Fabric Softeners: What you need to know!

by Amanda Hearn · 8 comments

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Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 12.27.46 PMDryer sheets and conventional fabric softeners are not only expensive, they aren’t good for the environment or you.

Traditional dryer sheets contain all sorts of chemicals.  The first thing you might notice is their scent.  They are chock full of synthetic fragrances (phthalates!).  Phthalates are hormone disruptors found as components of synthetic fragrances. They are linked to issues with obesity, reproductive development and more.

Next you might notice their waxy sheen.  Did you know that most sheets use animal fat (tallow) to give your clothes that extra softness?  There’s just nothing like animal fat on freshly cleaned clothes… right?

If that’s not enough, there’s still a lot more.  When you think of fabric softeners it obviously occurs to you that it is in contact with the skin, but keep in mind that most, if not all, of these chemicals have serious side effects when inhaled.  To me, it only makes sense that if it’s in my dryer being heated up and evaporated off into my home (and around it), there is a risk of inhalation.  If I can smell it, I’m inhaling it.

According to the EPA these are just some of the chemicals found in traditional softeners.

You can read more about fabric softeners (and a whole host of other common household items on this PDF release).

alpha-Terpineol: Can cause inflammation of the skin on contact for some people.  Open cuts, abraded or irritated skin should not be exposed to this material.
Benzyl Acetate: Linked to pancreatic cancer.  Skin irritant.
Benzyl Alcohol: Skin irritant irritant, respiratory irritant.
Camphor: May cause mild skin, eye or respiratory irritation. Some sources suggest that it is possible that epileptic-like seizures may be caused through exposure.
Chloroform: Carcinogenic.  Causes skin irritation resulting in redness and pain. Removes natural oils. Respiratory irritant. Causes central nervous system effects, including headache, drowsiness, dizziness.  Prolonged exposure may lead to death due to irregular heart beat and kidney and liver disorders.
Ethanol: Can cause central nervous system disorders.
Ethyl Acetate: A narcotic on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list.  Skin irritant. Symptoms include redness, itching, and pain. Repeated or prolonged contact with the skin has a defatting effect and may cause dryness, cracking, and possibly dermatitis.
Linalool: A narcotic that causes central nervous system & respiratory disorders.
Pentane: Causes skin irritation, cracking or flaking due to dehydration and defatting action.  Vapors have a mild narcotic effect. Symptoms of overexposure may include drowsiness and irritation of the respiratory passages. Greater exposure may cause unconsciousness and death.

Anyone else noticing that the fabric softeners meant to keep our clothes soft are seriously damaging and drying out our skin?!

So, what can you use?

Vinegar
You can pick up gallons of this stuff for a couple dollars.  Use about a 1/4 cup per load in your rinse cycle. I like to use a Downy ball (you can find these for a couple dollars at your local store). I fill it about half full and toss it in with my load. If your machine has a compartment for softener, you can put it in there.

This will not leave your clothes smelling like vinegar! I was hesitant to try it at first because I thought it would. So, I tried it out on a load of my husband’s work laundry. I’m terrible, I know.  But it worked, no smell and everything was softer! For fun scents, you can add essential oils to your vinegar.

Dryer Balls
I love dryer balls.  I use four of the Nellie’s Dryer Balls (2 standard, 2 pvc free) and I just adore them.  My clothes dry faster, my diapers (even all of my all-in-ones) dry in a single cycle and everything gets so soft. It even helps with wrinkles.

Nellie’s Dryer Balls
(I love these!)
(love these too)

Eco-friendly Branded options
I’m sure there are more options out there, but here are just a few.

Ecover
Seventh Generation Liquid  – we have used this and it works great
Seventh Generation Dryer Sheets
Method Liquid
Method Dryer Sheets – we have used these and like them a lot
Mrs. Meyers Dryer Sheets
Mrs. Meyers Liquid

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Amanda Hearn

Amanda Hearn

Founder of The Eco-Friendly Family, design geek, serial tanktopist, content creator, mother, coffee addict, & lover of fun. I am also a partner at Green Child Magazine & Put A Cup In It!
Amanda Hearn
Alejandra October 16, 2009 at 3:58 pm

I use vinegar, never thought to use essential oils, though, I miss the "softener smell" out of the dryer so I think Ill try that– I haven used the dryer balls because they are made w/ PVC's BUT, I just saw that Nellies has some pvc free ones now that I may try out!

Kelsey March 29, 2011 at 5:03 pm

You can buy wool balls on etsy!

Tayler October 13, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Are nellies dryer balls loud in the dryer? Our wool dryer balls are rather loud

Amanda Hearn October 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm

They aren’t terribly loud, but I would say they are just as noisy as my wool ones.

Katie M December 6, 2014 at 11:41 am

We stopped using fabric softener just to save money. I didn’t know about phthalates but I did know about the animal fat and that turned me away from them too. I will have to try vinegar to see if it makes a difference. Thanks for the information.

Melissa Brown October 2, 2015 at 11:08 pm

Use the vinegar; but really want to give a dryer ball a shot. Seems like a wool dryer ball would build some serious static – does that happen?

polraa May 7, 2016 at 5:11 am

Came across this while doing research for another related project. Lots of useful information we didn’t know about fabric softeners. Readers here might find this useful too:

How to Save Water When Doing Your Laundry
http://www.polraa.com/blogs/eco-living/101608198-how-to-save-water-when-doing-your-laundry

DW November 19, 2016 at 4:40 pm

Today I read ‘The Shocking Truth About Cats and Dryer Sheets” that listed dipalmitoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate as being toxic to cats. I searched for safe alternative and was pointed to Seventh Generation’s “Natural Fabric Softener Sheet” and to Mrs Meyer’s dryer sheets. Both claimed to be a better alternative as they don’t contain animal products. However it looks as if they both do contain the toxic dipalmitoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate as ingredients. I guess “naturally-derived ingredients” and “no animal ingredients” does not mean safe. It’s left me wondering if this is a cynical attempt to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes, just a case of ignorance, or are they plain wrong at http://www.catster.com/ and numerous other sites. God, it’s worse than trying to decipher fact from fiction in an election.

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