Do I really need fabric softener?
Most of us love that soft, snuggly feeling in our laundry. But here's the reality check: most fabric softeners have toxic chemicals, and there are better solutions available.
What does fabric softener do?
Fabric softener, also known as fabric conditioner, makes clothing smell nice and makes it extra soft and fluffy. It does this by coating the fabric fibers with a thin, waxy, lubricating film.
This coating reduces static by making the garments slippery and less receptive to electrical charges. It also leaves behind a lingering floral or fresh scent.
Fabric softeners usually come in two different forms:
- Liquid used in the washing machine
- Coated sheet used in the dryer
But fabric conditioner comes with so many downsides. It's an added expense since you have to keep buying it. The chemical formula leaves a residue that builds up on clothes over time. And some of the fragrance ingredients can irritate sensitive skin.
Also, fabric softeners are bad for towels, sportswear, athletic wear, workout clothes, or other garments known for wicking moisture. They also don’t work well on flame-resistant and microfiber fabrics.
Fabric softener buildup on dryer lint screens reduces airflow, causing poor drying, and potential overheating.
So while it might make your sheets feel cozy and your shirts static-free, fabric softener is not an essential laundry product. There are natural, chemical-free alternatives that can save you money and avoid residue build-up.
Do you really need fabric softener?
The short answer is no.
The cons of fabric softener are much stronger than its pros:
- Coats clothes in residue. Fabric softeners leave an oily chemical residue on clothes that lingers even after washing. This buildup can make laundry dingy and less absorbent over time.
- Irritates sensitive skin. Perfumes and chemical compounds in many softeners cause rashes or irritation for individuals with sensitive skin. Natural-scented options are gentler.
- Contains animal fat derivatives. The major ingredient in some commercial softeners is Dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride, which is derived from animal fat and is not cruelty-free.
- Damages water-repellent fabrics. Fabric softeners break down water-repellent coatings on outdoor apparel and rain gear, reducing their effectiveness.
- Not eco-friendly. Most fabric softeners contain chemicals that get rinsed down the drain, harming the environment. Many also use palm oil and petroleum-based chemicals.
- Static reduction can be achieved naturally. Products like wool dryer balls or vinegar work just as well to reduce static cling as fabric softeners without chemicals.
- Added cost. Buying fabric softener recurringly adds expense. Cost-effective natural alternatives can save money.
- Not a laundry necessity. Clothes come out fresh and soft without fabric softeners. It's an optional product, not an essential one. Plus, it creates a waxy coating that can actually ruin your clothes over time.
- Health concerns. Toxic ingredients like quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) can cause skin and respiratory irritation.
Traditional fabric softener so 1995. You’ve got better options.
When might fabric softener help?
Here are the fringe cases for which fabric softener advocates claim it is warranted:
- For delicate fabrics prone to static like silks or synthetic fabrics, the anti-static properties of fabric softener can help reduce clinging and wrinkling.
- If you have hard water, mineral deposits can make towels less soft, and fabric softener can compensate for the harsher feel.
- Cold water washing and air drying can leave clothes stiffer—fabric softener helps soften in these cases.
- Work uniforms or gear that needs to be static-free for safety reasons may benefit from fabric softener.
Wool dryer balls can usually outperform fabric softener even in these scenarios, without the toxins and environmental fallout. They soften laundry and reduce static like nobody’s business.
“But what truly surprised me was the change in the texture of my clothes. They come out noticeably softer and fluffier, almost like they've been treated with a fabric softener. And the best part? No more static cling! My pet peeve during the colder months has finally been eliminated.”—JCastro, Amazon user (5 stars)
What are some natural fabric softener alternatives?
How to get softening, static reduction, and light scenting without chemical residues? Here are the most common fabric softener alternatives:
- Baking soda
- Castile soap
- Wool dryer balls
Wool dryer balls are far and away the best of the bunch. Still, let’s take a closer look at each of these all-natural products.
Adding 1⁄2 cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle naturally softens fabrics. The white vinegar helps remove detergent residue, minerals from hard water, bad odors, and fabric stiffeners. It's also an antistatic agent.
