Healthy options to replace toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets

Last updated on January 28, 2024.

Selection of fabric softeners at the supermarket on shelves.
There are so many choices for fabric softeners and dryer sheets. But many contain toxic chemicals. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I was an avid user of dryer sheets for most of my adult life until around 2015. I liked that they removed static electricity, I thought my clothes felt soft, and I loved the way they smelled!

But then I found out how dangerous they are to our health. My mother mentioned it to me several times, so I began reading about the ingredients. I discovered that dryer sheets and fabric softeners contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, chemicals that damage the reproductive system, and compounds that trigger asthma. I just wanted clean-smelling laundry!

Toxic chemicals and ingredients

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “fabric softeners and heat-activated dryer sheets pack a powerful combination of chemicals that can harm your health, damage the environment and pollute the air, both inside and outside your home.”1 Fabric softeners are designed to stay in your clothes for a long time, so chemicals can seep out gradually and be inhaled or absorbed directly through the skin.2 Notice how the scent lingers on your clothing?

I learned that “fragrance,” a common ingredient in products ranging from shampoo to laundry detergent to baby products, is a term that refers to a range of chemicals. The EWG explains what this term means:

“The word “fragrance” or “parfum” on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.”3

Bounce dryer sheets were my household's choice for dryer sheets for many years.
Bounce dryer sheets were my household’s choice for dryer sheets for many years.

I used Bounce dryer sheets for more than 15 years. EWG rated these dryer sheets with a D, almost the lowest rating they use.4 The top-scoring factors were poor disclosure of ingredients; the product may contain ingredients with the potential for respiratory effects; the product can cause acute aquatic toxicity; and possible nervous system effects. EWG noted that “fragrance” was their biggest ingredient problem. Again, note that these problems are not only from scented products. Bounce’s Free & Gentle (free of dyes and perfumes) only scored a C on EWG’s Healthy Cleaning Guide.5

Selection of fabric softeners at the supermarket on shelves.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

Dryer sheets create extra waste

Additionally, fabric dryer sheets are harmful to the environment because they are designed to be single-use disposable items. They are not made of anything remotely biodegradable, and as litter, they remain in the environment indefinitely. There are many ways to re-purpose them, in fact, I used to reuse them for dusting. Unfortunately, I was exposing myself and my home to the chemicals a second time, and they still had to be thrown away. Like many other types of waste, they end up in rivers and oceans. I’ve certainly picked them up myself during litter clean-ups. I even found a dryer sheet woven into a bird’s nest in my own yard.

Used dryer sheet woven into a bird's nest.
Used dryer sheet woven into a bird’s nest. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Bird's nest with sticks, moss, plastic items, and dryer sheets woven in.
Dryer sheet pieces (and other plastics) woven into a bird’s nest. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“These sheets…made from plastic polyester material, are coated with synthetic fragrances, contain estrogen-mimicking chemicals, as well as fatty acids that coat the clothing and reduce static.” -Sandra Ann Harris, Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide For Plastic-Free Living

White clothing articles hanging on a line outdoors, green grass and mountains in background, laundry blowing in the breeze.
Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay.

So what’s the solution?

If you are worried about toxic chemicals harming yourself or your family, stop using them immediately. The EWG recommends skipping fabric softeners altogether.6 There are many alternatives – and they are usually zero waste!

Your clothes don’t need to smell perfumed. They will smell clean just from being washed.

Distilled white vinegar

Add a half cup of distilled white vinegar to your washing machine during the rinse cycle (or put it in the machine’s rinse dispenser ahead of time). The smell does not linger on clothes. This works especially well if you are line-drying your clothes. (I’ve read that you should not mix vinegar with bleach, so always be aware of what you are mixing.)

Line or Air drying

Line drying is the most eco-friendly solution. I have several drying racks and a short clothesline outside that I use weekly for some items. You can install a longer clothesline or umbrella-style dryer outside. This makes doing laundry weather-dependent, but there would also be a reduction in your electric bill. Additionally, the sun can remove bad smells from items because ultraviolet rays kill bacteria that cause the smell.

Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote that drying your clothes in the dryer eventually ruins the fabric. “Just 20 cycles of tumble drying can reduce the strength of fabric by 50%, compromising the durability and longevity of your clothes.” Avoiding the dryer is also best for the environment. “Air drying is also the best choice for the environment; by choosing air drying over tumble drying, you can save 36 kilograms (80 pounds) of carbon each month. Academic researchers have also found that tumble drying can release as many microfibres into the air as washing releases into waterways.”7

“Air-drying clothes reduces the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds per year.” -National Geographic8

Line drying is an eco-friendly and healthy option for drying your laundry. Photo by Wolfgang Eckert on Pixabay.
Line drying is an eco-friendly and healthy option for drying your laundry. Photo by Wolfgang Eckert on Pixabay.

You can also invest in drying racks that you can use indoors and outdoors. I personally own three!

Drying rack, wood and white, in a gray painted room, window in background, white front loading washing machine in background, one striped shirt on drying rack.

Wool dryer balls

I use wool dryer balls for everything that I put in the dryer. These are either solid balls of felted wool or felted wool wrapped around a fiber core. They naturally soften laundry and reduce static. The balls also lift and separate clothes in the dryer, shortening drying time and saving energy. You can find them online or at some stores, just be sure you buy quality ones that are 100% wool and have good reviews.

wool dryer balls

Don’t over-dry

Static is caused by over-drying, plain and simple. Static especially happens when drying synthetic clothing, such as polyester, because they dry faster than cotton. If you don’t over-dry your clothes in the dryer, you shouldn’t have static.

Photo by Andy Fitzsimon on Unsplash.
Photo by Andy Fitzsimon on Unsplash.

I hope you found this helpful! Do you have a different method that I didn’t mention here? Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear from you! As always, thank you for reading.

This post does not contain any affiliate links.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Skip the most toxic fabric softeners,” by Samara Geller, EWG.com, August 16, 2022.

Video, “Laundry Tips to Take Care of Your Capsule Wardrobe,” Be More With Less, accessed May 2, 2023.

Article, How Dryers Destroy Clothes: We Delve into the Research,” Reviewed, updated October 10, 2019.

Footnotes:

  1. Article, “Skip the Fabric Softeners,” Environmental Working Group, May 5, 2016.
  2. Article, “‘Greener’ Laundry by the Load: Fabric Softener versus Dryer Sheets,” Scientific American, December 10, 2008.
  3. Website, “Ingredients: Fragrance,” Environmental Working Group, accessed December 5, 2020.
  4. Guide, “Cleaner Guide: Bounce Dryer Sheets, accessed May 2, 2023.
  5. Guide, “Cleaner Guide: Bounce Dryer Sheets, Free & Gentle, accessed May 2, 2023.
  6. Article, “Skip the Fabric Softeners,” May 5, 2016.
  7. Book, Sustainable Wardrobe: Practical advice and projects for eco-friendly fashion, by Sophie Benson, White Lion Publishing, London, 2023.
  8. Article, The everyday people making their homes climate-friendly,” by Cassidy Randall, nationalgeographic.com, January 31, 2023.

2 Replies to “Healthy options to replace toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets”

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve had a persistent productive cough for several months. My doctor thought it might be bronchitis and treated me for that, but the cough hasn’t gone away, and I wonder if using fabric softener sheets is the cause. I used to only use them on clothes, but then I started using them with sheets, towels and underwear. I’m going to stop using them immediately and go to the new wool dryer balls I recently purchased.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.