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Safer Alternatives to Fabric Softeners

Karen Alexander, Licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

July 21, 2017

Everyone loves the smell of clothes fresh out of the dryer – for some of us, it might even be the incentive we need to do laundry. You probably have a favorite brand and favorite scent, but would you use fabric softener if you knew what went into it? Unfortunately, there are many harmful chemicals in fabric softeners, including BPA, which may affect your body in a variety of ways. The good news is that many studies and experiments have found safe alternatives to traditional fabric softeners that will reduce exposure to harmful toxins.

First, we must develop an understanding of how fabric softener works. There are two main types, liquid softener, and dryer sheets. The only difference is that liquid softener is used in the washer while the sheets are used in the dryer. Undeniably, fabric softener has its benefits. When the sheet is placed in the dryer it keeps the load from developing static cling, enhances the texture of clothes and gives them a fresh scent. Fabric softener was created in the early 1900s to soften dyed fabrics and only consisted of seven parts water, three parts soap, and one part olive, corn, or tallow oil. Now, the ingredients are far more complex and harmful. Physical damages to the clothes include wearing down the “wicking” aspect of sportswear, reducing the absorbency of a towel, and not allowing microfiber cloths to trap dust or dirt. Furthermore, the waxy chemicals that are used to soften clothes can clog your pores.

Fabric softener coats clothes with many harmful chemicals, including one called QUATS (quaternary ammonium compounds) which is linked to asthma. According to the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, a leading authority on asthma, QUATS causes one in every ten children in America to have asthma. Another chemical in softener is benzyl acetate. This substance has been linked to pancreatic cancer. The vapors can irritate the eyes and respiratory passages, and it can be absorbed through the skin. Softeners also include A-Terpineol, which is linked with central nervous system (CNS) and respiratory disorders. Fabric softener is harmful to the environment and has the potential to contaminate the air we breathe. Fortunately, there are solutions that will safeguard you and your family and reduce unnecessary exposure to BPA and other chemicals.

White distilled vinegar has similar effects as liquid softener without any harmful chemicals. This alternative can be added to your wash to soften fabrics, kill odors, whiten and brighten the load, remove soap and detergent debris, eradicate the wet towel smell and minimize linen or pet hair. Air drying a load that has just been in a wash with vinegar will keep wrinkles to a minimum. Vinegar can also be added to the dryer to eliminate static, with no lingering vinegar scent on your clothes. Please note: do not mix bleach with vinegar.

Wool dryer balls are a natural, chemical-free alternative to traditional liquid softeners and dryer sheets. The wool balls eliminate static, cut the drying time by 8-10 minutes, soften clothes, and help to heat the dryer faster. To use, put in 3-6 wool balls in the dryer with one drop of organic essential oil of your choice on each ball (I like to use lavender essential oil). This will give your clothes a great, natural scent and get rid of any static cling. You can purchase wool dryer balls on Amazon here.

Minimizing exposure to harmful toxins can be a critical part of recovery. Learn more about why Ackerman Cancer Center is a leader in lung cancer treatment. If you have any questions regarding the chemicals in fabric softeners or other household products, please come find me at my desk.


Have a great weekend!
Karen Alexander, MS, RDN, LD/N


*Special thanks to Tammy Fisch and Aryn Lentz for their contributions to this article.

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