Stop Adding Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets | Use These Instead


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First a disclaimer: I don’t use either fabric softener or dryer sheets. I’ve never liked the fragrance either leave on your clothes or bedding.

Or the feel. I swear I can feel the coating…

However, I understand that if you grew up with these items, then the feel and scent are normal to you. But that’s not a good reason to continue.

There are alternatives!

Use white vinegar in the rinse cycle instead of fabric softener. Use dryer balls or DIY vinegar-soaked clothes in the dryer.

Why we (think we need to) use fabric softener

The good

Fabric softener, or fabric conditioner, is designed to protect fabric fibers from the agitation of washing and drying. This reduces fading, stretching, and fuzz. Your clothing and bedding should last longer. As a bonus, static electricity is reduced.

Some formulations contain extra ingredients to prevent wrinkles.

Most users like the fragrance, but “fragrance-free” formulations are available. The latter is especially important for those with allergies, especially those with skin sensitivities.

Fabric softeners work by depositing a coating on your laundry. This coating protects your laundry and makes it feel soft to the touch.

This can be an advantage to those with sensitive skin. Fabric softener (free of fragrance) is recommended for those with eczemaOpens in a new tab..

The bad

However, over many loads, this coating builds up and changes the properties of the fabric. Dirt and grime may more readily attach. Whites may yellow.

Properties that are key to your comfort may also be altered, such as water absorption, breathability, moisture-wicking, and cooling.

  • In a 2007 study by Parthiban and KumarOpens in a new tab., multiple laundry cycles of fabric softener changed the properties of both cotton and polyester.
  • Fabric softener significantly decreased both breathability and wickability of cotton (but not polyester)
  • Fabric softener increased the “thermal insulation” of both cotton and polyester. In other words, both fabrics would feel warmer.

Breathability and wickability are key to keeping you cool, whether you’re working out in high-performance athletic wear, or trying to sleep during a heatwave (or hot flash).

Or trying to sleep under any temperature condition. Wickability may be even more important when you’re trying to stay warm. If moisture stays close to your skin, you’ll remain clammy and cold; instead, if that moisture wicks away, leaving you dry, you are better able to stay warm.

Not to mention, absorption is important for everything, from towels to microfiber cleaning rags.

Check the ingredients in your fabric softener. Image ©Tinatin1 via Canva.com

The ugly

It gets worse.

Turns out that fabric softener buildup also increases the flammability of clothing and bedding. In other words, fabric starts burning sooner when exposed to flame.

  • A 2009 study by Chen-Yu, et. alOpens in a new tab.. compared the effect of fabric softener or dryer sheets after 25 laundry cycles. Fortunately, the dryer sheets had no effect on flammability.
  • However, the fabric softener increased the flammability of both 100% cotton and 100% polyester fabrics. So much so that children’s sleepwear would no longer pass the required safety standard.

The degree of flammability correlated with the number of laundry cycles. The more build-up, the faster fabric ignited and burned.

(Although the authors, don’t indicate what brands they used, their fabric softener and dryer sheets were chosen from a recommended list from Consumer Reports. In other words, a name brand, you are likely using.)

Fabric Softener Pros and Cons

[Cell phone users: turn your phone sideways for better viewing.]

PROSCONS
– Coats fabric; reduces fading, stretching, and fuzz
– Extends life of fabric
– Reduces static electricity
– Softer fabric is better for those with skin conditions
– Pleasant scent (if that’s your thing)
– Coats fabric; attracts dirt and oil
– Coats fabric; yellows whites
– Coats fabric; reduces breathability, absorption, wicking, and cooling
– May decrease life of fabric from stains and grime
– Increases flammability of fabric
– Some ingredients (e.g. fragrance) may cause reaction in those with skin conditions

How does fabric softener work?

Different brands have different formulations. The main ingredient in one of the most well-known brandsOpens in a new tab. is diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride (DEEDMAC). This is the main “softening agent” that coats and protects fabric fibers.

DEEDMAC is a quaternary ammonium compound (“quat”) and an example of a cationic surfactant. These cationic surfactants have a positive charge on one end, and two, hydrophobic fatty acid chains on the other end.

The positively charged end binds especially well to natural fibersOpens in a new tab., such as cotton, but not as well to synthetics.

On the other end of the molecule, the hydrophobic groups point away from the coated fiber and create a barrier resistant to other coated fibers. This prevents “interfiber friction”Opens in a new tab. and damage. This also makes the fabric feel soft and fluffy.

Cationic surfactants are an evolution of early fabric softeners that were made of an emulsion of soap and oil.

