How can I make clothes soft without dryer sheets?

Dryer sheets may soften clothes, but they also leave behind harmful toxins. For clean laundry without dangerous chemicals, try other eco-friendly solutions, such as wool dryer balls. 

Smart Sheep wool dryer balls are natural fabric softeners that reduce static cling and wrinkles while skipping the toxins and environmental damage.

Quick links:

Is using low heat a good idea?

Should I clean a lint trap more frequently?

Will shaking out clothes help?

Are wool dryer balls a good option?

What are some other options?

Wool dryer balls aren't the only chemical-free option for softening clothes, but they are one of the most effective alternatives to dryer sheets and commercial fabric softeners. They’re better for families, pets, and the planet. 

Also, wool dryer balls also cut down the drying process and help clothes maintain their shape. Sound good? Try them yourself.

“I love these balls and they really work and are much better than most fabric softeners and much better for your clothes.” —Judy S, Amazon purchaser (5 stars)

6 pack penguins

Are dryer sheets toxic?

Traditional dryer sheets may smell fresh and nice, but don't be fooled—they contain many toxic chemicals that have a negative health and environmental impact. According to research from the Environmental Working Group, ingredients in dryer sheets include respiratory irritants like benzyl alcohol and known carcinogens like limonene.

The chemicals in these laundry products are so concerning that pregnant women are warned against touching dryer sheets at all. The toxins have been linked to lower IQ scores in children as well. And it's not just dryer sheets—liquid fabric softeners contain many of the same hazardous ingredients.

While it may seem impossible to have soft laundry without these products, there are natural ways to achieve it. Learn what makes clothes stiff and how to switch to eco-friendly alternatives like wool dryer balls can let you ditch dryer sheets for good.

Why do clothes get stiff in the laundry?

There are three main culprits that lead to stiff clothes:

  1. The detergent residue left on fabrics can make them feel coarse and rough.
  2. Heat from the dryer can dry out fabrics and break down their softness. 
  3. Static cling caused by friction in the dryer can make clean clothes feel stiff and crispy.

The following measures will help you soften clothes without dryer sheets so you can feel better knowing you’ve eliminated even more toxic chemicals from your house.

  • Low heat
  • Cleaning lint
  • Shake clothes
  • Wool dryer balls
  • Other options

Use low heat

High heat can remove moisture from fabrics, resulting in stiff, crunchy clothes. Set your dryer to the lowest heat setting suitable for the type of fabrics.

  • For most cotton, linen, and synthetic fabrics, low or medium heat is best.
  • Refer to garment care tags and select the lowest recommended temperature.
  • Delicates like silks and wools often require a low or no heat setting.
  • Heat can degrade elastic in socks and underwear. Opt for low when drying these items.

The lower temperature gently dries clothes while retaining softness. It may add a few extra minutes to the dryer cycle, but it's worth it to prevent fabric damage.

Avoid high heat settings like "permanent press" that can over-dry fabrics. 

Clean your lint trap frequently

Lint can feel rough and cause static cling. Clean the lint filter before each load to remove buildup. Lint traps moisture, so clearing it allows clothes to dry properly and come out soft.

Make lint removal part of your laundry routine. For top-loading machines, pause the cycle once clothes are loaded and give the filter a quick rinse. For front-loading washing machines, remember to wipe the door seal where lint collects.

A clean, lint-free dryer lets air circulate freely so clothes dry smoothly. Dirty filters can also pose a fire hazard, so keeping yours clear improves safety. Stop lint in its tracks for better drying and softer garments.

Shake out clothes

After washing, shake out each item to release wrinkles and get rid of excess water before placing it in the dryer. Unravel tangled clothing and smooth out twisted seams or bunched areas.

This simple step prevents clothes from drying into stiff creases and wrinkles that can be difficult to remove later. Pay extra attention to bath towels, which often tangle together when wet.

For sheets, give them a good snap or two to loosen them. Unwrap fitted sheets so they tangle around themselves. Shake out socks and underwear too.

Taking a moment to unravel and smooth each garment means you won't have to iron or steam as much later on. Your clothes will come out of the dryer soft, wrinkle-free, and ready to wear.

Use wool dryer balls

Our wool dryer balls are a natural fabric softener alternative. As they tumble, the wool fibers lift and separate fabrics to prevent stiffness. This helps clothes retain their softness and fluffiness.

The balls' moisture-absorbing wool also reduces drying time, allowing clothes to dry at lower temperatures. Lower heat helps maintain softness.

Wool dryer balls can soften laundry without leaving behind chemical residues that standard dryer sheets contain. And since the balls are reusable and last for more than 1,000 loads of laundry, they create less waste.

Wool's static-reducing properties mean clothes dried with wool balls come out free of stiffness and static cling. The wool fibers also help decrease wrinkling.

“These wool balls have completely replaced dryer sheets in our house & we don’t miss them - at all. We don’t use regular fabric softener either, just white vinegar. Our clothes are softer now & our towels actually absorb water..” —Kristinalbb, Amazon purchaser (5 stars)

Other alternatives to dryer sheets

Dryer sheets may be convenient, but natural alternatives get the job done without toxic ingredients. Various common household items can soften fabrics safely and effectively. And they can do it without artificial fragrances.

