What are the disadvantages of fabric softener?

Fabric softeners give you soft, fluffy, good-smelling clothes, but at what cost to your health and the environment? Let’s explore the dark side of fabric softener products.

Quick links:

How do fabric softeners work?

Is fabric softener bad for health?

Is fabric softener bad for the environment?

Is fabric softener bad for my clothes?

Natural alternatives to fabric softeners

Our 100% New Zealand-made wool dryer balls are a reusable, nontoxic alternative that naturally softens fabrics and reduces static without synthetic fragrances or chemicals.

Set of 3 Handfelted Original White 100% New Zealand Wool Dryer Balls-Smart Sheep


How do fabric softeners work?

Fabric softeners, available as liquid softeners or dryer sheets, contain chemical compounds that soften clothes and reduce static. The main ingredient in liquid fabric softeners is a cationic surfactant, such as diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride (DEEDMAC) or di-tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride (DTDMAC). These compounds have a positive charge that allows them to bind to the negatively charged fibers in fabrics.

During a wash cycle, the fabric softener coats the fibers, creating a thin, waxy layer that makes the garments slippery and soft to the touch. This coating also reduces static electricity by neutralizing the positive and negative charges on the fabric surface. Heat-activated dryer sheets work similarly, releasing the softening agents onto the clothes during the drying cycle.

Fabric softeners impart a nice smell and texture to your laundry, but they are terrible for your health and the environment.

Are fabric softeners bad for my health?

Many of the chemicals found in fabric softeners have been linked to the following health issues.

  1. Skin irritation
  2. Respiratory issues
  3. Hormone disruption
  4. Cancer risk
  5. Impacts on vulnerable populations

Skin irritation and allergic reactions

Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs), which are commonly found in fabric softeners, cause skin irritation and trigger allergic reactions in some people. Those with sensitive skin or pre-existing skin conditions are particularly vulnerable to these effects.

Respiratory issues

When fabric softener chemicals are heated in the dryer, they are released into the air and inhaled. This can cause respiratory irritation, particularly for those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma. QACs and synthetic fragrances are known culprits for triggering asthma symptoms and other breathing difficulties.

Hormone disruption

Many fabric softeners contain synthetic fragrances that include phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals. These substances have been linked to developmental issues and other health problems, particularly in children and pregnant women.

Cancer risk

Some chemicals found in fabric softeners, such as chloroform and benzene, are known carcinogens. While the long-term effects of exposure to these substances through fabric softener use are not fully understood, their presence is still a cause for concern.

Impacts on vulnerable populations

Children, pregnant women, and individuals with pre-existing health conditions are more susceptible to the negative effects of fabric softener chemicals. Exposure can worsen asthma symptoms, skin irritation, and other adverse reactions in these vulnerable groups.

Are fabric softeners bad for the environment?

Fabric softeners don't just affect your clothes and your health; they also impact the environment. From the chemicals that enter waterways to the waste generated by disposable dryer sheets, these products leave a lasting mark on the planet.

Water pollution

When you use fabric softeners in your laundry, the chemicals they contain don't just disappear. They are released into water systems and eventually end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. QACs are particularly toxic to aquatic life and disrupt the delicate balance of marine ecosystems.

Fabric softeners persist in the environment

Many of the chemicals in fabric softeners are not easily biodegradable and persist in the environment for a long time. They gradually build up in the soil and water, with far-reaching consequences for wildlife and human health.

Air pollution

Dryer sheets release chemicals that enter the home through the dryer vent. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and synthetic fragrances contribute to indoor air pollution, outdoor smog, and ozone.

Waste generation

Disposable dryer sheets create significant waste, as they are used once and then thrown away. Single-use products such as dryer sheets fill landfills with unnecessary trash. Dryer sheets degrade slowly, contributing to our growing waste problem.

Are fabric softeners bad for clothes?

Fabric softeners harm your clothes over time. The waxy coating that makes fabrics feel soft and reduces static cling also has some hidden drawbacks.

Towels and other moisture-wicking fabrics lose their absorbency due to the waxy buildup. Workout clothes, which absorb sweat and moisture, may not perform as well when regularly exposed to fabric softeners.

The coating also traps bacteria and odors, making clothes more difficult to clean thoroughly. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon are particularly prone to this buildup, which leads to a dingy appearance and lingering odors.

Natural fibers aren't immune to the effects of fabric softeners either. Delicate materials (such as silk and wool) can be damaged by the chemical compounds in these products, leading to reduced longevity and a worn appearance.

