The Hard Truth About Fabric Softeners

Clothesline
flickr/Julie Falk

Do you use fabric softeners or dryer sheets? If so, maybe you use them because your mom did. Maybe it’s out of habit because commercials make us feel that we need something more than just detergent. But do we? Sure, they make clothes feel softer, reduce static cling, and add a spring-fresh scent. But have you thought about how they do this? A chemical layer is added to the fabrics. I decided to take a look at what these chemicals are.

Despite pretty imagery on the containers and natural sounding fragrances (“April Fresh”, “Honey Flower”, “Fresh Spring Flowers”…), chemicals used to make fabric softeners smell good are often anything but natural. The tricky part is, manufacturers are not required to list what’s in fragrance formulations as they are proprietary. However, many chemicals used in fragrances are known or suspected carcinogens, hormone disruptors, allergens, and can induce asthma. (Take a look at the P.S. to this post for specific examples of chemicals used in fragrances.) One study of dryer vent exhaust found volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including hazardous air pollutants and carcinogens.

In addition, the chemicals used to soften clothes are called quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”), which have been reported to contribute to asthma. (I wasn’t able to find a scientific study to this effect, but studies have concluded that asthma-associated chemicals are being used in consumer products, like dryer sheets.)

Similar to my thoughts on organic food, exposure to chemicals from individual use of fabric softeners is small. However, repeated use overtime, and exposure to similar chemicals from other products may compound the problems associated with them. They also contribute to the waste entering our waterways and landfills (conventional dryer sheets cannot be composted).

It’s worth trying your wash routine without the fabric softener or dryer sheets –  many people who made the switch haven’t looked back. You’ll save some cash, reduce waste sent to landfill, and reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.

If you’re not satisfied going softener-free, consider adding wool dryer balls instead for a similar effect (and while I’ve never tried them, I have it on good authority that they also reduce drying time). There are also reusable sheets available. Whatever your preferred product, you’re best bet is to steer clear of products with chemical fragrance (though they’ll still have quats).

With summer around the corner, hopefully you can avoid use of your dryer all together and hang dry for a true “April Fresh” scent.

Do you use fabric softeners? Has new information made you make a change? Let me know in the comments, on Facebook, or Twitter (@green_at_home).

P.S. Some examples of chemicals used in fragrances

Since manufacturers don’t have to declare what ingredients are used in fragrances, it’s tough to find out what’s specifically in fabric softeners. Proctor and Gamble (makers of Bounce) provides a file online with hundreds of chemicals they choose from to create scents. Not all chemicals are bad, so I’m not saying that the whole list should be avoided. But there are enough on the list to raise concern. Here are just a few:

Limonene – reacts in air to form secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde (an irritant and allergen, especially in children).

TriethanolamineEthanolamines are pH-stabilizers can cause otherwise healthy people to develop asthma. Some studies show that certain ethanolamines are carcinogenic or neurotoxic.

Diethyl PhthalateCan enter the body through the skin, and breaks down into other chemicals, some of which are harmful. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors.

Acetaldehyde A probable human carcinogen.

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