Last Updated on June 2, 2022
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 which 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 and dryer sheets. Both contribute to air pollution, aquatic damage, allergic reactions and respiratory issues.
I recommend skipping fabric softener entirely, and here’s why you should do the same. Not only is this more eco- it’s also going to save you some serious cash! Afterall, why spend your money on something you really don’t need. But, if you’re really into it I’ve included some more eco-friendly alternatives.
should I use fabric softener
Here’s the simple answer: Nope. 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 other more eco-friendly alternatives that you can check out which I’ll discuss down below.
Many of these products give me migraines and there are quite a few ingredients that may cause this, including Fragrance. Whenever I smelled artificial scents, I’d often get a pounding headache, and sometimes even nausea, coughing or sneezing.
Even Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends skipping fabric softeners entirely. There are other eco-friendly alternatives to use (which we’ll get into).
how does fabric softener hurt the environment?
Fabric 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 fabric softeners have a palm oil base. Some conventional palm oil plantations contribute to deforestation, but switching to other oils, or boycotting palm oil, isn’t the solution.
Palm oil is the highest yielding oil crop. Soybean, rapeseed 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).
There are several other ingredients that makeup 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 nonwolven 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 into the environment, such as ‘Quats’, into 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. This causes both indoor and outdoor air pollution. 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 in fabric softener 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 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 off 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! Fabric softener 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.
Fabric softener 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 fabric softener is water proof, this interrupts how much liquid they can absorb.
pros and cons of fabric softener
Curious as to what the pros and cons of fabric softener are? Here’s a list – and the cons definitely outweigh the pros.
- Softens fabric: Yes, fabric softener will initially make your clothes feel softer. It’ll make clothes, sheets and towels 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 clothes.
- 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 plants.
- “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, this means 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 locks 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.
how can I make clothes smell good without fabric softener?
There are so many ways to make your clothes smell good without fabric softener. Here’s what to use instead of fabric softener.
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 into the wash. You can also try your favorite essential oil mixed with water.
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, these are compostable at the end of their life.
Plus, as an added bonus, dryer balls help reduce static, wrinkles, and make your clothes soft without the 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.
You can also try making this simple DIY Febreze instead. Just grab an empty spray bottle and fill it up with half vodka, 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, it’ll also help them retain any softness gained from the washing. Especially if you used any baking soda!
a good detergent
Sometimes all you need is a good detergent. Most on the market are designed to already 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.
And whatever you do, don’t use homemade laundry detergent – that can also ruin your clothes!
Are you ready to ditch fabric softener? Let me know your favorite alternatives in the comments!