For many households using fabric softener is an unquestioned habit. We love our clothes to be as soft and fluffy as possible, without static and releasing a pleasant smell. While you may think that you are successfully solving the issue of stiff clothes, using fabric softener could be creating more problems, for your health and for the environment.
What is Fabric Softener
Fabric softener is applied to laundry during the last rinse cycle in a washing machine. Fabrics, especially natural ones like cotton, are squashed during the washing and spin cycles, and can even still have a little detergent in them, which sticks the fibres together. When the fabric dries, the squashed surfaces, possibly containing a little left-over detergent, makes the fabric somewhat stiff. Fabric softener coats the fibres after the washing cycle with a liquid that is positively electrically charged, which helps the fibres to move away from one another, and helps to avoid static build-up, which is negatively electrically charged. When the fibres are coated and do not stick together, the fabric feels softer.
Clothes dryers are great at fluffing up fabric and removing that hard feel from clothes. Fabric softeners are however often used regardless, but not necessarily to soften clothes. Clothes dryers create a lot of static when the dry fabrics rub against each other. The anti-static property of fabric softener helps to reduce static, as well as releasing an even more intense fragrance due to the heat of the dryer.
Consumers often buy fabric softener just because of the fragrance. When the fabric dries, either by air-drying or by using a clothes dryer, fragrance is released from the fabric. Fragrances are engineered to be as pleasing as possible, and to be released gradually over time.
So what is actually in fabric softener?
Softener: The majority of fabric softeners use refined animal fat as a softener (dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride also known as DHTDMAC), which belongs to a class of materials called quaternary ammonium compounds, or ‘quats’ for short. It is a cationic surfactant, which is positively charged, which works against negatively charged static.(4) While this chemical doesn’t seem to have an adverse effect on the environment, although some research is worrying, many consumers may not be comfortable using animal fat on their clothes. Animal fats are in fact used in many everyday products. If a product contains gelatine, such as candies and cakes, or bone ash, such as train brakes or fine bone china, then the product most likely contains animal products. (1) Using all parts of the animal, which is a by-product of the meat industry, can be considered a sensible use of a product which would otherwise be thrown away. However, many countries are nowadays moving towards less meat consumption and are adopting more vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. Most fabric softeners are not vegan.
Animal fat softeners coat materials effectively, creating a barrier on the surface of fabric. While this can protect the fabric from wear and tear, this also affects its ability to absorb liquids. Sport clothing and microfibre cloths are designed to be absorbent. These fabrics lose their absorbent qualities when covered in fabric softener. This has led to a new class of softeners based on silicone, which allow fabrics to stay absorbent. There is however a concern about how silicones build up in the environment, because they are not biodegradable (5). A report from 2021 showed that 4.7 tonnes of certain silicones enter surface water every year in the European Union, and there is a concern about build-up in the environment (5)
Preservatives: Liquids containing water are susceptible to bacterial growth, so fabric softeners require preservatives. Preservatives can cause allergic reactions if they come into contact with skin.
Emulsifiers: Fabric softeners also require emulsifiers, which are petroleum-based. They are used to combine the oil and water-based ingredients together. Refined petroleum is typically not biodegradable, and the extraction of petroleum is not sustainable, causing harm to the environment during its extraction, transportation and accidental leaks.
Fragrances: Fragrances are also typically petroleum-based. Brands are not required to give details about the contents of their fragrances, leaving the consumer unable to make an informed choice about the ingredients when buying the product. Fragrances are typically given natural names, but are in fact synthetic scents created in a laboratory which are designed to smell the same as something natural.
Fragrances in fabric softeners are supported by phthalates, which help the smell to last longer. Phthalates are a controversial ingredient, and are classed as an endocrine disruptor, which affects hormone balance in humans. (2)
Colour: Dyes are added to either make the solution white, or a colour which is aligned with the branding. Dye ingredients are often patented and not disclosed, but it can be assumed that they are either petroleum or mica based. Mica is a mineral which is mined, and is considered not sustainable, as well as questions regarding human rights during the mining process.
In general, fabric softeners contain a host of synthetic ingredients which are unsustainably sourced, not biodegradable, and through constant contact with your skin can enter your body, with a wide range of potential side-effects.
Pros and Cons of fabric softener:
Softens fabric, making your clothes feel softer on your skin
Anti-static, which is especially useful if using a dryer
Prevents wrinkles, because the fabric is less stiff
Helps protect clothes against some wear and tear
The majority of fabric softeners are created using animal products and are therefore not suitable for vegans
Petroleum based ingredients which is a non-renewable resource
Not completely biodegradable, and can accumulate in the environment
Can cause fabric to be less absorbent
Builds up on clothes over time, and can trap dirt and odour
Builds up in your washing machine, and can lead to blockages and bad smells
What are alternatives to fabric softener?
Vinegar: To counteract the stiffness caused by minerals in hard water, as well as residual detergent, vinegar (white vinegar) is a great solution. Just use around 60ml of white vinegar where you would normally add fabric softener in your washing machine. Vinegar is acidic, and neutralises the alkaline soapy or mineral residues left in fabric. This helps to effectively remove anything which makes your fabric feel hard after washing. Instead of adding softener, which coats the fabrics, vinegar helps to remove any mineral or soapy residues completely, so you are left with just your fabric and nothing else. Don’t worry, your clothes or washing machine will not smell of vinegar afterwards.
Essential Oils: If you want to give your fabrics a special scent, you can add around 10 drops of essential oils to your washing machine, where you would normally add your fabric softener. Essential oils are however volatile, and will evaporate from your clothes within a few days.
Detergent: If you are experiencing stiff clothes, you may want to change your laundry detergent to one which leaves less residue behind, or you can experiment with using less detergent. Once you find the right detergent, and the right amount, you may find that you don’t even need fabric softener anymore.