Hydrophobic molecules, such as fatty acids or oils, work by resisting water, and resisting things that dissolve in water. (“Hydro” = water; “phobic” = fear.) But as the data shows, coating fabric in “oil”, will reduce breathability, water absorption, and the moisture-wicking needed to keep you cool and dry.

Unlike some ammonium compounds used in earlier fabric softeners, ester-quats are biodegradable.

They are also commonly used in hair conditioners and shampoos, and serve a similar purpose, smoothing, detangling, and protecting hair fibers and preventing static buildup.

What about “eco-friendly natural” brands? This one usesOpens in a new tab. the softener dihydrogenated palmoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate. This ingredient, derived from plants, is also a biodegradable ester-quat cationic surfactant.

However, just because it comes from plants doesn’t necessarily make it better or safer than a lab-synthesized version. Or make the latter inherently dangerous.

Are cation surfactants safe?

Are cation surfactants—either from the name brand or the natural brand—safe to use?

First, absolutely nothing we expose ourselves to is truly “safe”; everything has some risk, albeit small.

But that aside, these chemicals don’t appear to be particularly dangerous. To date, no big science-based reports have surfaced outing any of them as contributing to health issues (although they are probably not good to breathe—see below).

DEEDMAC and similar biodegradable cation surfactants have been in use since the 1980sOpens in a new tab. and 1990s, so there has been plenty of time.

In other words, until we learn otherwise, and when used as directed, these molecules aren’t any more dangerous than the other things we use to clean our laundry or home.

Your washer has different slots for detergent, bleach, and rinse additions, such as fabric softener. Image ©brizmaker via Canva.com

Rinse cycle only

As positively charged cations, quats react with anionic, negatively charged ingredients in laundry detergent. In other words, they neutralize each other. Therefore, only use fabric softener during the rinse cycle.

In addition, fabric softeners are designed to have a low, slightly acidic, pH. This is to help rinse away the alkaline, higher pH laundry detergent. Our popular fabric softener includes both formic and hydrochloric acid. Obviously, in low concentrations.

Most washing machines have a special slot for fabric softener to hold it until the rinse cycle. (You can use this same slot for other additions you wish to make during the rinse cycle.)

Why we (think we need to) use dryer sheets

Dryer sheets are fabric softener for the dryer. If you are using both dryer sheets and fabric softener you are probably doing too much.

Most of the Pros and Cons of fabric softener apply here as well. Dryer sheets are thought to have the edge when it comes to static control.

In a study cited aboveOpens in a new tab., dryer sheets weren’t quite as bad as liquid fabric softener in decreasing air permeability of fabric and had no effect on flammability.

The authors found that dryer sheets leave less of a build-upOpens in a new tab. than liquid fabric softener. Liquid fabric softener is absorbed into the fabric fibers, while the softener from dryer sheets remains on the surface.

However, the authors caution not to draw definitive conclusions based on a single study. With extended use, dryer sheets could still increase flammability.

This would argue that we should all switch from fabric softener to dryer sheets, right?

But not so fast…

Dryer sheets and air quality

When dryer sheets are used in the dryer, the air and heat cause their chemicals to be released into the air.

Your dryer vents to the outside, not into your home, correct?

Good news. Dryer sheets repel fungus gnatsOpens in a new tab., which are small flies that are sometimes responsible for plant damage.

Some not so good news, if you breathe these chemicals.

So maybe not switch..

Dryer sheet Pros and Cons

PROSCONS
– Coats fabric; reduces fading, stretching, and fuzz
– Extends life of fabric
– Reduces static electricity
– Softer fabric is better for those with skin conditions
– Pleasant scent (if that’s your thing)
– Coats fabric; attracts dirt and oil
– Coats fabric; yellows whites
– Coats fabric; May reduce breathability, absorption, wicking, and cooling
– May decrease life of fabric from stains and grime
– May increase flammability of fabric
– Some ingredients (e.g. fragrance) may cause reaction in those with skin conditions
– May cause respiratory issues

How do dryer sheets work?

One of the most popular brandsOpens in a new tab. of dryer sheets is coated with dialkylester dimethyl ammonium methosulfate. Yes, this is another ammonium quat cationic surfactant.

These dryer sheets also have fatty acids listed as an ingredient (“C16-18 and C18-unsaturated”). These fatty acids, plus the fatty acid groups attached to the cationic surfactant, coat your laundry and give it that soft feel.

And, as with liquid fabric softeners, block the water-absorbing and water-wicking properties you rely on.

For fragrance-free dryer sheets, the final chemical ingredient listed is bentonite, a (relatively) non-toxicOpens in a new tab. clay that acts as a “process aid” and “controls product thickness”.

Other than a very long list of fragrances (which are optional depending on which box you purchase), the list of ingredients is short and simple.

