Healthy options to replace toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets

Last updated on February 7, 2021.

Selection of fabric softeners at the supermarket. Photo by me
There are so many choices for fabric softeners and dryer sheets. But are they dangerous? Photos by me

I was an avid user of dryer sheets for most of my adult life until about 4 years ago. 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 12 years. EWG rated these dryer sheets as an F, the lowest rating they assign.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 D on EWG’s Healthy Cleaning Guide.5

Selection of fabric softeners at the supermarket. Photo by me
Photo by me

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.

Used dryer sheet wound into a bird's nest. Photo by me
Used dryer sheet wound into a bird’s nest. Photo by me

“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

So what’s the solution?

If you are worried about these 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 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 be aware of what you are mixing.)

Line drying

Line drying is the most eco-friendly solution. I have a drying rack and a short clothesline outside that I use weekly for some items, but both only hold so much. I plan to install a longer clothesline 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 ultra-violet rays kill the bacteria causing the smell.

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

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, “Zen Laundry,” by Courtney Carver, Be More With Less, accessed February 3, 2021.

Video, (start at 1:45 for specific laundry tips):

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 December 5, 2020.
  5. Guide, “Cleaner Guide: Bounce Dryer Sheets, Free & Gentle, accessed December 5, 2020.
  6. Article, “Skip the Fabric Softeners,” May 5, 2016.

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