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:

Have you seen WALL-E?

Wall-E DVD cover art

Have you seen the movie WALL-E? It features two cute little robots that mostly communicate through a few words and voice inflections. There’s very little dialogue so the story is told visually and beautifully. I found it to be a powerful movie. Here’s the trailer for it:

I first saw this movie about a year ago. I borrowed it from the library so that I could watch it with my son, and I was really blown away by the film! The day after, I was talking to a colleague about it and he told me that he can gauge a person by their reaction to that movie. He said if they’re indifferent about it, that’s likely how they are about the environment as well. But if a person reacts emotionally, it says a lot about them. While you can’t judge a person by a single film reaction, of course, that conversation has always stuck in my mind.

There’s a lot about WALL-E that stuck with me.

So I watched it again over the weekend.

Please note: the rest of this post does contain spoilers. So if you haven’t watched it, please go watch it and then come back and finish reading this post!

Wall-E, Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

The movie was made by Disney-Pixar. And even though it’s 10 years old already, it’s still completely relevant. WALL-E is cleaning up the trash on Earth, which has become one giant wasteland and landfill. Humans made so much trash and polluted the air so bad that all of the plant life died off and they had to move to space! It takes place 700 years in the future. The little robot is lonely and has only one friend, a little cockroach (because cockroaches can survive everything, right?).

He finds interesting objects while cleaning up the trash, such as silverware, Zippo lighters, and Rubik’s cubes. The robot discovers a squeaky dog toy and a bra, which he mistakes for a mask. He catalogs and sorts the items in his home. (That part reminded me of The Little Mermaid when Ariel collects items from shipwrecks and keeps them in her secret cove.) WALL-E even has one of the singing Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques that were popular years ago. He has recovered one videotape of Hello, Dolly! from the late 1960s, from which he learns about emotions and human interactions.

rubiks cube, Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

The air is cloudy, there’s very little water and no plant life. The whole premise of the movie is that once plant life reappears on Earth, humans can return. WALL-E meets EVE, a robot that has come to Earth to search for plant life. He finds a plant and gives it to her as a token of love. But this is her mission and it spawns a journey that lays out the history of corporate greed, mass consumerism, and the unsustainable disposable economy and lifestyle that humans created. So much stuff and waste that the Earth became polluted and uninhabitable.

Sometimes that sounds like the path we’re on right now.

plant, Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash
Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash

In the movie, the worst part was that humans, once in space, did not change their behaviors. They rocketed their trash further into space instead of learning from the past. This behavior was propelled by corporate giant B&L, a fictional sort of Walmart that gained a monopoly on Earth and gained control of everything by the time the humans left for space.

This movie really hit home for me. Did you feel the same when you saw it?

Truly, though, if robots can get it, why can’t we?

I think many of us do, and I think the more people that learn about the worldwide waste crisis, the more people who will want to change things. So help me spread the word and educate others. Let your children watch this movie. Share it with a friend. Leave me a comment below. And thanks for reading.

This post does not contain any affiliate links.

Have you heard about Litterati?

Last updated on November 21, 2019.

Photo of a discarded plastic laundry detergent bottle on the ground, by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay
Photo of a discarded plastic laundry detergent bottle on the ground, by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay

Have you ever been out walking, hiking, biking, or even kayaking and noticed that there was trash here and there, everywhere? Noticed trash lining the streets as you drove to work or school? Seen the debris that just seems to have washed up while walking on the beach or fishing in a river?

What do you do? Do you pick it up?

If so, there’s an app for that. It’s called Litterati.

Litterati logo
Litterati logo

It has become an international movement and crowd sourced effort – people all over the world are contributing to make our landscapes less littered. It’s free and it makes litter clean up fun!

With this app you take a photo of each piece of litter with your smart phone, then pick it up and put it in a bag/dumpster/trash receptacle of your choice. You can get really artistic with your photos too. Litterati features the most interesting or artistic photos on Instragram (@litterati).

The Data

Photos are automatically geotagged, meaning information about where and when the litter was picked up, is recorded. Additionally, you can hashtag each image with the category, object name, type of material, and brand info.

Photo of a discarded Coca-Cola can on the ground, by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash
Photo of a discarded Coca-Cola can on the ground, by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

That data is loaded into a Google map to help track where litter is ending up, what brands are most common, and the map shows the worldwide efforts to which Litterati’s members are contributing. Check out the map (it does take time to load, please be patient because it’s totally worth the wait!). You can even zoom into your specific area and see the collected trash in your area. I love the map!

