Reviewed: November 7, 2019
Fabric softeners come with a lot of promises – soft, fresh-smelling clothes, free of static and wrinkles, along with less stretching, fading and pilling.
Unfortunately, in-wash softeners and heat-activated dryer sheets pack a powerful combination of chemicals that can harm your health, pollute the air, and damage the environment. The chemicals of most concern include:
- Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) make clothes feel soft and wearable right out of the wash, but they are known asthma triggers and may be toxic to reproductive systems. They are also a common chemical used in water damage and mold remediation – not what you want near your skin!
- Fragrances may give your clothes a pleasing scent but they cause allergies, skin irritations, difficulty breathing and potential reproductive harm. They can also cause irritation when vented outdoors especially for asthmatics and those who are chemically sensitive.
- Preservatives, colors, and colorants are vague terms that can refer to a wide variety of chemicals that are known skin allergens and asthma triggers and have been linked to cancer.
While you may opt to avoid diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride even if you don’t know it is a quat, product labels often contain vague terms such as “biodegradable fabric softening agents,” “perfume,” “color,” “fragrance,” or “preservative.” These terms may sound innocuous, but you have no idea what chemicals they are describing. With over 3,000 “fragrance” ingredients alone appearing in various and often vague forms on product labels it is almost impossible to know what is really going into your laundry basket.
Best advice is to skip fabric softeners and conditioners in any form – pellets, crystals, bars or single-dose packs. Try adding half a cup of distilled white vinegar to your washing machine during the rinse cycle (don’t worry: the smell doesn’t linger on clothes) or using unscented100 percent wool dryer balls which can soften clothes, reduce static and even shorten drying time (by lifting and separating clothes as they dry).
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