Ah, fabric softener.
That lovely fresh smell. The way your clothes feel so cozy and soft after you've used it! It's great right?
Well… Not really.
Have you ever wondered how that blue liquid manages to change the fabric properties and give them such a characteristic feel and aroma? Many of us eco-journalists have asked ourselves the same question, and the answer is in plain sight: chemicals. Phthalates, colors, preservatives, and so on.
We all know how harmful these chemicals can be, and nowadays they are being both studied and questioned more than ever. Just a quick Google search for "is fabric softener bad for the environment?" is all it takes to see dozens of articles and message boards on the topic, but not all of them explain exactly why it is bad nor provide viable alternatives for those who wish to continue softening their clothes.
However, I have good news for you! Here at The Eco Hub I always try to provide two things to my readers: facts (no greenwashing allowed) and realistic solutions — and laundry day is no exception! So don't close this tab, keep scrolling and get ready to ditch your old stuff, because today we'll be venturing into the wondrous world of natural fabric softeners.
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What does fabric softener do and why do we use it?
Fabric softener has been around for many years, gaining a foothold as a multi-billion dollar industry in the name of floral fragrances and supposed "laundry care". So much so that in 2018 the global fabric softeners market size was at US$ 16.53 billion, and estimated around US$ 19.7 billion by 2026. But why is this product so popular in the first place?
To answer this question, we need to understand how fabric softeners work.
There are approximately 5 main different types of fabric softeners on the market that can be classified according to the active component that interacts with the fabric to modify its properties: non-ionic, cationic, anionic, amphoteric, and reactive softeners.
However, most of the ones you find in your nearest grocery store act with a cationic surfactant principle, in other words, they adhere to the fibers of the fabric to make it softer.
As clothes are washed, and fabric softener is poured in, it adds a thin layer of chemicals designed to "lubricate" them, which prevents static cling. Basically, it makes the garments slippery to reduce friction. This means that once washed; clothes are less likely to wrinkle or accumulate lint, thanks to the anti-static nature of the blue liquid. Plus, it adds an extra pleasant scent.
Long story short, we use fabric softener because we like to feel that whatever we wear is soft and fragrant. I'm pretty sure it's happened to you that you load a pair of jeans in the washing machine only using detergent, and they come out with a stiff, rough texture that's unpleasant to even touch. The famous liquid prevents that from happening, and that's why millions of households around the world religiously renew their stock of fabric softener every time it runs out.
It all sounds fine and dandy up to this point, right? But don't be fooled: fabric softener has a dark side that can't be washed out.
Is Fabric Softener Bad For Clothes?
The dark side of fabric softeners starts with the fact that they aren't effective on all fabrics.
Yes, cationic surfactants improve the softness and smell of fabrics made from natural fibers with a high cellulose content such as cotton, linen, or hemp. However, their effect is limited on other natural fibers such as wool or cashmere — almost nonexistent. The same thing happens with synthetic fibers such as nylon or polyester, which is why it's a waste of money to use softener on them.
If we coat elastane or nylon with a waxy-like film, it's like clogging a filter and blocking its ability to release moisture. It is essential for sportswear to remain breathable as it prevents excessive sweating and unpleasant odors, but if that fundamental quality is removed, be prepared to welcome funky smells and excessive bacteria.
Furthermore, the myth that fabric softener "washes clothes better" is not only untrue but quite the opposite. The thin film of fabric softener may build up over time regardless of the type of fabric —including microfiber towels!—, making it difficult for water and detergent to penetrate it. And don't get me started on the hard-to-remove waxy stains that appear on clothes if you mistakenly poured more liquid than you should… Those were my arch-enemies!
So… Is fabric softener bad for clothes? For some types of garments, yes, and for others too, but in the long run.
Is fabric softener bad for the environment?
It's true that the vast majority of fabric softeners on the market sell the softness + scent combo we all love, but at what cost? Well… At an environmental one, of course.
One of the most questioned impacts of fabric softeners is their negative impact on the environment. First of all, they usually come in plastic bottles, and it's no secret that plastic bottles are one of the biggest polluters worldwide due to their lack of biodegradability. Half of all plastic produced globally is made to be used only once and then thrown away, and let's be honest, very few people reuse their Downy bottles.
