Toxic chemicals in fabric softener

Fabric softeners make clothes feel soft and smell fresh, but that inviting scent hides some unpleasant truths. Many fabric softeners contain toxic chemicals that could put your family's health at risk.

Let’s dive into the dangers lurking in your fabric softeners, and explore some healthier alternatives.

Quick links:

Cationic surfactants

Fatty alcohols and acids





Health risks

Environmental contamination

Fabric softener alternatives

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


Set of 6 Handfelted "Playful Pups" 100% New Zealand Wool Dryer Balls


Common chemicals in fabric softeners

Have you ever wondered what's behind the inviting scent of your fabric softener? A closer look at the ingredients list reveals a surprising array of hazardous chemicals hiding beneath those "fresh" fragrances. 

Here are some of the most common problematic ingredients found in conventional fabric softeners:

  1. Cationic surfactants
  2. Fatty alcohols and acids
  3. Emulsifiers
  4. Preservatives and colors
  5. Solvents
  6. Phthalates

Cationic surfactants

Cationic surfactants are a group of problematic ingredients found in conventional fabric softeners. These substances are positively charged to control static cling and soften fabrics.

Quaternary ammonium compounds (also known as quats) are cationic surfactants and common ingredients in many fabric softeners and other household products. But, these compounds have come under scrutiny due to their potential health risks.

Quats, such as ester dimethyl ammonium chloride and hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl Sulfate, can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in some people. They have also been linked to more severe health effects, such as respiratory issues and nervous system disorders.

Another common cationic surfactant used in fabric softeners is distearyldimonium chloride. Similar to quats, this chemical can cause skin irritation and allergic skin reactions, especially in individuals with sensitive skin. 

When heated, quats release toxic chemicals, affecting indoor air quality and causing respiratory irritation. When quats enter waterways through laundry wastewater, they also harm aquatic life.

Fatty alcohols and fatty acids

Fatty alcohols and fatty acids are common ingredients in many liquid fabric softeners and dryer sheets. These compounds are derived from natural fats and oils. They lubricate fabric fibers to make clothes soft and supple.

Some people experience skin allergies or irritation when exposed to fatty alcohols and acids. As these chemicals break down, they also form organic compounds that harm the environment.


Emulsifiers mix and stabilize the different ingredients in liquid fabric softener. Some common emulsifiers in fabric softeners include ethoxylated alcohols and alkyl ethoxylates. 

Many emulsifiers are derived from petroleum products that don't break down easily and pollute the air, water, and soil. Emulsifiers can also clog up septic systems by preventing the proper separation of solids and oils. 

Some people experience skin rashes, allergic reactions, or breathing issues from emulsifiers transferring to clothing and being inhaled or touching the skin.

To minimize potential health risks and environmental impacts, look for fabric softeners that use alternative, plant-based emulsifiers or opt for emulsifier-free products altogether.

Preservatives and colors

Preservatives are added to many fabric softeners to prevent microbial growth and extend shelf life. Common preservatives such as benzisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. 

Liquid fabric softeners often contain artificial colors for visual appeal. Some of these artificial colors have been linked to health issues such as allergic reactions and potentially increased cancer risk (Environmental Working Group study).


Solvents are used in fabric softeners to dissolve and mix ingredients. Common solvents include ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, and glycol ethers.

While solvents are generally considered safe at low levels, they contribute to indoor air pollution and respiratory irritation—particularly when fabric softeners are used in poorly ventilated spaces. 

Glycol ethers have been linked to serious health problems, such as nervous system damage and reproductive issues (according to the California Department of Public Health study).

Solvents in fabric softeners increase the overall exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the home, which can be problematic for sensitive individuals or those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.


Phthalates prolong the fragrances added to fabric softeners. They are known endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body's hormonal system. Constant exposure to these chemicals has been linked to negative health effects, including reproductive issues, developmental problems, and even certain types of cancer. 

When heated in the dryer, phthalates are released into the air, contributing to indoor air pollution and increasing the risk of respiratory irritation and other health problems.

Exposure to phthalates is particularly concerning for children and pregnant women, as these populations are more vulnerable to the health effects associated with endocrine disruptors.

This BMC Public Health study highlights the vulnerability of fetuses and young children to phthalates and emphasizes the importance of minimizing exposure during critical developmental stages.