The data is also used to understand the habits of litter. Jeff Kirschner, the founder of Litterati, explains in his TED Talk why and how he created the app. He also highlights a couple of grand scale changes that were made to prevent litter because of that collected data. It’s amazing! Watch the Ted Talk!

Join Us!

I joined this effort in March of 2017, and I love the app. I just did a small litter clean up yesterday and picked up 68 pieces of trash. Over the weekend, my family cleaned up on the shore of the Tennessee River – we literally pulled a few pieces out of the water that day. It was really satisfying to know we are making a difference, and teaching our son by example that he can make a difference too. The Litterati motivates and inspires me! I’ve started a Litterati Club and if you’d like to join, download the Litterati app and join the club “Because turtles eat plastic bags” – I look forward to meeting you!

A Growing Effort

In 2017, after Litterati reached 1 million pieces of litter pick ups, they launched a Kickstarter to expand and improve the app. I backed the campaign with 573 others, and that raised enough money to launch the new version of the Litterati app. While it has a few glitches, which they’re working on improving, the new app is awesome! You can join or create clubs; the hashtagging is easier; you can set your account to only upload when on a wifi network; you can view the map; and daily they list the top 5 people with the most activity (I’ve made that list twice and it made my day!)

The count this morning is over 2.1 million and has users in over 100 countries.

And in May 2018, the United Nations announced that they are partnering with Litterati to fight world pollution! Plastic Free Mermaid did a video interview with Jeff Kirschner in June 2018 and he talks about that and other efforts.

While Litterati is using its data and mapping for great changes, the founder is still looking to inspire people. In May 2018, he was quoted on Greenmatters.com: “How do we deliver a wonderful experience for each community member so that they’re inspired to pick up just one more piece, and then one more?” And then spread the word, build community, and inspire others. That’s what I’m trying to do here! Wouldn’t it be cool if picking up trash and keeping our Earth clean became the new normal?

Thank you for reading, and let’s be the change!

A few of my own Litterati photos:

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of The Gambia

There are inspirational and motivated people all over the world. People who amaze us and withstand the negativity. It is even more inspiring when a woman overcomes the obstacles she faces.

I discovered Isatou Ceesay through my local library. I had requested several children’s books about plastic, and I found One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, by Miranda Paul. Upon reading this book to my son, I was really impressed with this story. Check to see if your local library offers it!

One Plastic Bag book cover

After reading the book I wanted more information about Isatou Ceesay!

I felt that she is so inspirational that I should dedicate a whole post to her. She has been committed to upcycling plastic bags and reducing waste in The Gambia since the 1990s. The waste problem in The Gambia really bothered her. Plastic and trash were everywhere. The landscape was littered. Some used plastic to make fires burn faster, but the toxins released in the fumes when burning plastic is unimaginable. She decided she would find a way to recycle or upcycle some of the plastic waste.

More than just recycling

But her story is not just about recycling and plastic. It’s also about empowering women and improving the standard of living! The book tells the story at a children’s level about how she had to work in secret in the beginning because people laughed. I read that it was illegal for women to work at the time, and that’s why she worked in secret. In any case, she began making recycled plastic bag purses. Isatou hired a few women to help and hired more as time went on, even establishing a women’s cooperative to craft and sell items for income. The business kept growing and it helped the landscape, the people, and the economy.

Isatou also helped co-found The Gambian Women’s Initiative (GWI) whose mission is: “GWI seeks to help financially poor women in the Gambia increase their income, thereby improving the standard of living for their families and their communities. Projects coordinated and rural women’s groups will give women a voice in their own development, as they are trained in income-generating, investment and decision-making skills.” They also teach financial planning.

Here’s a quick video highlighting her accomplishments:

And if you’d like to watch a full interview with her, or read more about her, climateheroes.org featured her here, entitled “Isatou Ceesay, Queen of Plastic Recycling in The Gambia.” But as you now know, she’s so much more than just a recycler or an upcycler. She’s a visionary and she’s being the change.

DIY Opportunity

And if you have too many plastic bags yourself and want to make plastic bag crocheted purse? She’s got a how-to video! I’ll update this post if I try it. And if any of you try this, please message me or leave a comment below! I can’t wait to see what you’ve done!

The author quoted Isatou on the back of the book: “People thought I was too young and that women couldn’t be leaders. I took these things as challenges; they gave me more power. I didn’t call out the problems – I called out solutions.” Well said. I think we should all have that attitude. Let’s be the change together!

 

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