Fabric softeners and dryer sheets, considered laundry room staples by many, are a relatively new invention. They were designed to make our clothes feel a little softer and less staticky – and to line the cleaning products industry’s pockets, to the tune of millions to billions of dollars each year. Most fabric softeners also coat our clothes with strong, long-lasting perfumes.
We took a closer look at the chemistry of common fabric softeners, and we don’t like what we see (or smell).
How do fabric softeners work?
Manufacturers market liquid or dry crystal fabric softeners for washing machine rinse cycles and dryer sheets for the dryer. A few laundry detergents claim to have a bit of softening built in, though that “Touch of Downy” may not make much of a difference in the way clothes feel.
Fabric softeners and dryer sheets coat our clothes with a subtle layer of slimy chemicals – in fact, that’s why they feel a little softer. The most common softening chemicals are called “quats” (short for quaternary ammonium compounds) and include such chemical mouthfuls as diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride, dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate, dihydrogenated palmoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate and di-(palm carboxyethyl) hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate.
Of course, difficult pronunciation does not necessarily mean danger, but in this case it does clarify that we’re talking chemicals here, not vague, wonderful softness (as the advertisers would like you to believe). Quats are in many cleaning products, including most antibacterial wipes.
So what’s so bad about quats?
The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, a leading international authority on asthma, calls these chemicals “asthmagens,” substances that can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people. With asthma affecting nearly 1 in 10 American children, it makes sense to avoid exposing kids unnecessarily to asthma-causing chemicals.
Many quats have antibacterial qualities. While it might sound useful to keep clothes germ-free, freshly washed clothes are already plenty clean, and overuse of quats may lead to development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
And what about that “fresh, clean scent?”
The mystery mixtures that provide the jolt of fragrance in fabric softeners and dryer sheets can contain hundreds of untested chemicals, including toxic ingredients like phthalates and synthetic musks – both suspected hormone disruptors. Fragrances are among the world’s top five allergens.
A recent University of Washington study on air contaminants from fragranced consumer goods detected between 18 and 20 chemicals in each of four laundry products – including likely human carcinogens acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, developmental toxicants methyl ethyl ketone and chloromethane, and allergens like linalool. I don’t want this in my laundry and my neighbors probably don’t want it in the dryer air that vents in their direction. Turns out that air gets contaminated, too.
A few fabric softeners for babies or people with sensitive skin are fragrance-free but still contain quats.
Green options for the wash
To reduce your family’s exposure to untested, unnecessary chemicals that can cause asthma, allergies and other health problems, simply skip the fabric softeners and dryer sheets. It’s easier, healthier and cheaper to just say no.
If you can’t live without that extra softness, try using 1/2 cup of white vinegar per load during the rinse cycle as a natural fabric softener. And while you’re at it, hang it out to dry, too – that fresh, outdoor smell might just be better.