- Inexpensive and eco-friendly
- Disinfects and removes odors
- Safe for all machine types
- Gentle on skin
Downsides: vinegar scent is undesirable to many.
To use: Add 1⁄2 cup vinegar to the rinse cycle for a natural softener. Use with all fabric types.
Baking soda softens fabrics by helping to remove dirt, residue, and odors that can stiffen clothes. It also naturally deodorizes laundry.
- Non-toxic and eco-friendly
- Cleansing and deodorizing
- Gentle on all fabrics
- Can leave a powdery residue if using too much
To use: Add 1⁄4 cup baking soda along with detergent in the wash cycle. Good for all fabric types.
Liquid castile soap
Unscented liquid castile soap can act as a natural fabric softener when added to the rinse cycle. Look for vegetable-based formulas.
- Biodegradable and eco-friendly
- Dermatologically gentle
- Can repel water and oil
- Unscented versions available
- More expensive than other options
- Can be dry if using too much
To use: Add 1-2 tbsp to the rinse cycle for softening. Best for delicate fabrics.
Wool dryer balls
Wool dryer balls are a reusable, natural alternative that softens fabrics. As they bounce around the drum, they lift and separate fabric fibers to reduce stiffness. The wool also attracts and neutralizes static charges.
Other benefits of wool dryer balls are:
- Wool dryer balls save money by reducing energy usage and eliminating fabric softeners and dryer sheets from your shopping list.
- They shorten drying time by up to 25%.
- Wool dryer balls eliminate static electricity reduction from your laundry.
- They are hypoallergenic and chemical-free, ideal for people with sensitive skin and even delicate baby clothes.
- Wool dryer balls last over 1,000 loads. For the average American family, it means you can could do 1 load per week for almost 20 years or 20 loads per week for about a year.
- They are 100% handfelted New Zealand wool, which is natural, renewable, biodegradable, and compostable.
- Wool dryer balls minimize laundry wrinkles by gently agitating the surface of clothes while improving airflow across the fabric.
To use: Use 2-6 wool dryer balls per laundry load. They are safe for all fabric types.
If you like fragrance in your laundry, buy our anti-static essential oil spray, spritz your wool dryer balls with it, and toss them in the dryer. Then enjoy a mild perfume of citrus and lavender.
Wool dryer balls are an all-around better option for your laundry routine than toxic fabric softener.
Fabric softener FAQ
Is it OK if I don’t use fabric softener?
It is perfectly fine to skip fabric softener. Your clothes will come out fresh and clean from the washing machine. Fabric softener mainly provides added softness and static reduction, but there are alternatives that can give similar effects naturally.
Can I use anything instead of fabric softener?
There are several all-natural alternatives to commercial liquid fabric softeners. Things like Smart Sheep wool dryer balls, vinegar or coconut oil in the rinse cycle, essential oils, and even just an extra rinse can help naturally soften fabrics. These options avoid the chemical residues that fabric softeners leave behind.
Does cotton need fabric softener?
Cotton does not require any fabric softener, as the cotton fibers naturally become softer and fluffier from the heat and agitation of the wash and dry cycles. Fabric softener can make cotton feel a bit crunchy.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of fabric softeners?
The advantages of fabric softeners are getting clothes soft, reduced static so laundry items don't cling together, and added fragrance.
Disadvantages of fabric softeners are the added cost, chemical residues that build up on clothes and machines, and the environmental impact of chemicals rinsed down the drain.
Why do people still use fabric softener?
Many people continue using liquid softeners out of habit, liking the scent and feel. They may not realize there are comparable natural alternatives. Marketing around softness and fragrance also influences people to view fabric softener as an essential step, when it's not.
Is there a natural fabric softener?
Natural ways to soften fabrics include white vinegar, coconut oil, liquid castile soap, or wool dryer balls. These options don't leave chemical residues and are gentler for sensitive skin. Vinegar also eliminates odors.
Why do some fabrics recommend no fabric softener?
Many performance fabrics like microfiber, waterproof, or moisture-wicking materials recommend avoiding fabric softeners, as the chemicals can degrade the fibers' functions. Using softeners also voids warranties on some items. The coating can also reduce the absorbency of towels and diapers over time.