Search
Close this search box.

The 7 Best Fabric Softener Alternatives for Sustainably Soft Clothes

Learn why traditional options can be harmful to both your health and the environment, and explore cost-effective, sustainable solutions for soft, long-lasting laundry.

This Article is 100% Organic: Written and Researched by Real Humans.

Welcome to the world of soft laundry without compromise! 

If you’ve ever wondered whether there was an alternative to the icky ingredients found in most conventional fabric softeners, we’ve got some good news for you. There’s an entire world of fabric softener alternatives designed to get you soft clothes without any health or environmental hazards. Getting clothes softer than a kitten and protecting the planet? It’s a win-win. 

Didn’t know traditional fabric softeners were some of the most toxic household products? Don’t worry, we’ll bring you up to speed and tell you all about how to get soft clothes the non-toxic way. 

Besides the alternatives we’ll talk about here, you can also find plenty of eco-friendly fabric softeners to keep your clothes comfy and cozy.

Zestain is reader supported. Purchases made through our site links may result in an affiliate commission for us, without affecting your own costs. Find out more about our rigorous brand rating process.

Zestain's Top Picks

A Quick Look At The Best Fabric Softener Alternatives

Why Not Use Fabric Softener?

Before we dive into our fabric softener alternatives, let’s address the elephant in the laundry room: why would you want an alternative to fabric softeners? Fabric softener can seem like a holy grail product because of its fragrance and softening effects. However, there’s more to the story. Some of the reasons you might want to reconsider putting a capful of the purple stuff in with your delicates include:

Not So Cozy Chemical Buildup 

Conventional fabric softeners contain a cocktail of synthetic chemicals that can build up on clothes. This buildup has a huge impact on how long an article of clothing lasts. 

Because the purpose of fabric softener is to coat the fabric fibers, artificial buildup can permanently accumulate on clothing. These chemicals can weaken the fabric, making it more prone to wear and tear than it would be otherwise. 

This buildup will also cause fabrics to be less porous, affecting their texture and softness. 

To summarize, fabric softener can actually make your clothes not soft. 

Negative Environmental Impact

Most fabric softeners are not biodegradable, causing them to build up in our water supplies. This can have a negative effect on aquatic life through the presence of environmental toxins. 

There’s also the issue of producing fabric softeners full of synthetic chemicals and compounds. The production of these products can actually cause environmental damage before the bottle ever hits the shelf. 

Reduced Absorbency and Wicking

One of the biggest problems with fabric softeners is that they will reduce the absorbency of towels and linens over time. This makes them less effective at drying

This effect isn’t limited to towels, either. Clothes with wicking qualities, like athletic wear, can become less effective over time when you regularly wash them with fabric softeners. Besides making you sweaty, this can also cause odors to accumulate. 

Why Choose Fabric Softener Alternatives?

There’s a whole host of reasons to switch up your laundry routine with an alternative to conventional fabric softeners.

  1. Environmental Concerns: Traditional fabric softeners often contain chemicals like quaternary ammonium compounds and synthetic fragrances that are not biodegradable. These substances usually end up in our water supplies, hurting aquatic life, disrupting ecosystems, and building up to measurable quantities. 
  2. Health Problems: The chemicals in fabric softeners are problematic for everyone, but especially so for people who have sensitive skin or allergies. Many of the chemicals and compounds used in conventional fabric softeners are associated with respiratory issues, which can exacerbate problems like asthma. 
  3. Clothing Longevity: Fabric softeners can cause wear and tear in fabrics over time, causing colors to fade, fibers to tear, and other issues. This can lead to clothes ripping and losing their shape. 
  4. Cost of Use: Fabric softeners can be pretty expensive, especially if you use them regularly. Alternatives tend to be cheaper, and you’ll save money on replacing your clothes earlier than you should. Many of the items on our list are reusable or virtually free (if you’ve got them around the house), so you’ll save tons without having to jump through hoops to get soft clothes. 

Full List Of Alternatives To Fabric Softeners 

Now that we’ve looked at some of the reasons to reconsider your traditional fabric softener, you’re probably wondering what you can use instead of fabric softener. Let’s dive into a few sustainable, natural, and health-conscious alternatives that’ll leave your clothes soft and static-free.

1
Nellie'S Dry Balls
Image by Nellie's Dryer Balls
Best for Zero-Waste Lifestyles
Best for Sensitive Skin
Most Child and Pet Safe

Nellie’s All Natural Dryer Balls

Highlights: Reusable for up to 1,000 loads, and customization of scent with essential oils.

Dryer balls are a classic choice when it comes to searching for a fabric softener substitute. They come in a variety of materials, including wool, bamboo, and hemp, though wool is arguably the most popular and widely available. 

Though they aren’t vegan, wool dryer balls are an excellent choice for anyone interested in sustainably softening their clothes. These are almost endlessly reusable (for around 1,000 loads), and are totally compostable. 

As an added benefit, dryer balls significantly decrease the amount of time your clothes need to dry. This makes laundry go faster and reduces your dryer’s energy use significantly. They also reduce static cling, which is one of the main uses of fabric softener. 

