Many people use commercial fabric softeners or dryer sheets to reduce static cling and maker their clothes feel softer. Ironically, most people that use these products don't realize that they are essentially trading dirty clothes for clothes that are covered in a thin layer of toxic chemicals, which are then inhaled and worn next to the skin for hours at a time. Here are some not-so-friendly facts about fabric softeners, and information on some eco-friendly alternatives.
How Fabric Softeners Work
Fabric softeners work by coating the surface of clothing fibers with a thin layer of chemicals. These chemicals contain properties that make the fibers feel smooth and prevent the buildup of static electricity. They also reduce friction during ironing, increase stain resistance, and reduce wrinkling. Because they are designed to stay on fabric for a long time, they are easily inhaled and absorbed by our skin.
Just a few of the toxic chemicals commonly found in fabric softeners and dryer sheets:
- benzyl acetate
- benzyl alcohol
- dimethyl sulphate
- ethyl acetate
- isopropyl alcohol
These chemicals have been linked to certain types of cancer, kidney and liver damage, birth defects, central nervous disorders, edema, severe respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and skin allergies. Most of these chemicals are not easily biodegradable and are also hazardous to the environment, especially chemicals on dryer sheets, which are heated up before being released into the air.
Fabric Softener and Flammability
According to the Department of Chemistry at McGill University, studies have shown that when liquid fabric softener is added to the rinse cycle, certain fabrics become up to 7 times more flammable. The fabrics most at risk are flannel, terrycloth, and fleece (especially when made of cotton). They have a greater surface area (and therefore hold more fabric softener) due to their soft fluffy texture. Liquid fabric softener should never be used on these types of fabrics or on children's clothing, even if the fabric has been treated with flame retardants, because fabric softener reduces their effectiveness.
Safe Alternatives for Softening Clothes
There are now dozens of eco-friendly fabric softeners and dryer sheets available. Here is a short list of some popular brands:
FS = fabric softener DS = dryer sheets
- ECOVER (FS)
- Method (FS)
- Mountain Green (FS and DS)
- Proctor and Gamble's Bounce-Free Fabric Sheets (releases biodegradable fabric softening agents. Contains no dyes or perfumes). (DS)
- Seventh Generation (FS)
Do-It-Yourself Fabric Softeners
- Baking Soda: Add a quarter cup of baking soda to wash cycle to soften fabrics.
- Vinegar: Vinegar is a good non-toxic alternative to fabric softener. It softens fabrics and also helps prevent static cling. Use it on towels, diapers, and heavy fabrics like denim (avoid using it on delicates). Add 1/2 cup of white distilled vinegar to your rinse cycle.
- Vegetable Glycerin: Some of the earliest fabric softeners were made of soaps and oils, so it's no surprise that vegetable glycerin works like a traditional fabric softener. Mix 1 cup of vegetable glycerin with 1 gallon of water, and add 1/2cup of the mixture to your rinse cycle.
Do-It Yourself Dryer Sheets
- Aluminum Foil: Believe it or not, a crumpled up wad of aluminum foil in the dryer eliminates static cling.
- Tennis Balls: While they won't reduce static cling, they will keep your sheets nice and fluffy.
- Dry Bath Towel: Throw it in the dryer with your wet clothes and it will soften everything while they are drying.