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Why Fabric Softener is Unnecessary and Unhealthy

Fabric Softener

There's really no good reason to use fabric softener. But
plenty of reasons not to. Besides coating your clothes
with endocrine disruptors and allergens, there's all those
secret chemicals that make your clothes smell good. 

How'd We Get Here

People have been washing their clothes for as long as - well as long as there's been people. Yet it wasn't until the 1960's that fabric softeners became part of the laundary ritual. So how'd we get here.

Take a trip with me in the Wayback Machine to 1960. Your mom (or grandmother) is trying out her brand new clothes dryer. After a lifetime of hanging clothes to dry, her life will now be so much easier.  She can hardly contain her excitement as she reaches in to pull out her newly dried clothes.

But wait.

Why are they so stiff and scratchy? And what’s that smell coming off her new polyester pant suit?

To solve these problems created by drying clothes in dryers, manufacturers scrambled to create and sell fabric softeners. To make fabrics feel soft after they'd been run through a clothes dryer, chemicals were used to coat fabric (called quaternary ammonium compounds - quats ). These chemicals smelled so bad that synthetic fragrances were added to mask the smell. Fragrance was also needed to make heated polyester smell better.

Fast forward to 2015 – It’s now ingrained in your brain that you need to use fabric softener to have soft, static-free clothes. And to have truly clean clothes they need to smell like an ocean breeze or a field of lavender. It’s time to retrain your brain.

The Reasons Why Fabric Softener is Unhealthy

There are 2 groups of chemicals that make softeners toxic. The chemicals used to coat the fabric and the chemicals that make up synthetic fragrance.

1. The chemicals used to make your fabrics soft.

Fabric softeners make fabrics feel soft by coating them with chemicals. The first fabric softeners used water, soap and oil to soften clothes. Now companies use lots of toxic chemicals to achieve softness.

These chemicals coating your clothes can be absorbed through your skin. Using products that contain skin absorbing enhancers, like lotion and hand sanitizers, can increase the amount that’s absorbed from clothing.

These chemicals can also be inhaled because they release gases (volatile organic compounds). These gases contribute to indoor air pollution and are known to cause asthma and allergic reactions.

Here is a list of some of the chemicals used to soften clothes and their health effects.

  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds – are known to cause asthma and allergies. Some are also endocrine disruptors and contribute to the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines.
  • Phthalates – endocrine disruptors, several types of phthalates are found in softening products.
  • Diethanolamine (DEA) – interacts with other chemicals to create cancer-causing nitrosamines.
  • 4-t-nonylphenol – endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen.

2. The chemicals used to make your clothes smell good.

The specific chemicals used to make fragrance in different products is one of the great unknowns. They are not required to be listed on any labels because manufacturers claim they are proprietary. This makes it tough to judge the safety of any fragranced products. 

It's also not any safer to choose fragrance-free products. A product that is listed as fragrance free usually contains masking fragrances to cover the chemical smell.

Here’s what we do know about fragrance:

  • There are 3,000 chemicals that are used to make fragrance.
  • A product that smells good may contain 50-300 different chemicals.
  • Fragrance chemicals are a major source of indoor air pollution.
  • Inhaling fragrance chemicals is linked to asthma and allergies.
  • Some fragrance chemicals can react with ozone in the air to create dangerous secondary pollutants like formaldehyde.
  • Many fragrance chemicals, like synthetic musk, are endocrine disrupters.

Worst Laundary Product Ever

One of the reasons I wanted to write on this topic was all the cringe-worthy commercials I’ve been seeing lately about laundry scent boosters.

What a terrible idea.

 Hey, let’s fill tiny plastic spheres with fragrance chemicals that will coat your clothes and release synthetic smells for up to 6 weeks!

If after reading this article you still think this is a good idea, imagine sitting in an office with 10 people. Each one of you smells like a different scent boosting fragrance. Does that sound pleasant?

How to Ditch the Fabric Softener Habit

Fabric softeners and dryer sheets were developed for 2 reasons – clothes dryers make your clothes scratchy and stiff, and synthetic fabrics smell bad when heated.

So the simplest solution - and the one that I use – is hanging your clothes to dry. Problem solved. And you know what? I never feel like I'm wearing burlap. What makes clothes stiff when you hang them to dry is all the residues from fabric softener and laundry detergent. If you choose natural laundry products these residues will eventually wash out of your clothes.

Now I’m guessing for some of you who have to wash lots of clothes, this might not be an option. You NEED your dryer.  So try wool dryer balls. They soften your clothes, reduce static and shorten drying time. Plus, they last forever so they’ll save you money.

If you don’t like the way your synthetic fabrics smell after a run through the dryer hang them to dry.

If you really feel your clothes have to smell like something other than clothes, add a couple of drops of essential oil on your dryer balls. Or try a half of a cup of baking soda or white vinegar dissolved in your wash water. You can steep batches of either with fresh herbs for a couple of weeks to add scent.

Fabric softener is a useless product. With one or two simple changes you can reduce your exposure to several types of endocrine disruptors, allergens and chemicals linked to asthma. 

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