Here are some of the best alternatives:

  • Baking soda is one of the most popular dryer sheet substitutions. Sprinkle a thin layer evenly over the wet clothes before drying. Baking soda's alkaline properties lift fabric fibers to enhance softness and decrease static electricity. The sodium bicarbonate also absorbs odors.
  • Add 1⁄2 cup white vinegar to your fabric softener dispenser. The acetic acid works to break down detergent residue that causes stiffness. It provides a light, nice scent too. Opt for white distilled vinegar.
  • Lightly misting fabrics with unflavored vodka before drying helps release fabric softener and detergent residues, preventing stiffness.
  • Soap nuts are berry shells that contain saponins that act as natural surfactants to make water more permeable, allowing detergents to rinse away completely.
  • Washing soda softens water and binds to dirt and oils so they wash away cleanly. Use 1⁄2 cup per laundry load.
  • Balling up aluminum foil pieces helps separate fabrics. Aluminum foil balls allow air to circulate and prevent static buildup.
  • Adding 1⁄2 cup table salt to the wash cycle of your washing machine softens clothes by enabling sodium ions to bind to the fabric. Choose plain salt without additives.

But wool dryer balls are by far the most effective solution. A lot of people opt for tennis balls as a cheap alternative to dryer balls. Don't. Wool dryer balls are superior in every way.

The glue used in tennis balls can be toxic and it can spread all over your clothes. Also, they can be super noisy. 

Soft clothes FAQ

What can I put in my dryer to soften clothes?

Some effective options to put in the dryer for softening clothes include wool dryer balls, baking soda sprinkled directly on fabrics, reusable dryer sheets, balls of aluminum foil, and dryer balls made from natural materials like bamboo.

As they tumble, these items help lift clothes, absorb moisture, and prevent stiffness.

How do you keep clothes soft without a dryer?

To keep clothes soft without a dryer, hang items to air dry instead. Use clothes lines or drying racks outside or inside to air-dry laundered items. The natural evaporation helps maintain softness. You can also tumble dry on very low heat briefly just to fluff up fabrics after air drying.

What is the best homemade fabric softener?

One of the best homemade fabric softeners is a solution of one part white vinegar diluted with two parts water, added during the rinse cycle. The acetic acid in the vinegar interacts with detergent residues to naturally soften fabrics. Vinegar's antimicrobial properties also eliminate odors without leaving behind chemical smells. 

For an affordable and effective homemade softener, vinegar is an excellent option.

Does hair conditioner soften clothes?

A hair conditioner can work to soften clothes when added to the rinse cycle. The conditioning agents in products like leave-in or rinse-out conditioners act as a natural fabric softener. For best results, dilute the conditioner with water before using.

Is baking soda better than fabric softener?

Baking soda is considered a better option than fabric softener for softening clothes. It naturally softens clothing fibers without leaving behind chemical residues. Baking soda also eliminates odors. Fabric softeners just coat fabrics and can contain harmful ingredients.

Does vinegar soften clothes?

Vinegar is an effective natural fabric softener. The acetic acid in white distilled vinegar helps break down detergent residue that causes stiffness. Add 1⁄2 cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle for soft laundry. It provides a light, pleasant scent too.

How do you soften hard clothes?

To soften hard clothes, try reheating them in the clothes dryer with a damp towel, which releases moisture to loosen fibers. Using a dryer ball while drying can also help. Other options are hanging dry clothes outside on a line or spraying them lightly with water and tumbling on air fluff.

What are good alternatives to dryer sheets?

A great natural alternative to dryer sheets is our wool dryer balls. Handmade from 100% wool, these reusable dryer balls soften fabrics by lifting and separating clothes as they tumble. This improves airflow to reduce drying time and prevent static cling

Dryer balls also absorb moisture to reduce stiffness. Made from wool, they are a chemical-free option that softens effectively for over 1,000 loads.

How do you soften stiff fabric at home?

To soften stiff fabric at home, try a vinegar soak. Add 1 cup of white vinegar to a bucket of warm water and soak fabrics for 20 minutes. 

Baking soda is also great—make a paste with water and rub it into fabrics before washing. You can also mist fabrics with vodka or hair conditioner diluted in water before drying. 

Steaming or ironing with light misting also helps soften.

Further reading

What are the best laundry detergents for sensitive skin?

Detergent sheets or liquid detergents—which is better?

Is it safe to use dryer sheets on baby clothes?

Why is the dryer making my clothes smell burnt?

Will essential oils on my dryer balls stain clothes?

Do we really need fabric softeners?

How can I keep my sheets from balling up in the dryer?

How do I recharge wool dryer balls?

Do dryer balls work?

How to use dryer balls for down jackets?


EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning | Bounce Dryer Sheets, Fresh Linen Cleaner Rating. (n.d.). EWG. Retrieved November 10, 2023, from