Health risks associated with fabric softeners

Fabric softeners are associated with several health concerns that go beyond the risks of individual ingredients, such as:

  • Skin irritation and allergic reactions, particularly in individuals with sensitive skin
  • Respiratory issues, including asthma and bronchitis
  • Endocrine disruption, which can lead to hormonal imbalance and reproductive problems
  • Developmental issues in children, as their bodies are more susceptible to the effects of harmful chemicals
  • Chemical sensitivity, wherein individuals develop an intolerance to certain substances found in fabric softeners

How fabric softeners harm the environment

The chemicals in traditional fabric softeners and dryer sheets also negatively affect the environment in the following ways:

  • Water pollution: chemicals from fabric softeners accumulate in waterways and harm aquatic life.
  • Bioaccumulation of toxic substances in the food chain: marine animals ingest harmful chemicals.
  • Soil contamination: chemicals seep into the ground and affect soil health.
  • Air pollution: used dryer sheets release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.
  • Plastic pollution: many fabric softeners are packaged in single-use plastic containers.
  • Energy consumption: fabric softeners often require extra drying time.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions: increased energy consumption contributes to global warming.
  • Adverse effects on septic systems: chemicals in fabric softeners disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria needed for proper waste breakdown.

Safer alternatives to fabric softeners

If you are looking for a way to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals and minimize their environmental impact, there are several safer alternatives you can try. These options effectively soften clothes, reduce static cling, and leave laundry feeling fresh without harsh chemicals.

  • Wool dryer balls. Our all-natural, reusable balls are made from 100% wool. Use them as a natural alternative to dryer sheets. Our wool dryer balls reduce drying time, soften clothes, and minimize static cling. Plus, they're biodegradable and last for thousands of loads.
  • Eco-friendly laundry detergent strips. Our pre-measured, concentrated strips are a safe and convenient alternative to traditional fabric softeners you can use in your washing machine.
  • White vinegar. Add a quarter to a half-cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle to soften clothes and remove odors. Vinegar is a natural fabric softener that won't leave harsh chemical residues on your laundry.
  • Baking soda. Add baking soda to the wash cycle to soften clothes and neutralize odors. It's gentle on fabrics and is especially helpful for people with sensitive skin.
  • Aluminum foil. While not a softening agent, a few small balls of aluminum foil tossed into the dryer reduce static cling. This is a cheap, easy, and chemical-free solution.
  • Essential oils. If you enjoy a light scent on the laundry, add a few drops of essential oil to wool dryer balls or a damp washcloth for a natural, non-toxic fragrance.
  • Air drying. Whenever possible, air dry clothes on a clothesline or drying rack to reduce energy consumption and minimize the need for fabric softeners.

Set of 6 100% Wool Dryer Balls + Detergent Strips

Fabric softeners FAQ

Is fabric softener bad for the dryer?

Fabric softeners leave a waxy residue on the dryer's lint filter. This residue reduces the filter's effectiveness and damages the machine over time. The buildup also decreases the dryer's efficiency, which results in longer drying times and increased energy consumption.

What are hormone disruptors in fabric softeners?

Hormone disruptors in fabric softeners are chemicals that interfere with the endocrine system. These include phthalates and synthetic musks, which mimic or block hormones and disrupt the body's normal functions, leading to reproductive, developmental, and other health issues.

Is there formaldehyde in fabric softeners?

Some fabric softeners contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and can cause respiratory issues, skin irritation, and other health problems. It is banned in many regions due to health concerns.

What do VOCs do to the human body?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) cause many health effects when inhaled. Short-term exposure results in eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Long-term exposure to certain VOCs is linked to more serious issues such as liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage.

Are dryer sheets better than fabric softeners?

Dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners share similar harmful chemicals. If you’re looking for a chemical-free alternative, try our wool dryer balls.

Are fabric softeners necessary?

For years, fabric softeners have been a staple in many laundry routines, promising soft, fresh-smelling clothes. Early softeners relied on compounds such as quaternary ammonium to reduce static and soften fabrics, while heavy fragrances left a pleasant scent. 

Times have changed, and fabric softeners are no longer a laundry essential. Effective, safer alternatives are now available, such as Smart Sheep wool dryer balls, which minimize static without the need for harsh chemicals. 

Given these healthier, eco-friendly options, fabric softeners have become a choice for people, rather than a necessity. The reasons they were once heavily relied upon no longer make them an indispensable part of modern laundry loads. 

Also, many conventional fabric softeners contain potentially problematic ingredients that have been linked to different health effects. So, while they may make your clothes feel soft and smell fresh, that inviting scent may be masking some unpleasant truths about the safety of these products.

Further reading

Is line drying or machine drying better?

What are the benefits of wool dryer balls?

How many wool dryer balls do you need?

What is the least toxic laundry detergent?

What is the best laundry detergent for sensitive skin?


Glycol Ethers. (2008, May 6). CDPH.

Geller, S. (2022, August 16). Skip the most toxic fabric softeners. Environmental Working Group.

Han Xiao, & Tingting Tang. (2024, February 20). Prenatal phthalate exposure and neurodevelopmental differences in twins at 2 years of age. BMC Public Health.