Besides generating plastic waste, fabric softeners also contain a number of harmful substances, such as quaternary ammonium or "quats,” that are non-biodegradable and can be toxic to aquatic microorganisms. It goes without saying that once these chemicals are washed down the drain, they cause an imbalance in the environment. But guess what? Mother Earth is not the only one affected by the soup of nasty chemicals generated by the laundry industry.
Turns out that some fabric softeners aren't even cruelty-free, as an ingredient derived from animal fat called dehydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride can be found in them.
Plus, according to several studies compiled by the Environmental Working Group, both quats, fragrances —phthalates, ugh—, preservatives, and dyes found in the blue liquid can trigger allergies, skin irritations, and even cause reproductive harm.
So far, I've only discussed liquid detergent, but these aren't the only crooks in the laundry department. Give a big round of boos to liquid detergent's cheap cousin: dryer sheets.
Those disposable single-use sheets you throw in your dryer contribute to environmental waste for obvious reasons, and have been found to emit more than 25 volatile compounds that pollute the air from dryer vents, potentially affecting both human health and air quality in general.
If that doesn't convince you to ditch your Downy bottle or your Fleecy box, I don't know what will!
Is liquid fabric softener biodegradable?
Some people swear that liquid detergent is biodegradable because it's "water-soluble," but let me set the record straight. A fabric softener must be free of harmful elements that could affect ecosystems when released into water supplies in order to be fully biodegradable, and as you have already noticed, this is not the case with liquid fabric softeners.
Fabric softeners often contain petroleum-based chemicals which aren't biodegradable at all, so the only way a liquid fabric softener can be biodegradable is if it's made with natural, plant-derived ingredients. Truth be told, those aren't very common, but if you're interested in learning more about biodegradable liquid fabric softeners, keep scrolling! During my eco-research, I found several that are worth keeping an eye on.
Can you skip fabric softener is it a waste of money?
If there is one thing everyone knows is that when it comes to getting the washing machine spinning, detergent and fabric softener are a must. Maybe you can add some stain remover or a color catcher sheet to prevent color from bleeding and staining other garments, but the star products, detergent, and fabric softener can't be left out… Until now. I mean, of course, detergent is an absolute must, but fabric softener is not essential.
Although it's an effective way to keep fabrics soft, fresh, and wrinkle-free, many people skip this step on laundry day because, in terms of hygiene, its use has nothing to do with making clothes cleaner. Initially, fabric softeners became popular because the detergents used at the time made clothes rough, but now detergents have evolved, and many other ways of softening clothes are available that don't put your well-being or the environment at risk.
Not-so-fun-fact: Over the years, fabric softener can leave slimy sediment that can build up in your water drain and in your washing machine —especially if it's a front-loading one— and clog it. This is because it contains petroleum-based ingredients and sometimes, animal fat, two things that are difficult for water to break down. Dryer sheets are also no slouch in the race of which product ruins your laundry appliances first, those apparently harmless pieces of fabric tend to leave a residue on the inside of your dryer, including the lint trap. If the tiny holes in that filter start to clog and the fuzzy stuff starts to accumulate in your dryer, expect it to malfunction anytime soon.
How to soften clothes without fabric softener (DIY Recipe)
Now that you know why you shouldn't use fabric softener, maybe you've already decided to get rid of your old stuff —fingers crossed!—. If that's the case and you're wondering, "all right then, how can I soften clothes without fabric softener?" it's time to put a sustainable spin on the spin cycle with these zero waste alternatives!
• Use a small amount of vinegar to eliminate unpleasant odors and reduce static energy. However, be careful not to use it with bleach, as this combination can be dangerous if inhaled. Also, some people have reported that vinegar is not very good for certain synthetic fibers, so be sure to test it on small pieces of fabrics to see whether or not it will harm them.
• Add baking soda to the washing machine to not only soften the laundry by adjusting the water's pH level but also reduce bacteria and get rid of funky smells.
• Use some good ol' wool dryer balls or household objects like tennis balls to reduce static, decrease drying times (sometimes even by 25%!), and fluff your clothes as they dry. They do make them feel softer to the touch. Plus, they can be used countless times, so for me, they are the ultimate zero waste fabric softener! You can also ditch the dry and instead air dry your clothes.
