Last Updated on November 20, 2023
Fabric softener is a cleverly marketed product, with companies convincing you that you need it for soft, wearable clothing. And it smells delicious, so people are drawn to it for a fresh smelling closet.
But in reality, is fabric softener bad? Yes, it is! Learn why fabric softener alternatives like scented wool dryer balls are better for your clothes. You’ll learn how traditional softeners ruin your clothes, are bad for your washing machine, and hurt the environment. Use some of my favorite natural fabric softeners instead of a healthy, safe, and eco friendly swap!
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fabric softener alternatives
I really try to avoid items that rely heavily on fragrance. These products didn’t used to bother me, but gave me intense headaches after significantly cutting my exposure for about a year.
Many of these products contribute to indoor air pollution, which is typically 5x more polluted than outdoor levels according to the EPA. Obviously, this can negatively impact our health.
Fragrance can also be found in fabric softener along with several other controversial ingredients. But fabric softener can actually ruin your clothes over time and contribute to several health and environmental problems.
FYI, when I refer to fabric softener, I’m talking about the liquid you add to your wash cycle as well as dryer sheets. Both contribute to air pollution, aquatic damage, allergic reactions, and respiratory issues.
I recommend skipping fabric softener entirely. Not only is this more eco conscious, but it’s also going to save you some serious cash! After all, why spend your money on something you really don’t need?
That said, if you’re really into it, I’ve included some natural fabric softeners you can use as an alternative.
is fabric softener bad?
Here’s the simple answer: Yep. Fabric softener isn’t needed in your wash. It doesn’t wash or clean your clothes, so it’s better left out entirely. It’s not going to remove stains or lingering odors.
Fabric softener is supposed to soften your fabrics, but it doesn’t necessarily do that over time. It helps with wrinkles and static, but there are more eco friendly fabric softener alternatives which I’ll discuss below.
Many of these products give me migraines, and there are quite a few ingredients that may cause this, including Fragrance. Whenever I caught a whiff of artificial scents, I’d often get a pounding headache and sometimes even nausea, coughing, or sneezing.
Even Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends skipping artificial softeners entirely.
how does fabric softener hurt the environment?
Traditional softeners are typically a petroleum-based product which doesn’t biodegrade easily.
Petroleum is a fossil fuel, and its combustion contributes to polluting emissions, especially of carbon dioxide — one of the most dangerous of the greenhouse gases.
Some softeners have a palm oil base. While some conventional palm oil plantations do contribute to deforestation, switching to other oils or boycotting palm oil isn’t the solution.
Palm oil is the highest yielding oil crop. Soybean, grapeseed, and sunflower substitutes require significantly more land to produce the same volume. When purchasing palm oil based products, just be sure to look for sustainably sourced palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Several other ingredients make up fabric softener, like glutaral (or glutaraldehyde), which is toxic to marine life.
Dyes are also frequently used in fabric softeners. During manufacturing, about a tenth of all dye products are discharged into our waterways. Even just a little added color in waterways can block sunlight and prevent plant photosynthesis, which disrupts the entire aquatic ecosystem.
Dryer sheets are disposable and single-use. You cannot compost or recycle them, so they must go in the trash.
They’re typically made from nonwoven polyester, aka plastic fabric, that’s coated with a liquid fabric softener. When heated, the liquid fabric softener gets released onto the clothes.
But this whole process releases potentially harmful chemicals, such as ‘Quats’, into the environment — including the air both in your home and outside. (Quats are short for quaternary ammonium compounds, and they’re often the most common softening chemicals used in fabric softener). Not to mention they’ve been classified as pesticides!
Quats don’t easily biodegrade, especially in water, and can be toxic to aquatic ecosystems. Let’s not forget dryer air vents outside your home – and right into our atmosphere.
what about its effects on human health?
One study by the University of Washington found certain chemicals are likely human carcinogens, allergens that contribute to eczema, and developmental toxicants.
Remember those Quats I mentioned? They’re in both dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener, and they’re linked to asthma amongst other health conditions.
Many quats have antibacterial qualities, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Overuse of quats may lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. In fact, many disinfectants also contain quats which were being overused at the height of the pandemic.
According to a recent study, the increased use of products containing quats could potentially compromise wastewater treatment processes that rely on bacterial activity. This would lead to inadequate treatment of wastewater that then pollutes rivers and other waters downstream.
This is the same with antibacterial soap: Triclosan and 18 other microbial chemicals were banned from soap by the FDA due to the risk of antibiotic resistance. These antimicrobial chemicals are designed to resist the degradation that occurs at wastewater facilities, so it’s better to avoid any products that contain them.
In addition, the artificial fragrances in fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain hundreds of untested chemicals like synthetic musks and phthalates which are hormone disruptors. Fragrance, in general, is one of the world’s top five allergens too.
does fabric softener ruin clothes?
Yes! It creates a waxy coating that can actually ruin your clothes over time.
This is because fabric softener essentially applies a thin, waxy coating to your laundry which must be water-resistant to survive the washing process. This waterproof coating initially makes your clothes softer but lessens their ability to absorb water and detergent over time.
This means your clothes won’t hold up as well in the wash and will likely begin locking in bad odors. These odors defeat the purpose of doing laundry.
