Many Americans Are Ditching Their Fabric Softener – And Experts Warn You May Want To As Well

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Laundry is a part of life – every grown-up knows this. And you probably have a routine for cleaning your clothes, too. You fill the machine with dirty garments, you add the detergent and then you reach for the fabric softener. It might be time to stop skipping that third step, though, as more and more experts warn against using dryer sheets or liquid softener in the wash.

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Most American laundry rooms wouldn’t be complete without a bottle of their favorite fabric softener – or a box of their trusted dryer sheets. These items became commonplace during the 1960s and have stayed that way for decades because, well, they work. We all want our fresh, clean clothes to feel comfortable, and these solutions do the trick.

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However, in recent years, experts have uncovered some disturbing truths about fabric softener. As such, more and more Americans are ditching traditional laundry products for new solutions to make their laundry fluffy and fresh. You might do the same after you learn the truth about these products, too.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, textile manufacturers had a problem – the pigments they employed to color cotton gave the resulting fabrics a rough texture. To fix this, they washed their products in a mixture of soap, water and oil made from olive, tallow or corn. That blend would subsequently inspire scientists to produce formulas that would work as softeners.

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However, it took a little over a half-century for fabric softener to catch on with the masses. Big-name brands such as Procter & Gamble put out their versions in the 1960s. From there, more effective substances – laced with better scents – brought more people on board in using softeners.

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As of 2019, fabric softener is an industry worth more than $2 billion in the United States alone. And people have plenty of good reasons for using the most modern versions of this century-old product. For starters, it fulfills the original purpose for its creation – it makes clothes and other items we wash feel more comfortable.

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Softeners do more than what their name tells us, though. They can also help garments to last longer by soothing any tension between threads. If this friction disappears, it lowers static cling, too – and most of us have first-hand experience of how annoying that can be.

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Finally, people use fabric softener because it includes a dash of fragrance – and who doesn’t want their clean clothes to smell good? This is true of softener in its most common forms, whether it’s liquid being added to the wash or dryer sheets.

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Even though fabric softener can do a world of good for your clothes, it may not be as beneficial for you and your body. Cotton Incorporated’s evaluation manager Suzanne Holmes and Samara Geller, a senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, know just how these products work – in good and bad ways.

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The negative side of fabric softener starts with its ingredients – often one in particular. Sometimes, washing clothes with a liquid softener or drying them with a sheet leaves them feeling almost slimy to the touch. And it’s this coating that’s supposed to give garments the softness and anti-static properties we seek.

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However, the veneer contains a substance known as quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs. Plenty of cleaning products contain QACs, and they can prove vital to the people who use them. For example, some rely on QAC-laden solutions to sanitize hospitals, schools and other places that need to be clean to be safe.

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QACs start out as solids that are then placed in liquids to dissolve. However, if QACs subsequently dry out, they may return to a solid form. You can’t always tell if your cleaning products contain them, though, because they typically make up below one percent of the solution. As such, they don’t have to appear on the Safety Data Sheets that come with such products.

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This is a big problem, according to Geller, who pointed out to Apartment Therapy in February 2020 that scent-free or so-called green products – fabric softener included – can still contain ingredients that many users would otherwise want to avoid. She said, “Labeling is a massive issue with cleaning products and their ingredients are disclosed less often.”

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On that note, the QAC-induced slimy sensation is just one of the documented flaws of fabric softener. It can also adversely affect particular materials, thus stopping them from working as intended. For starters, adding some to a load of athletic wear can cause the garments’ moisture-absorbing properties to fail.

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These properties are why you buy such items in the first place – they pull sweat from your body quickly and allow it to dry out more rapidly. That way, you stay cool, and your perspiration doesn’t drench your workout gear. Once you wash this fabric with softener, though, these abilities will be diminished.

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The residue left behind after a softener-laden wash can fill the fabric’s breathable apertures. This prevents your gear from doing its job – without aeration, it can no longer help sweat dry. So, you should definitely start to skip the softener when you wash your exercise clothes – but that’s not the only type of fabric ruined by this product.

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Interestingly enough, fabric softener can ruin one of the very products it was meant to improve in the first place: towels. For one thing, terry or microfiber cloths – items designed to be super absorbent – will lose this quality if you add a liquid softener or dryer sheet into the mix.

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And even cotton towels will lose their softness over time – which is of course counter-intuitive, considering these products are specifically meant to keep fabrics feeling soft. “Cotton naturally washes cleaner and feels softer against skin than synthetics,” Holmes explained. “This is important because relying too much on dryer sheets can turn items like towels into nonabsorbent, ineffective rags.”

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And then there’s another, even more serious issue created by fabric softener – and, in many cases, the warning is right there on the container. In July 2019 a mom’s Facebook post went viral after she shared the notice on the back of her Lenor-brand bottle of fabric softener. She wrote, “Never seen this before, but all mums need to know, DO NOT PUT THIS ON YOUR KIDS’ SLEEPWEAR!”

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The Lenor fabric softener in question had a list of ingredients on its container. Beneath that, the bottle featured guidance that stated: “Liquid fabric softener can increase fabric flammability. Using more than recommended can increase this effect.” Although the label didn’t explain further, there’s a reason why the softening solution can heighten an item’s likelihood of burning.