• I know this may sound a bit coo-coo, but put 2 or 3 balls of aluminum foil in your washing machine. Believe me, this will help reduce the static cling of your garments.
• Store your clothes when they are fully dry and don't leave them sitting out in the sun for long periods of time, as this will increase static.
Pro tip: Mix up some dried flowers or herbs and place them in your closet to keep your clothes smelling nice and fresh. You can also add a few drops of essential oils to your wool dryer ball in case you want your clothes to have a specific scent :).
Last but certainly not least, if you're in the mood for mixing ingredients and making your own custom environmentally friendly fabric softener, here's a quick bonus DIY recipe for you to try:
1. Mix in a bowl 1 cup of baking soda with 1 cup of water.
2. Add the 6 cups of vinegar to the mixture and let it sit for 5 minutes (make sure to put a towel under the bowl, the mixture will start to fizz up!).
3. After 5 minutes, add 6 more cups of warm water and stir.
4. Add 10 drops of essential oil of your choice to the mixture to scent the fabric softener. If you see that it lacks aroma, add 5 more drops, and voila! No more wasting money on dirty fabric softener instead try this organic fabric softener.
Eco-Friendly Fabric Softener Alternatives
Let's say you've read the whole post and you're aware of the damage that fabric softener can cause in the environment and in our daily lives, but you can't stay away from something you've been using for years, even decades… What should you do in that case?
If quitting fabric softeners is hard for you, then eco-friendly fabric softeners are the way to go! There are plenty of natural fabric softeners on the market today which will do just as good a job at making clothes feel less stiff and crunchy, so I gathered some of them here for you to enjoy their green benefits:
Looking for a pre-measured and mess-free fabric softener? Dropps got you covered! They make a natural, safe, vegan, cruelty-free, and biodegradable fabric softener that comes in the form of pods inside plastic-free and compostable packaging. With their non-toxic lavender and eucalyptus-scented pods, you can dodge both the health and negative environmental impacts of traditional mass-produced fabric softeners — just throw one pod in with your washing machine, and you're ready to go!
If you’re a dryer sheet type of person and aren't ready to completely give up on them yet, Public Goods' non-toxic dryer sheets provide an eco-friendly alternative shipped in 100% recycled cardboard boxes. The sheets are made entirely of plant-based ingredients with no harsh chemicals or overwhelming synthetic fragrances, which means zero parabens or phthalates, woohoo! Plus, they’re biodegradable, compostable, and hypoallergenic. What more could you ask for?
Finding an environmentally friendly liquid fabric softener is difficult, but not impossible: meet Grove Co’s liquid fabric softener. This 84% plant-based liquid is free of parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde, and if you or anyone in your family is sensitive to scents in clothing, don't worry - it's unscented. The only thing that doesn't quite convince me is its packaging, but I'll let it slide (just this once!). It's one of the best natural fabric softener around.
Attitude's line of natural fabric softeners is also really good. I've used them in the past, they were gifted to me. They have a light scent and are formulated to be gentle even on a baby's skin. They do have an unscented version as well. It's cruelty-free, made in Canada, and free of harmful chemicals. It is packed in plastic, which is not ideal.
Remember: it’s always equally important to not only find a fabric softener that works wonders but also one that’s gentle with people, animals, and our Mother Earth.
The Next Time You Go To Pick Up A Traditional Fabric Softener Think Twice
Who doesn't like to smell nice and, better yet, feel the comfort of a soft and cozy fabric? To many people, the fabric softener they're using isn't just a luxury. It’s a necessity. Maybe you're one of those people, and that's totally fine! You don't always have to make a major sacrifice in the name of the environment. Sometimes you just have to give an eco-twist to the things you use in your everyday life — and that's more than enough.
Before you start your washing machine again, pause for a moment and think about how you can make the future of our planet look fresh and clean.
Instead of restocking your traditional fabric softener supply, there are eco-friendly alternatives out there —like the ones I mentioned above— that can still give your clothes a nice smell and feel while also leaving the environment safe from harmful chemicals. That's essentially the primary benefit of choosing a natural fabric softener, whether it is a liquid one, a dryer sheet, or a pod.
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