If you find yourself missing out on the smell of a fabric softener, try adding a few drops of essential oil to each dryer ball before tossing them in with your laundry. The smell will be subtle, but it’s a great substitute to the artificial fragrances used in most conventional fabric softeners. 

2
Aunt Fannie’s Cleaning Vinegar
Image by Aunt Fannie's Cleaning Vinegar
Most Multi-Functional
Best for Large Loads
Best for All Fabric Types

Aunt Fannie’s Cleaning Vinegar

Highlights: Softens fabrics and breaks down chemical buildup while also acting as an effective deodorizer and stain remover.

White vinegar is a great way to soften clothes without fabric softeners, and this product is a step above the rest. Specially formulated specifically for cleaning, Aunt Fannie’s cleaning vinegar is a great way to get soft, fresh clothes with each load. 

Simply add 1/4-1/2 cup of vinegar to your laundry’s rinse cycle… your washer will take care of the rest! Vinegar can help to break down the chemical buildup that’s accumulated from fabric softener use, so adding this is a great way to revive tired fabrics. 

Vinegar is also a great deodorizer and stain remover. Athletic wear and synthetic fibers that smell immediately after use can be treated with vinegar to kill the odor-causing bacteria and freshen your laundry. No more embarrassing gym days! 

There’s no need to worry about a lingering vinegar smell, either. What doesn’t disappear during the rinse cycle will completely dissipate as your clothes dry. The same rule applies when using vinegar as a bathroom or counter cleaner! 

3
Magnetic Laundry System
Image by Magnetic Laundry System
Most Innovative Method
Most Long-Lasting Effect

Magnetic Laundry System

Highlights: Non-toxic, zero-waste alternative to traditional laundry products. Lifetime warranty and a 30-day unconditional return policy.

Check out this “spin” on conventional fabric softeners and laundry detergents: the magnetic laundry system. 

This quirky approach to laundry is non-toxic, zero waste, and eco-friendly because it relies completely on two magnets. No detergent, no pods… nothing but magnets. We know it sounds far-fetched, but hear us out. 

Reviews are generally pretty good, with most customers reporting their clothes are cleaner and fresher than they were with traditional detergent and fabric softener. The magnets work in tandem with the water, using magnetism to remove dirt and odors from your clothes.

All you do is toss the magnets into the washer and start it. While it can be used in addition to fabric softeners, many customers reported that they were able to completely cut fabric softeners from their laundry repertoire.

Life Miracle, the brand that produces these magnets, backs them with a lifetime warranty and an unconditional 30-day return policy. That makes this certainly worth a try! 

Best for DIY Enthusiasts

DIY Hair Conditioner Fabric Softener

Highlights: Repurposes unused hair conditioner for a gentler alternative to traditional softeners.

This is the perfect solution if you’ve got a bottle of unused hair conditioner lying around (or a collection of half-used ones). The conditioner coats your clothes the same way it would your hair, all while being gentler and less toxic than conventional fabric softeners, especially if you use a natural conditioner like Pura D’or.

To make this quick and easy DIY fabric softener, you’ll need an empty bottle (or a label for your former conditioner), white vinegar, and hot water. Using 1 cup of conditioner, 1 cup of vinegar, and 3 cups of water, combine them in the bottle and stir gently. Don’t shake! Shaking will create bubbles that will make the product difficult to use. 

When you’re ready to add your new fabric softener, use 1/4 a cup per load. Add it just like you would a regular fabric softener. 

Bonus tip: you can use this same hack with hand lotion! Just keep it clean and natural. 

5
Full Circle Dryer Balls
Image by Full Circle
Most Time-Efficient
Best for Minimalist Lifestyles

Aluminum Foil Balls (or Dryer Balls with Carbon Filaments)

Highlights: Quick, zero-waste solution for softening clothes and reducing static cling. Full Circle’s dryer balls are made from recycled plastic bottles and include a carbon filament to reduce static.

In a pinch, tightly balled aluminum foil is a fantastic way to soften clothes and alleviate static cling. The aluminum works in the same way as traditional fabric softeners by neutralizing the negative charge fabrics develop from the friction of washing. 

To use aluminum foil, all you’ll need to do is ball up two or three sheets of foil until they are tightly condensed. Then toss them into the dryer with your wet clothes and let them tumble! 

If you’re looking for something that’ll speed up the drying process and work extra hard to eliminate static, check out Full Circle’s anti-static dryer balls. These dryer balls are made from recycled plastic bottles, making them a perfect choice for eco-conscious individuals and vegans. The carbon filament included in the design works like the aluminum foil, greatly reducing the static charge of your clothes. 

6
Seventh Generation Fabric Softeners Sheets
Image by Seventh Generation
Best for Quick Implementation
Most Water-Efficient
Best for Fragrance-Free Softening

Seventh Generation Dryer Sheets

Highlights: Affordable, easy to use, and free of questionable chemicals. Ideal for sensitive skin and families with kids.

