There’s a commercial on television that is one of those marketing faux pas, having very little truth to it. It goes something like “When your V-neck looks more like a U-neck, you know your T is half-washed…..Downy will prevent stretching….” Well, I lose it because you can’t reverse damage, aka stretched fabric, and what does half-washed mean anyways? I’m going to give you the goods on fabric softeners, and why you shouldn’t use them. Fabric softener is one of the most over used household product in our laundry arsenal. We use fabric softener, partly because of the scent it imparts on our clothes, but its use comes at a cost – to us and to our environment.
What is fabric softener?
Like the conditioner used on your hair, fabric softener is a conditioner for your clothes. Fabric softeners are a mixture of chemical compounds, that form a thin, waxy, water resistant film on the surface of the fabric. The coating binds static charge, rendering the fabric with antistatic properties. It also imparts a softer, and fluffier feel to fabric, reduces wrinkle formation, and adds fragrance. Fabric softener is commonly found as a liquid which is added to the rinse cycle, and as sheets used in the dryer.
The Problems With Using Fabric Softeners
There are harmful effects caused by using fabric softeners. The Allergy and Environment Health Association has found that fabric softener is the most toxic product produced for daily household use. They contain a cocktail of petroleum based chemicals, toxins, carcinogens, and allergens harmful to humans and the environment.
Although we love the smell of fresh laundry, the fragrance in fabric softeners is a common cause of irritant dermatitis in sensitive individuals.
Using fabric softeners increases the flammability of fabrics, or makes clothes more flammable. This is the reason labels read “Do Not Use Fabric Softeners” on children’s sleepwear, and flame resistant fabrics. The flammability is increased as much as seven times.
The coating lessens the ability of the fabric to absorb water, and actually makes the clothes more difficult to clean. Fabric softeners should not be used on towels, as they become less absorbent over time.
Fabric softeners are harsh to natural fibers like pure cotton or bamboo, lessening their absorption rate. Fabric softeners leave a residue that dulls the finish of clothes with elastane (lycra or spandex), and attracts odour causing bacteria. Something we don’t want to happen to the leggings and athletic clothes we love to wear. Fabric softener poured directly on fabric in the washing machine, will leave oily stains, particularly on synthetics and can’t be removed.
If this wasn’t enough, fabric softeners are bad for washing machines and plumbing. They form a “scud” in the machine, clogging pipes creating a breeding ground for bacteria, and encouraging the growth of mold. If you use fabric softener, the washing machine must be cleaned regularly with vinegar or bleach. The early dryer sheets produced caused a buildup in the dryer, which was difficult for the technician to address.
The first thing I want to mention in this section – we use the dryer too much. Dryers are the major culprit for causing wrinkles in fabric, and their consumption of energy. Unfortunately, most people today don’t have the luxury of an outdoor clothes line to dry garments and linens. However, there are many varieties of indoor, foldable lines for drying. Except for towels and bedding, which require longer drying times, hanging clothes up to dry is a better choice. For most clothing, I use the dryer for a few minutes, then hang or lay flat to finish drying. This shorter drying time for items like no-iron shirts, fluffs the fabric and helps to stave off wrinkles. I never dry synthetics in the dryer. Foil can be scrunched into a ball, then tossed into the dryer for static control. Wool, felted dryer balls are a great option for softening and preventing static. You can even make dryer sheets, by cutting cotton cloth squares infused with a few drops of your favourite essential oils. My favourite is lavender.
Better Fabric Softener Alternatives
- Add 1/2 cup of baking soda to the wash cycle. Baking soda is a great deodorizer, and enhances the cleansing action of laundry soap.
- Add 1/4 to 2/3 cup vinegar to the rinse cycle. Vinegar is good for getting rid of soap residue, as well as ridding the washing machine of buildup. You can add a few drops of essential oil. Don’t worry, you won’t smell vinegar in your clothes.
- Homemade fabric softener. One of the many recipes available is to combine 6 cups of vinegar, 1 cup baking soda, and 10 drops of essential oil in a glass jar. Use 1 cup per load of laundry in the rinse cycle.
I hope I have made you think twice about using fabric softener. It’s an unnecessary laundry product, as there are better substitutes. My best tip is to reduce dryer time, eliminate its use for synthetics, and hang up your clothes to dry. There are natural, common household ingredients, mainly baking soda and vinegar that offer similar benefits as fabric softeners. And making felted dryer balls are fun, in white wool of course.