The Truth About Fabric Softeners and Dryer Sheets

Written by C. Cartwright
@Eco Blvd
17 Mar 2020
 

I get it.  There's nothing quite like soft towels, bedding and clothing.  They feel luxurious against your skin, and just so comfortable.  Does anyone really like the loofah effect of towels which have been dried on the line?  Or having their fabrics being able to nearly stand up by themselves because they're so stiff!  Since they were invented by the textile trade in the early 1900's to soften their dyed fabrics, fabric softeners have been well and truly welcomed and embraced.  But back then our washing machines weren't so advanced (they didn't have the automatic fabric softener dispenser like the machines of today have).  And it was sometimes a bit tricky timing the wash cycle so that you could add the fabric softener to the rinse part of the cycle.  That was until dryer sheets were invented in the late 60's.  Dryer sheets negated the need for fabric softeners in wash cycles.  It was revolutionary!  All you had to do was simply add a dryer sheet to your drying load and that was it!  Doing the humble laundry was elevated to a brand new level!  You could produce soft, perfumed laundry (every time) without a hint of static in sight - and all with minimal effort!

To say dryer sheets were a hit is an understatement.  Americans went crazy for what was originally called 'Tumble Puffs'.  Proctor & Gamble bought the patent, altered the composition, and re marketed them as Bounce Dryer Sheets.  The European and Australian markets didn't take long to follow suit; and the rest, as they say, is history.  And although our washing machines have now evolved to automatically dispense the fabric softener, people still continue to use dryer sheets.  Some people use both.  They just love them.

But how much do we really know about fabric softeners and dryer sheets?  How do they work?  What's in them?  And are they good for us?  Let's explore the truth about fabric softeners and dryer sheets, and then you can make up your own mind.

What Are They and Why do You Use Them?

Fabric softeners and dryer sheets are laundry aids which when added to your loads of washing or drying, produce aromatic, soft and fluffy fabrics while also acting to reduce static cling.

How Do You Use Them?
  • Fabric Softener: Liquid softener is added to the fabric softener dispenser at the beginning of the cycle.  It is activated during the rinse cycle of your wash load so that the softener remains behind in the fabric (instead of washed out of it) to soften them and reduce static cling.  Fragrance is also a component of the fabric softener.
  • Dryer Sheets: A sheet is added directly to your tumble dryer load to soften the fabrics and reduce static cling.  Fragrance is also a component of the dryer sheet.
How Do They Work?

When the chemicals from fabric softeners / dryer sheets are added to your fabrics, they coat the individual fibres of your fabrics which make them stand more upright and seem fuller and fluffier.  They also make them feel more slippery (soft) whilst at the same time reducing the (negative) static build up because of the (positive) ionic nature of the conditioning agents used.  Dryer sheets release a resin that deposit a waxy coating on the fabrics to soften them.  This resin is solid when it is cold - as it is heated by your dryer it will melt and be deposited on your fabrics - and then as the load cools, this resin will solidify into your fabrics.

What is in Them?

All fabric softeners are based off of the same 2 core ingredients which are conditioning agents and emulsifiers.   Among other components, they also contain stabilisers and preservatives to prolong their shelf life.

  • Conditioning Agent: This is the ‘softener’ part of the liquid.  It is a fatty lubricating compound / waxy resin which leaves an oily coating on your fabrics. 
  • Emulsifier: Enables the oily coating to actually get through the water and onto your fabrics – otherwise it would just float ‘on’ the water in globules until it is drained away.  Dryer sheets have a waxy resin which will melt when it is heated within your dryer.

In addition to the two core ingredients, the only way that manufacturers can differentiate their product to make them stand out to consumers is by creating different ‘tantalising’ fragrances or colours.   And for all of the different types of fragrances and colours produced, a raft of chemicals is required to produce them.  In the European Community it is law to disclose these chemicals, however Australian legislation and regulations, for personal care products and detergent products, do not require such ingredient disclosure.

Below is a list of just SOME of the chemicals found in commercial fabric softeners / dryer sheets.  Note:  As it is not required by law, it is impossible to know just what chemicals constitute ‘perfume’ or ‘fragrance’ or ‘colour’.

Are They Harmful to Us?

Yes. 

It is clear from the list of health issues that these chemical ingredients are linked to or cause, that fabric softeners / dryer sheets are products that require careful consideration before using.

  • The oily fats and chemicals that coat your fabrics to make them soft can cause skin irritations, rashes and eczema etc. This is because your fabrics are laying directly against your skin – which acts like a giant sponge absorbing the chemicals present. 
  • The perfumes from the softeners are disguising a chemical concoction. You are breathing in this chemical cocktail for as long as you can smell the fragrance – which can last and last for a very long time – sometimes for days. This prolonged off gassing of perfume chemicals can trigger asthma attacks and other breathing / respiratory problems.
  • When the chemicals on the dryer sheets are heated, they are released into the air and the adverse results can be elevated posing a respiratory health risk to those inside the home or vicinity.  Asthma sufferers are most at risk.
  • The oily coating from the conditioning agent is the reason why towels and nappies etc lose their absorbency – it is also the reason that children’s sleepwear loses their fire-retardant properties which is particularly dangerous. The companies that sell fabric softeners / dryer sheets all display warnings on their packages regarding this (see photos below) – but confusingly most also use children on their packaging and in their marketing.  

Are They Safe for the Environment?

No.

The contents of fabric softeners (silicones and petrochemicals) are toxic to marine life and pollute our waterways.  And typically, the oily scrud that builds up on washing machines also ends up in the waterways.

Every single time you wash your clothes with fabric softener, whatever chemical that does not stick to your clothing will make its way to the waterways.  Then when you wash that clothing next, whatever chemical that did stick to it initially, will end up in the waterways.

As dryer sheets are single use, the spent sheet with any residual chemicals on it will make its way into our landfills.  Then when you next wash the fabric / clothing, the chemicals that adhered to them to soften them, will be washed off into our waterways.

Fabric Softeners Reduce the Fire Retardant Properties of Children's Sleepwear and Clothing
Are There Alternatives to Fabric Softeners?

Yes.

For Washing:

  • To soften clothes naturally you can add ¼ - ½ cup of baking soda to the wash cycle and ½ cup of white vinegar to your fabric softener dispenser (for the rinse cycle).
  • There are many natural recipes for fabric softeners online.
  • When your load of washing is finished, give each piece a shake before hanging or drying: this fluffs up the fabric’s fibres.

For Drying:

Use Wool Dryer Balls in your dryer.  These are fragrance free, but if you prefer scented laundry, you can add a few drops of your favourite essential oil.  

In summary, the pros and cons of fabric softeners and dryer sheets