This process can even ruin your cloth dish towels and stop them from absorbing water. That’s because fabric softener will build up on them over time, and since it’s waterproof, this interrupts how much liquid they can absorb.
pros and cons of softener
Curious as to what the pros and cons of this product are? Here’s a list — and the cons definitely outweigh the pros.
- Softens fabric: Yes, they will initially make your clothes feel softer and more cozy against your skin.
- Removes static: Fabric softener reduces static by lubricating the fibers of your clothes, so there’s less friction as they tumble.
- Locks in colors: Many fabric softeners claim to help retain brightness and colors of clothing and textiles.
- Maintains form: Fabric softener will reduce shrinkage because it gives clothes an added boost of elasticity.
- Prevents wrinkles: The fabric is in a more relaxed state so it’s less prone to wrinkles.
- Artificial fragrances that may trigger allergies: A lot of fabric softeners are made with artificial fragrances that can cause skin irritation and respiratory issues.
- Preservatives and dyes: These chemicals can irritate skin and can cause “dead zones” in bodies of water where the water cannot house or sustain any living creature or plant life.
- “Quats” ingredient is known for triggering asthma: Quats give our clothes that soft feeling. But they also may even impact reproductive health along with respiratory health.
- Petroleum based product: Many fabric softeners are made from petroleum, aka fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change.
- Leads to aquatic pollution: Many of the chemicals used in fabric softeners can harm marine life or even cause dead zones when it goes down the drain and into our waterways.
- Most formulas aren’t biodegradable: Because many fabric softeners have a petroleum base, they will not break down in the environment and will linger there for years, only further damaging the ecosystems of waterways.
- Not compatible with all fabrics: Fabric softener can actually damage certain fabrics like cashmere, wool, swimwear, moisture-wicking clothes, microfiber, terry cloth, and down/feather filled items.
- Can cause towels to become less absorbent: Over time, your towels will lose their absorbency and become relatively useless, forcing you to replace them.
- Builds up on clothes over time: Fabric softener will coat your clothes and eventually prevent water from penetrating your clothes. This will lead to unclean clothes that lock in dirt and odor.
- Tend to be packaged in plastic: Most fabric softeners are packaged in plastic, and since only 5% of plastic is actually recycled, it’s best to avoid any unnecessary plastic products altogether.
natural fabric softener options
If you still feel like your clothes need some additional help, there are options you can use that are more natural.
scented wool dryer balls
Instead of dryer sheets, grab some wool dryer balls and add a tiny amount of essential oil to them. Toss them in the drying cycle and your clothes will pick up the fresh scent. Best of all, scented wool dryer balls are compostable at the end of their life.
As an added bonus, dryer balls help reduce static and wrinkles, and they make your clothes soft without chemicals or environmental toxins.
Adding a little bit of baking soda into your laundry during the wash cycle can help soften the water. Just don’t overdo it — about ½ cup is more than enough.
If you have a lot of synthetic fabrics, you may want to skip this one. But adding vinegar to your wash cycle can help soften your clothes too. Just spray some vinegar on a washcloth and add it to the dryer. Or you can add ¼ cup of vinegar right into the rinse cycle.
You may want to test a small area of fabric with it to see if it’ll harm your clothes or not first. Then, you can decide if you’d like to move forward with this option or not.
a good detergent
Sometimes all you need is a good detergent. Most on the market are already designed to soften clothes, reduce static, and prevent wrinkles.
I recommend investing in a laundry detergent that’s both natural and effective at actually cleaning your clothes. Be sure to check out my blog post Laundry Detergent: The 10 BEST All-Natural, and Eco Friendly Options for detergents worth investing in.
how to make your clothes smell amazing
If you’re after the scent that fabric softeners have to offer, there are so many ways to make your clothes smell good without fabric softener. Here’s what to use instead:
lavender or rose water
Depending on which scent you enjoy more, put some lavender or rose water into a spray bottle and give your laundry a quick spritz before tossing it into the wash. You can also try your favorite essential oil mixed with water.
You can also try making this simple DIY Febreze instead. Just grab an empty spray bottle and fill it up with half vodka and half water. It can be used on almost all washable clothes, and when it evaporates, it takes the odors with it.
I picked up this hack from being in theatre to extend the life of the costumes in between washes. It doesn’t give me a horrible headache like Febreze, and it’s so simple and effective. Trust me, if costumers use it — it WORKS.
Skip the dryer and hang your clothes to dry in the sun! Not only will this help brighten your whites and save energy, but it’ll also help them retain any softness gained from the washing. Especially if you used any baking soda!
can you use homemade laundry detergent instead?
Please don’t! Whatever you do, don’t use homemade laundry detergent. That can also ruin your clothes and wreak havoc on your washing machine.
why do people think you need a softener?
Clever marketing, mostly! But also the perceived convenience. Clothes that come out of the dryer smooth, soft, wrinkle-free, static-free, and smell amazing? What a dream! However, people don’t realize you can achieve these results without all of the toxic chemicals that come in traditional softeners. I hope to educate people and change that!
Are you ready to ditch fabric softener? Let me know your favorite alternatives in the comments!