While fabric softeners work extremely well to soften clothing and reduce static, they can contain hundreds of unlabeled, untested chemicals that come into direct contact with the body on a 24/7 basis.
These products do their job by leaving a residue on fabric that is very hard to remove. The fumes can easily be smelled for days or even weeks (years?) afterward.
Have you ever noticed that you have to wash an article of clothing two, three, or even four times to get the synthetic smell out?
I first noticed this when purchasing clothing from baby consignment stores when my oldest was very young. The sickly sweet floral scent of fabric softener used by the previous owners was so strong that I had to rewash the clothing multiple times before I felt safe using it to dress my son!
There are two groups of chemicals in fabric softener and related products that are most worrisome to our health:
Fabric Softener “Quats”
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds or “quats” are a group of toxic chemicals used in fabric softener liquids, crystals, and dryer sheets. Incidentally, these dangerous chemicals are also in most antibacterial wipes (make natural wipes instead!).
While quats very effectively soften fabric and eliminate static, they are toxic to human health. Here are some of the specific quat chemicals:
- diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride
- dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate
- dihydrogenated palmoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate
- di-(palm carboxyethyl) hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate
Quats Cause Asthma
The biggest problem with quats is that they are well recognized “asthmagens” and labeled as such by the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, a leading global authority on asthma.
This means that quats not only can trigger an asthma attack in someone who already has asthma, but they can also cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people!
Another problem with quats is due to their antimicrobial properties. While this may seem desirable at first, clothes that have been washed are already clean and don’t require the addition of chemicals to keep them germ free.
In fact, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), quats may contribute to the development of super bugs like MRSA, so ditching the fabric softeners along with other antimicrobial personal care products in your home is a smart move (1).
Fabric Softeners Contain Hormone Disrupting Fragrances
Certainly, the problem with quats is bad enough, in my opinion. Who wants to use anything in the home that can give a child or an adult asthma?
The story gets worse for fabric softeners, unfortunately. The most concerning chemicals in these products are actually the synthetic fragrances.
Fabric softeners are known for the powerful fragrance they impart to laundry. However, this fragrance that some enjoy comes with a heavy price.
Two Studies on Fabric Softener Dangers
A University of Washington study of the best selling fabric softener brands found an untested cocktail of hundreds of chemicals. The research was published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.
Lead researcher Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs, said that she first became interested to study these products because people she knew were telling her that these products were making them sick. What she found was shocking!
All of the products tested gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal law, but none of those chemicals was listed on the product labels!
Steinemann said further:
I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found. Chemicals included acetone, the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; limonene, a molecule with a citrus scent; as well as acetaldehyde, chloromethane and 1,4-dioxane. Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds [VOCs] were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level (2).
Follow-up research published in the journal Air Quality Atmosphere and Health found that emissions from dryer vents are toxic when fabric softeners or dryer sheets were used.
Analysis of the captured gases found more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including seven hazardous air pollutants, coming out of the dryer vents. Of those, two chemicals – acetaldehyde and benzene – are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as carcinogens, for which the agency has established no safe exposure level.
“These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies,” head researcher Steinemann said (3).
Those of you who know exactly when your neighbors are doing their laundry due to the odor of fabric softener wafting down the street now know to close your windows and screens during that time to keep these toxic emissions from entering your home!
Beware of Fragrance Free Fabric Softeners
As awareness of the toxic nature of personal care products increases, some companies have come out with fragrance free fabric softeners specifically designed for babies or those with sensitive skin.
While these products may not have any hormone disrupting fragrances, they still contain quats which are odorless and colorless!
Remember that quats can cause asthma, so don’t be fooled! Unscented fabric softeners are still best avoided.
What About Green Fabric Softeners?
Being green has become trendy in recent years, and companies are capitalizing on the popularity by using the term to market their products.
As of this writing, of all the “green” fabric softeners and dryer sheets on the market that were tested by Environmental Working Group, only one brand received an “A” rating. All the other brands that claimed to be green and and natural received B, C, or even D ratings (4).
The lesson here is not to be swayed by clever marketing, as the vast majority of “green” fabric softeners and dryer sheets are still going to contain questionable chemicals and fragrances.
Ready to Ditch the Fabric Softener?
If all of this information has you concerned, don’t be.
Ditching the fabric softener is simple to do!
I haven’t used fabric softener once in 25 years of marriage and raising three children. Let me share with you that I’ve never missed it.
I guess you could say that I became aware of the problem with fabric softeners very young. My Mom loved the stuff when I was growing up and the smell of fabric softener seemed to permeate everything!
My siblings and I used to joke that Mom poured a half a bottle of fabric softener into every load of laundry. While this was an exaggeration, it was definitely much more than the recommended amount on the bottle.
As a result, I switched to nontoxic methods of doing laundry before I was even married. If you are ready to make the switch too, below are three safe, easy and very effective alternatives to try.
Three Safe Alternatives to Toxic Fabric Softeners
- A very simple swap is to pour a half a cup of white distilled vinegar into the rinse cycle. Note that nearly all the white distilled vinegar on the market is derived from GMO corn! If this bothers you, use organic white distilled vinegar instead. I would also recommend washing any new clothing using a half cup of distilled white vinegar before wearing to remove any chemical residue that is still on the clothing.
- If you are like me and can never make it to the washer at the right time to put vinegar into the rinse cycle, you may wish to opt for wool dryer balls. I’ve tried several brands, and my favorite is Eco-Nuts. You can also make wool dryer balls yourself. This tutorial tells you how.
- If you or someone in your family is allergic to wool, I’ve tried these hypoallergenic dryer balls, and they work as well as wool balls to reduce static cling and soften clothes. As a bonus, they fluff up the laundry nicely and seem to significantly reduce drying time.
One tip if you use either wool or hypoallergenic dryer balls. Keep a few extra on hand as one or two always seem to go missing at least at my house. Usually they get stuck in the sleeve of a hoodie or in the corner of a fitted sheet. Even though they turn up again with a week or two, having extras on hand is helpful when this happens.
Have you ditched the fabric softeners in your home yet? Which fabric softener alternative do you like best?
If you haven’t made the switch yet, what are you waiting for?
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.