Image ©choreograph via Canva.com

How to remove build-up from fabric softeners and dryer sheets

Perhaps after reading this, you are now convinced to give up fabric softener and dryer sheets.

Or at minimum reduce your use. Try using a fourth the recommended fabric softener in your washer. Or cut dryer sheets into quarters and use these pieces more than once.

We understand, maybe you’re not ready to go cold turkey just yet…

But for the rest of us… What do you do with your current clothing and bedding that is now caked with oily residue? This may also be an issue if you purchase second-hand clothing or bedding.

(Disclaimer: these are suggestions only; nothing is guaranteed.)

  • Depending on what type of laundry detergent you prefer, the build-up may go away on its own. Some detergentsOpens in a new tab. claim to help remove “the gunk”, including fabric softener build-up.

The internet has more suggestions. Here’s one to try first.

  • Instead of fabric softener, place a half cup of white vinegar in the slot for the rinse cycle. Wash as usual in the hottest temperature your laundry can stand

Use distilled white vinegar, not apple cider vinegar, which may stain.

Vinegar is a weak acid, that helps neutralize and wash away your (slightly alkaline) detergent. It should also work on the fabric softener build-up.

Vinegar works as a fabric softener on its own (see below). And as a bonus, it will disinfect, reducing lingering odors. And it rinses away lint, such as pet hair.

NEVER mix bleach with acids, such as vinegar. Poisonous chlorine gas is the result.

If, after several washes, your laundry still reeks of old fabric softener here are some other suggestions

  • Try the reverse. Use a half cup of vinegar in your wash with no detergent, and the hottest water your laundry can stand. Optional: add baking soda to the rinse cycle (up to a half a cup)
  • If that doesn’t work, also try soaking your laundry in the vinegar wash solution for up to an hour. (Your washing machine may or may not allow you to stop mid-cycle to do this.)
  • Also try soaking laundry for up to an hour in baking soda. (But not both baking soda and vinegar at the same time, as they neutralize each other.)

Baking soda may neutralize the heavy fabric softener perfumes (and it may help whiten whitesOpens in a new tab.), but it’s unclear if it would work any better than conventional detergent at removing the buildup itself.

If the cloying scent is your main concern, hanging laundry outside to airdry, may help.

  • If all else fails, add up to 1 cup ammonia to the wash cycle

Ammonia is usually recommended to pre-treat stains on laundry, as it’s good at dissolving grease. It’s also good at dissolving waxy resin and build-up from surfaces. Like that sticky residue that price tags leave behind.

But due to safety concerns, ammonia is listed last on this list.

DO NOT use ammonia on silk or wool

Use in a well-ventilated area

And never ever mix it with bleach (or detergent that might have bleach). Just to be super safe, don’t use ammonia in a load immediately following a load with bleach.

Image ©eskaylim via Canva.com

Fabric Softener alternatives

If softness is your goal, regular washing and drying will soften most fabrics on its own.

Distilled white vinegar

The white vinegar sitting on your pantry shelf is 5% acetic acid. For cleaning or laundry, only use white vinegar, as apple cider or other vinegar can leave stains. Unless specified otherwise, this is the concentration to use.

If you use a lot of vinegar you can purchase industrial strength vinegar at 20% or 30% and dilute it down to 5%. But beware that any acetic acid over 10% can irritate and even burn the skin. Wear gloves.

  • Place a half a cup white vinegar in your rinse tray. The acid will neutralize and rinse away all the detergent, along with any detergent residue that may remain.

Detergent residue can dull colors, so you may notice that your colors are now brighter!

Lint, including pet fur, doesn’t adhere as tightly. And clothes feel softer.

Vinegar will also remove bacteria and fungi that may be causing lingering odors. (For those of you who have converted to washing in hot water to kill odors, you may be able to go back to washing in warm and even cold water…)

And no, the vinegar scent doesn’t stick around.

Baking soda

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. Baking soda works like its cousin “washing soda” which is sodium carbonate. Both soften water by removing magnesium and calcium. This synergizes with detergent to better clean and whiten.

By preventing deposits of minerals and detergent, your laundry may come out feeling softer.

Baking sodium is also great at neutralizing odors.

  • Add around a half cup to your wash cycle in addition to your regular detergent. If softness is your primary goal, add the same amount of baking soda to your rinse cycle.

Other questionable ideas from the internet

One suggestion was to use hair conditioner instead of fabric softener. As mentioned above, both work the same way, coating your fabric or hair to protect the fiber.

And the hair conditioner I use is WAY MORE expensive than fabric softener.