Over time, the repeated use of fabric softeners weakens the fibers in your clothes and causes them to wear out more quickly. The chemicals also cause colors to fade and whites to yellow prematurely.

What to use instead of traditional fabric softeners? 

If you're looking to ditch dryer sheets and fabric softeners for the sake of your health and the environment, alternatives are available. Luckily, there are several natural and effective options to choose from.

  1. Wool dryer balls
  2. White vinegar
  3. Baking soda
  4. Air drying
  5. Essential oils

Wool dryer balls

Our wool dryer balls are a reusable and eco-friendly alternative to disposable dryer sheets. As they bounce around the dryer, wool dryer balls separate clothes and fluff them up, cutting down on drying time.

Wool's natural static-reducing ability also means fewer wrinkles. Plus, wool's magical moisture-wicking properties soften clothes without any funky chemicals. 

Wool dryer balls naturally make your clothes soft and reduce static, without harmful chemicals. They are an absolute laundry-day game changer! 

Add a few drops of essential oils to the balls or spritz them with our all-natural anti-static spray for a light, fresh scent. Wool balls come in sets of 3–6. Use 2-3 per load of laundry, depending on size.

Set of 3 Handfelted "Playful Pups" 100% New Zealand Wool Dryer Balls-Smart Sheep


White vinegar

Adding a half cup of vinegar to your rinse cycle softens clothes and removes odors. Vinegar is a natural fabric softener that won't leave any residue on clothes. It's also an effective way to remove soap buildup and prevent colors from fading. For a light, fresh scent, add a few drops of essential oils to your vinegar before adding it to your wash.

Baking soda

Sprinkle about 1/4 cup of baking soda onto clothes in the washing machine. It softens fabrics and absorbs odors without adding perfume. Baking soda also removes fabric softener residue. Baking soda is gentle on fabrics and won't leave any harsh chemicals behind. For a light, natural fragrance, add a few drops of essential oil. 

Air drying

One of the simplest ways to reduce your reliance on fabric softeners is to air-dry your clothes whenever possible. Hanging your laundry outside on a clothesline or drying rack naturally softens and freshens your clothes, without the need for any added chemicals. Sunlight also naturally bleaches and disinfects your laundry.

Essential oils

If you miss the fresh scent of fabric softeners, use essential oils. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to a damp cloth and toss it in the dryer with your laundry to infuse your clothes with a natural, non-toxic fragrance. Some popular options include lavender, lemon, and eucalyptus.

Fabric softener FAQ

What are the harmful chemicals in liquid fabric softeners?

Almost all liquid fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain chemicals classified under federal law as carcinogenic, toxic, and hazardous to personal and environmental health, including:

  • Benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer)
  • Benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant)
  • Ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders)
  • Limonene (a known carcinogen)
  • Chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen)

Are fabric conditioners and fabric softeners the same?

Fabric conditioners and fabric softeners are the same product. Both terms refer to laundry additives that make clothes softer, reduce static, and leave a fresh scent. They are available in liquid form for the washing machine or as sheets for dryers.

Why is fabric softener bad for washing machines?

Fabric softeners leave a residue buildup in washing machines, creating an environment conducive to mold growth. This residue also reduces the effectiveness of moisture sensors in dryers. Additionally, it can clog the dispensers in washing machines over time.

How often should you use fabric softener?

Most people use fabric softeners every cycle. But they have some drawbacks people need to think about. Smart Sheep detergent strips are a great alternative because they don’t contain toxic ingredients and have no harmful impact on your health, clothes, and environment.

How can I make my laundry routine eco-friendly?

To create an eco-friendly laundry routine, choose plant-based laundry detergents free of harmful chemicals (Smart Sheep laundry strips), wash clothes in cold water, and air dry when possible. Replace disposable dryer sheets with reusable wool dryer balls to reduce static and waste. These simple changes significantly reduce the environmental impact of your laundry process.

Do detergent sheets interact with other laundry products?

Detergent sheets interact with your laundry to clean it effectively while having a far less negative environmental impact than liquid detergents and other scented products. 

See our comparison of liquid detergent and detergent sheets for more on the subject.

Further Reading

What are the benefits of wool dryer balls?

Are plastic dryer balls any good?

What are the benefits of natural clothing stain removers?

Can you use wool dryer balls and dryer sheets together?

Will essential oils on dryer balls stain clothes?

The complete guide to using essential oils in laundry

Tennis balls vs dryer balls: what is better?