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Fabric Softener: Is It Bad For Clothes & The Environment?

Curious if fabric softeners are friend or foe? Dive into the nitty-gritty of how they affect your health, clothes, and the planet. Plus, discover eco-friendly and health-conscious alternatives for that fresh-laundry feel without the guilt!
Fabric Softener Is It Bad For Clothes & The Environment

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

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Need a quick answer on whether or not fabric softeners are bad? Yep, but the good news is that there’s no reason to use them. You can get clean, fresh laundry and protect the planet with every load. All you’ll need to do is make a few small changes to your laundry routine.

Get ready to learn how fabric softeners work, what makes them so bad, and what you can use (and do) to remove them from your laundry without ever noticing a difference. You’ll help the planet and save money… it’s a total win-win!

Looking for some eco-conscious alternatives? Check out our post on the best eco-friendly fabric softeners.

How Fabric Softeners And Dryer Sheets Work

Fabric softeners and their counterpart dryer sheets use a pretty straightforward science to soften clothes. Fabric softeners are added to your laundry’s final rinse cycle, while dryer sheets get tossed in the dryer with your clean clothes.

Both of these products rely on compounds called cationic surfactants. You’ll see these referred to often as “quats” or quaternary ammonium compounds. These compounds reduce the static charge in a load of laundry by neutralizing the negative charges caused by the washing cycle. That sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

When clothes are washed, they’re agitated to help loosen dirt and grime. The friction caused by the action rubs the fabric fibers, causing them to develop a negative charge. Quats eliminate that issue because they carry a positive charge, which neutralizes the negative charge. If that charge wasn’t neutralized, you’d experience the frustrating effects of static cling.

Besides neutralizing static cling, the compounds in fabric softeners also coat the fibers with a lubricant that softens them. Think of it as a kind of hair conditioner… for your clothes.

In addition to quats, fabric softeners often contain other compounds, like artificial fragrances, to enhance their scent, color, and other chemical qualities.

Where Did Fabric Softeners Come From?

The first fabric softeners popped up in the early 20th century. New dyes were introduced to textile manufacturing but often left the dyed fabric super stiff. Early variations of fabric softener were introduced, usually featuring some kind of oil or fat mixed with water.

Though the dyes were improved, fabric softeners became a household staple by the 1960s. In the 1970s, dryer sheets were introduced as a way to more easily apply fabric softeners to clothes because, at the time, fabric softener could only be added during the rinse cycle. This meant making two trips to the laundry room.

Are Fabric Softeners Toxic and Not Safe?

A lot of articles are quick to say fabric softeners are toxic. The answer, however, is a lot more complicated than a simple yes or no. We’ll try to bring you up to speed here so you can make an informed decision on whether or not you should replace your fabric softeners with a natural alternative.

Is Fabric Softener Bad For You?

Here’s the DL on fabric softeners: a lot of individuals have reported adverse effects, and there is research to justify these complaints. Researchers have found evidence that exposure to fabric softeners causes respiratory toxicity in mice.

When it comes to fabric softeners, the biggest issues most people run into come from dermal and respiratory irritation. Fabric softeners can exacerbate conditions like asthma and eczema, usually because of the artificial fragrances present in these products.

Is Fabric Softener Bad For Clothes?

Fabric softeners are not good for clothes. While the immediate effect is a softer, fresh shirt, the compounds in fabric softeners tend to build up over time, which has a host of harmful effects.

Websites often report that fabric softeners cause fiber degradation over time. This study, done in 1953, took a close look at that claim by analyzing the wet and dry strengths of certain fabrics after being washed with fabric softeners. The results? There wasn’t a significant difference.

The issue of buildup, however, is a serious one. Chemical buildup from fabric softeners can hinder towel absorption, reduce wicking in athletic wear, and decrease the efficacy of flame-retardant clothing. Wash your clothes with fabric softener for long enough, and you’ll notice some of these effects.

Is Fabric Softener Bad For The Environment?

Yeah, fabric softeners are bad for the environment. The issue of fabric softeners and the environment is multifaceted. Researchers have found links between some of the compounds in fabric softeners, like quats, and aquatic toxicity. Aquatic life, like microorganisms, fish, and algae, are particularly susceptible to exposure to quats.

There’s also the issue of packaging and transporting fabric softeners. The bottles of most fabric softeners are made of plastic, a compound derived from fossil fuels. These bottles are intended to be single-use, so they contribute to the ongoing issue of plastic waste.

How Can I Keep Clothes Smelling Good Without Using Fabric Softener?

You don’t need much to keep your clothes smelling good without fabric softener. While fabric softeners might give you a long-lasting boost, there are many ways to get the same effect without any weird chemicals.

  1. Use Essential Oils
    Essential oils are a go-to for anyone looking to reduce their chemical exposure and enjoy some good scents. You can pick up organic essential oils at most health food stores and greengrocers, but Aura Cacia’s Uplifting Kit is a great choice.To use essential oils, you’ll need a clean washcloth or some dryer balls. You can read more about our recommendations for fabric softener alternatives, but Nellie’s dryer balls are a fan favorite.

    Simply add 3-5 drops of your choice of essential oil, then toss it in the dryer with your clothes. The smell won’t be as strong as traditional fabric softener or dryer sheets, but you’ll still enjoy a lasting fragrance.

  2. Use Less Detergent
    This might seem counterintuitive, but hear us out: sometimes, when you want a strong fragrance, you’re actually looking for odor elimination. If you’ve noticed that your clothes seem to stink soon after you put them on, chemical buildup is probably the cause.This buildup can be caused by detergent and fabric softener, so your first step should be reducing how much detergent you add to each load. As a general rule, you need a lot less laundry detergent than you’re using. If you’re anything like us, you’re probably pretty heavy-handed, especially if the load seems especially grimy.

    For most loads, 1-2 tablespoons of detergent is enough. We know that sounds outrageous… but it’s true: less detergent is better.

  3. Add Vinegar
    Another way to bust odors is with vinegar! Vinegar also doubles as a fabric softener alternative, so this is a well-rounded choice for anyone looking for a close substitute.Add 1/4-1/2 cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle of your laundry. The vinegar will help eliminate any odors and reduce the static cling you may experience in the dryer.

    Don’t worry about the smell—it’ll dissipate once the clothes dry.

Is There A Natural Fabric Softener?

There are a few natural ways you can achieve the same effect as fabric softener without all the extras.

White Vinegar

Added to the rinse cycle, white vinegar acts the same as a fabric softener. You’ll notice softer clothes and reduced static cling, all without having to add fabric softener.

Dryer Balls

While not technically a fabric softener, dryer balls function the same as dryer sheets. These balls are made with wool, hemp, and other natural materials and can reduce drying time in addition to fluffing and softening clothes. You can also add essential oils to them for a scented boost.

Hang Drying

Sometimes, static cling is actually caused by over-drying your clothes. The best way to treat this? Hang them out to dry! You can do this either directly from the washer or by stopping your dryer before the clothes are completely dry. If you can’t stand the stiff feeling fabrics get from being hung out to dry, you can put them in the dryer for a few minutes to soften them before wearing them.

Final Thoughts On The Safety of Fabric Softeners

Fabric softeners are a remnant from the past, and there’s no reason to continue using them in the modern laundry room. Most clothes don’t need fabric softeners to feel comfortable.

The cool thing is that you can probably do without fabric softeners altogether. Your clothes won’t smell as good as they did when you were using them, but that’s okay! Being eco- and health-conscious means changing the way we view things. Maybe super strongly scented clothes aren’t a good thing.

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.

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