Dryer sheets and fabric softeners are kind of the same, but just a little bit different. Dryer sheets go in the dryer, but they do the same thing as fabric softeners: soften clothes, freshen the smell, and reduce static cling. 

These sheets from Seventh Generation are super affordable and easy to use, plus they’re free of any questionable chemicals. These are perfect for babies, kids, and anyone with sensitive skin. They also come in a few fragrance options, so you can choose what scent you’d like (if you want one at all). 

If you’re in the market for a DIY version, try using a clean washcloth or cleaning rag! Add a few drops of your choice of essential oils, then toss them in with your laundry before drying. While this won’t remove static cling, it will freshen up your laundry and give it a nice smell.  

7
Green Global Goods - Soap Nut Berries
Image by Green Global Goods
Most Organic/Natural Ingredients

Green Global Goods’ Soap Nut Berries

Highlights: Versatile, natural laundry detergent that’s biodegradable and free of toxic chemicals.

If you were on the zero waste scene circa 2015, you probably heard a good deal about soap nuts. If you weren’t, these probably seem like an odd addition to this list, but hear us out. Soap nuts are a great product to add to your household cleaning arsenal, and they’re perfect for softening clothes without fabric softeners. 

Soap nuts are a natural laundry detergent (and cleaning product) that have been used for hundreds of years. They’re completely natural and biodegradable, so you’ll never have to worry about toxic chemicals or compounds. They can also be used for dishes and as a shampoo. If they don’t work for your laundry, you’ll definitely find another use for them. 

Using them as a fabric softener alternative, you can toss them in with your regular detergent or use them in lieu of it. While these are great for laundry, they likely won’t get out any tough stains or smells. 

Top Tips for Using Fabric Softener Alternatives 

  1. Measure Properly:
    Don’t aim for an overachiever award when it comes to liquid fabric softener alternatives. Always use the recommended amount. Too much fabric softener can stain clothes and leave them with a waxy residue. The same applies to liquid fabric softener substitutes.

    This is part of what makes our non-liquid fabric softener alternatives such a good choice. You can’t use too many dryer balls, so you’ll never have to worry about wrecking your clothes.
  2. Temper Your Expectations:
    Part of what makes conventional fabric softeners so effective is the laundry list of chemicals and compounds in them. Natural alternatives won’t replicate the fiber-coating effects of artificial ingredients.

    Keep that in mind when you make the transition. Your clothes won’t feel or smell quite the same as they did when you were using a synthetic fabric softener, but don’t let that daunt you! Give the switch a little time. You’ll wonder why you didn’t make it sooner. 
  3. Experiment with Essential Oils:
    When it comes to switching from any conventional product to a natural alternative, almost everyone misses the fragrances. Artificial fragrances are designed to be strong and last a long time, so it may feel strange to go without them.

    If that’s the case for you, essential oils are a great option to fill in the missing smell. Adding a few drops to wool dryer balls or a clean rag before drying your clothes will brighten your day without causing you to worry about where the smell comes from.
  4. Optimize Your Drying Time:
    If you’re like us (we’ll admit it), you like dry clothes fast. The problem with this technique is that it can cause your clothes to wear out fast and add an almost burned smell to each load.

    To minimize this, dry your clothes on the lowest heat setting necessary, and don’t let them run longer than they need to. Some dryers have sensors to stop your clothes when they’re dry, rather than running them on a timer. Stopping your clothes just before they’re super dry will also reduce wrinkles and help prevent static cling.
  5. Maintain Your Washer and Dryer:
    Regularly cleaning and maintaining your machines will ensure they’re functioning at optimal capacity. Dirty or malfunctioning machines can cause all kinds of problems, like torn clothes, gross residues, and less-than-clean fabrics.

    Check out your machines’ manuals or look online for the best way to clean your machines. The process is super straightforward and only needs to be done periodically. 

Final Thoughts on Fabric Softener Replacement 

Fabric softener alternatives offer a sustainable and eco-friendly path to soft, fresh-smelling laundry without the negative environmental and health impacts associated with traditional fabric softeners. 

Whether you choose a quick DIY method or decide to purchase one of our recommended products, experimenting with these alternatives can lead to softer clothes and fabrics. By following our tips, doing your research, and being conscious of how you can for your clothes, you’re sure to create a laundry routine you love without all the extra chemicals you’ll find in a conventional fabric softener. 

Embracing alternatives for all of your household products will not only benefit you and your family but the entire planet! Make the switch and enjoy soft, sustainable laundry.

Christina Boren

Christina Boren

Christina is an Alaskan-based sustainability and environmentalism writer. She’s spent nearly a decade working in industries directly related to environmentalism and sustainability, including chemical manufacturing and waste management. She holds a B.A in English from the University of Central Florida and is well-versed in what it means to be an eco-advocate.
Christina Boren

Christina Boren

Christina is an Alaskan-based sustainability and environmentalism writer. She’s spent nearly a decade working in industries directly related to environmentalism and sustainability, including chemical manufacturing and waste management. She holds a B.A in English from the University of Central Florida and is well-versed in what it means to be an eco-advocate.

Related Blog posts