingredients in Lysol’s sanitizer, however, are flagged on “Designated Lists,” which are lists of chemicals of concern. All four of the disinfectants in the Lysol sanitizer are either asthmagens or “priority chemicals” (which means they’re being closely watched as anticipated bioaccumulants, carcinogens, or other problems).

Margarita Cramer says:

May I add a tip for scenting? Place two or three drops of a quality scented oil on each wool dryer ball… the oil doesn’t get on the clothes. By using an environmentally friendly detergent, you may be able to avoid the need for fabric softener and dryer sheets. I have not use either in gazilliion years. Another educational and useful article, Lisa. Thank you.

Stephanie says:

Thank you for your informative reading on fabric softeners. I have asthma and skin issues particularly with fabric softeners and have used vinegar, baking soda for years. It’s tough if you have to use a public laundromat however. I wish there would be a warning label, like cigarettes, on fabric softeners and scented dryer sheets as I don’t see how they are any less corrosive to skin and airway/lungs not to mention the hormonal imbalances that also result from their use. And it’s comical how the “free and clear” dryer sheets are placed in stores right next to gain, super smelly dryer sheets, as then the packaging of the free and clear absorbs the scent of those around it which you really don’t fully realize until it’s in your home. Even removing the dryer sheets from the packaging, there’s still a lingering scent from the others, meaning huge waste of money, time.
Thanks again for getting the word out!!!

Kelly says:

I stopped using dryer sheets two or three years ago but my towels still smell of them, even new towels that were never dried with a dryer sheet. I use baking soda, vinegar, and wool balls but unfortunately they don’t help with removing pet hair from the laundry.

Tam says:

Ugh to fabric softener. Once again, thank you for the invaluable information. Never even thought to read the ingredients on something that is so heavily marketed to families. Getting rid of it now but where to dispose of safely??? Thanks again.

Josephine says:

Thank you Lisa for this very informative insight into fabric softener. I felt for some time about ditching it. Interesting that the wool balls also soften fabrics. So I have today ordered organic ones, and will certainly give vinegar ago. Would vinegar give the clothes a vinegary smell? I too went by the scent of the softener, but since you listed all that is in them, I’m horrified. So here goes, vinegar and wool balls are on the shopping list. Thank you so much again. Best wishes Jo xx

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Josephine- It’s great to hear you found this post helpful! Because the vinegar is highly diluted in the washer and then rinsed away, there is no lingering vinegar odor on fabrics.

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Lisa Bronner

Green means life. “Going Green” is living in such a way to promote vitality and vibrancy in every sphere of life. Grab an idea to make your days healthier, simpler, and more beautiful at their core.