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Fabric softener segregates the fibers that make up fuzzy fabrics such as fleece, flannel and even cotton, which gives them a fluffier feel after a wash and dry. This is fine for natural materials, but for some human-made and coated materials, too much fabric softener can have an unexpected side effect.

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For one thing, fabric softener can break down flame-retardant additives that coat children’s pajamas and other garments. And even natural materials covered in fabric softener can catch fire more easily, because it causes their fibers to spread out. This means that there’s more of the garment that’s at risk of beginning to burn.

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The database of the Department of Health & Human Services Products contains warnings about this possibility. And this notice came to light after a nine-year-old girl’s nightgown caught fire in 2012. The guidance advised against using fabric softener on already fuzzy or fluffy materials to prevent them from catching fire.

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The database entry for Ultra Downy Liquid Fabric Softener stated: “By increasing fluffiness, using liquid fabric softeners can increase the flammability of these types of fabrics. Therefore, do not use this product on clothing made with these types of fluffier fabrics.” On top of that, experts warn against using fabric softener on flame-resistant clothing, including kids’ pajamas and other garments.

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McGill University’s Joe Schwarcz issued further guidance to the Montreal Gazette in 2017. Firstly, he advised parents to dress their little ones in polyester-inclusive pajamas, as the synthetic material is less flammable than cotton. He also calmed minds by pointing out that fabric softener-coated fabrics wouldn’t just burst into flame on their own.

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“Remember that going up in ‘a ball of flame’ requires a source of ignition!” Schwarcz wrote. “You can lounge around in a comfy fabric-softened flannel robe to your heart’s content without worrying about it spontaneously bursting into flame. Just don’t do it next to a fireplace and don’t go dropping any cigarette ashes on it.”

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Moreover, that isn’t the end of the concerns about fabric softener. Others go back to the inclusion of quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs, in dryer sheets and liquid softener. For some users, this particular ingredient can exacerbate pre-existing health conditions – or even create entirely new ones.

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Environmental Working Group analyst Geller told the Apartment Therapy website that softener has been shown to cause skin problems and exacerbate asthma. She added that it has links to serious medical conditions, including reproductive issues and even cancer. Nonetheless, experts need to conduct more research to conclusively confirm the link.

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Contact with QACs can cause physical harm to you and your loved ones as well. For example, let’s say you splash a bit of QAC-inclusive fabric softener in your eye – this can cause eye or mucous membrane issues. And, if a child accidentally swallows some, they may suffer from internal problems as a result.

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Avoiding QACs and all of their adverse health effects isn’t as easy as skipping fabric softener or dryer sheets, though. As previously mentioned, the compounds appear in a multitude of different cleaning products, especially those that contain scents. But even so-called green varieties may contain chemicals, despite packaging that makes them seem cleaner and safer.

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For this reason, Geller highlighted the lack of regulation in the industry, which has allowed so many consumer goods to hit the shelves with unlisted QACs inside. To ensure you choose safe products for you and your family, you can check the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for a more thorough rundown.

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As it turns out, you can avoid fabric softener or dryer sheets altogether in order to side-step these effects. Firstly, you have the eco-friendly, all-natural option of using wool dryer balls. These can be re-used for years on end, whereas the synthetic sheets are single-use items.

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The wool spheres plump up fabrics as they roll around in your tumble dryer. They beat clothes and other textiles to soften their fibers without any superficial coating. In addition, as they bounce around, they fight static and friction, just as fabric softener does. The spheres keep garments separated so they dry uniformly as well.

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“Dryer balls help to lift and aerate the clothing and shorten dryer time,” Geller explained. “The less dryer time, the less static there will be.” To enjoy this effect, you’ll need around four or five wool dryer balls. The larger the load, the more you’ll add in – and the better your clothes, sheets and towels will feel after the cycle.

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If you live in a calcium-heavy water zone, you might try another all-natural alternative to fabric softener: baking soda. Add it into your machine, allow it all to dissolve and then place your garments into the basin. After they’re washed with baking soda, clothes will feel softer, and they’ll have less static, too.

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You can also make clothes bouncy and fluffy in the dryer by adding a dry towel in with a wet load of laundry. Some have found that this combination imbues the drying garments with the right amount of softness and reduces unwanted static, too. You don’t require anything special to try out this option – chances are, you have at least one clean, dry towel lying around.

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Some people have seen the same results with a much different but equally commonplace material. Crumple up a ball of aluminum foil – yes, the stuff you use to cover leftovers – and pop that into the dryer with your clothes. It agitates your wet garments, just as a dryer ball does, thus softening fabrics as they dry.

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This method does require a bit of finesse, since the edges of aluminum foil can be a little on the sharp side. So, make sure you carefully crumple your sheet before adding it to the dryer. For added peace of mind, skip this method when washing delicate garments – that way, you won’t find any snags or tears in them.

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Finally, you have an easy and eco-friendly option to avoid static altogether, and that’s air-drying your clothes. Sure, it takes a bit longer to do things this way, but it tends to be better for and gentler on garments. Plus, they’ll stay softer if you use baking soda in the wash with them.

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In the end, of course, it’s up to you to decide if you’ll skip fabric softener or not. At the very least, though, you should probably do some research into the subject. The Environmental Working Group and other experts have analyzed the ingredients of such products, and it very well could be safer for you and your family to skip them altogether.