Another suggestion is to purchase an eco-friendly “natural” fabric softener. As discussed above, these formulations are not that different from conventional fabric softener and dryer sheets. If this is your goal, always study the list of ingredients.

Dryer sheet alternatives

Dryer balls

Dryer balls come in various types, including DIY versions, but the best are made of woolOpens in a new tab.. Throw these balls into your dryer along with your laundry.

  • They fluff up your laundry and keep it spaced apart, leading to faster drying
  • Wool absorbs moisture better than your laundry, transferring the wetness from one to the other
  • Wool absorbs dryer heat, then transfers it to the laundry

As a result, laundry dries faster, by as much as 20-40% depending on what you’re trying to dry. Socks and other small items may not benefit as much, as they can keep themselves separate. However, bedding, such as sheets, can become balled up into themselves.

Note, that if your laundry dries faster you may be at risk for MORE static electricity (see below). Unless you use the moisture sensor, shorten the dryer time and/or temperature.

As a bonus, wrinkles and pet hair are reduced.

  • The mild roughness of the wool rubs against the laundry, softening it

How many? The internet recommends two balls for small loads and four to six for normal to large loads. Use either a shorter cycle than you normally do or use a cycle that senses moisture levels.

Obviously, the dryer balls are reusable. They should last many years.

Optional: add a drop or two of essential oils to each ball to add fragrance. (CAUTION: many essential oils “safe” for humans are toxic to dogs, and especially catsOpens in a new tab.. Likewise, we all have different skin sensitivities to different essential oils.)

To remove static, use a spray bottle of water to lightly mist the dryer balls before use. Alternatively, mist them with undiluted (5%) vinegar.

Wool dryer balls. Image ©miromiro via Canva.com

DIY vinegar dryer sheets

Don’t know what to do with your old pillowcases or sheets? Cut them up into cloth squares. In a glass jar, soak the squares in white vinegar. Optional: add 6-10 drops of your favorite essential oil per half cup of vinegar.

Wring one cloth out over the jar and add it to your dryer. When the dryer is done put it back in the jar to re-soak. Add more vinegar to the jar as needed.

Alternatively, you can fill a spray bottle with vinegar (plus or minus essential oils) and mist your laundry before placing it in the dryer.

Again, your clothes won’t smell like vinegar.

DIY aluminum dryer balls

(I have my doubts as to whether this hack works… Stay tuned.)

Use aluminum foil to create three or so reusable compressed ballsOpens in a new tab.. In the dryer, the aluminum, which is a metal, discharges the electric charge that builds up.

Like the wool balls above, these balls will also aid drying by keeping laundry separate from itself. However, they have no softening properties.

Static issues? Prevent over-drying

Moisture in the air, in the form of humidity, acts as a conductor removing static electricity. Therefore, static electricity is worse in dry, low-humidity environments, including the artificially dry environment within your dryer. In short, avoid over-drying laundry.

  • Stop the dryer immediately once it is dry or a tiny bit damp
  • Switch to a lower heat setting

If you’re having static electricity issues it’s most likely your home humidity is low, therefore “damp” laundry should air-dry quickly.

Separate laundry

Evidently separating your laundry by color is so last century. Yes, continue to keep the whites and close-to-whites separate. And always wash new colored items with dark items so that any dye that runs won’t ruin the rest of the load.

The new thing is to separate laundry by type. Separate courser heavier items from thinner delicate items. The idea is that over time the heavier items can wear down the delicate items.

For example, assuming you have a full load of each, wash heavy jeans or towels separate from thinner cotton shirts or sheets.

The biggest issue of a “mixed” load is in the dryer. Which will dry first? Your lightweight sheets or the thick towels? By the time the entire load is dry, the lightweight sheets are now over-dry and susceptible to static cling.

Depending on how dry your climate is, many items may air-dry quickly, allowing you to skip the dryer altogether. This includes, pretty much everything that isn’t made of cotton:

  • High-performance polyester in athletic wear
  • 100% polyester
  • Silk
  • Wool (“washable wool”)

Separate those items out and send the rest to the dryer.

It might not be practical to line-dry large items, such as sheets and bedding, but you can put them in the dryer separately. Your wet cotton towels will be fine sitting on the side-line and waiting their turn (just don’t forget about them…)

Because non-cotton items dry so well, don’t be afraid to take them out a little bit damp. If you make your bed immediately, wrinkles won’t have a chance to form.

Obviously if your sheets are still a bit damp, let them dry on your bed completely before layering on the blankets and comforters.


Top photo: ©MichellePatrickPhotographyLLC via Canva.com


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Liz Baker, PhD

Side sleeper, cat mom. And after many decades of nightly testing, an authority on sleeping in comfort. However, I'm still in search of the good night’s sleep I used to have.

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