Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fabric Softener or Health and Environmental Menace?

The other day I was in my local grocery store and I happened to pick up a bottle of fabric softener to check the ingredients.  I am curious like that.  While I have been known to make my own laundry soap and hang my clothes outside (or on bars over heat vents) to dry, I have to admit I like my clothes to smell nice and "clean."   But what IS the smell of clean that comes from fabric softeners?  What ingredients make up that blue, green, yellow or pink liquid that we pour into our washing machines, infuse into our clothes and then pump out into our septic systems, sewers and waterways?

One source indicates that fabric softeners work by "depositing lubricating chemicals on the fabric that make it feel softer, reduce static cling, and impart a fresh fragrance."  Lubricating chemicals?   Really? 

Another study found that fabric softeners often contain chemicals such as benzyl acetate, formaldehyde, camphor, chloroform, ethyl acetate, pentane, linalool and limonene. And, according to the Allergy and Environmental Health Association, both liquid and dryer sheet fabric softeners are “the most toxic product produced for daily household use.”

My friends over at Treehugger.com discovered that some fabric softeners actually contain rendered animal fat mixed with ammonium chloride to give clothes and towels that snuggly soft feeling.  Hmm... rendered animal fat.  Sounds cozy, doesn't it?

I don't know about you, but I don't want any of that stuff on my clothes, towels, sheets or on my skin. Yuck!

Luckily, fabric softeners are completely optional.  We've become conditioned to believe that our clothes aren't clean unless we use these chemical concoctions.  (Effective marketing, no?)  In the spirit of eco-steps, there are natural, less toxic and less expensive options for softening clothes.    Here are a few ideas:

Add a 1/2 cup of baking soda to the water in your washing machine and let it dissolve prior to adding your clothes.

Add 1 cup of white vinegar instead of fabric softener.  The vinegar will erase any traces of laundry detergent or soap and the smell will dissipate when the clothes are dry.  (I use this method and my clothes never smell like vinegar). 

Seventh Generation makes an all natural fabric softener if you don't want to go the vinegar or baking soda route. 

Aside from the toxic chemical polution aspect of fabric softeners, let's take a look at the dollars and sense of it. (Yes, I used the wrong word on purpose).  I did a little investigative shopping and compared a gallon of fabric softener with a gallon of white vinegar, which can be used as a natural .  Here's what I found:

A gallon of fabric softener cost $8.38 USD.

A gallon of store brand white vinegar cost $2.29 USD. 

The white vinegar  is roughly 1/3 the cost of the fabric softener. 
(Again, this is one example, prices may vary, etc.). 

So arguably, using natural fabric softeneners is better for you, the environment and your wallet.  A complete win-win!  I encourage you to check your fabric softener labels and do your homework when it comes to any of the products you use in your home.  These are the things we use everyday.  Making small changes (eco-steps)  to what we buy and use really can add up to make a difference.

I am sure there are other options out there for naturally softening clothes.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.


  1. I agree with this post. I also give props to the marketing wizards that came up with the "Hey since your clothes aren't smelling nice enough and feeling soft enough after washing, lets add some more chemmies so they are REALLY clean this time .. but oh dear you may still be malodorous under those freshies .... hey why don't you throw on some deodorant .. and you know what your hair could use another good cream rinse ... and .. er ..maybe we should just spray a cloud of air freshener around you .. just in case .. "

  2. Great topic, Amy!

    Coincidentally, I just wrote about phthalates on my blog (http://andreastwocents.blogspot.com/2011/03/tuesday-toxin-talk.html), which are commonly found hidden as part of the "fragrance" or "parfum" in personal care products. Maybe phthalates are in scented fabric softeners, too?

    Thanks for the white vinegar alternative!

  3. Some additional comments from readers who contacted me directly:

    #1: additionally particles released in close home environ. contribute to inflammatory lung just like dust, dirt, smoke, dog&human hair

    #2: If more people abandoned clothes dryers and air dried their clothing more, we'd have significant energy savings
    and our clothing would last allot longer. I've never used softeners. White vinegar, ay? And you promise I won't
    smell like a tossed salad? The best!

  4. Hi Andrea,

    Excellent points about phthalates. I haven't done any research on this (yet) but phthalates are also known as "the bad nasties" in plastics that leach out and mess with the hormones in our bodies. There has been mounting evidence that we should really be mindful about using plastic for food storage (even the BPA-free kind). Hmmm... another blog post, perhaps? Thanks for commenting!!

  5. I am a fan of vinegar for a lot of cleaning but haven't tried it in the wash yet. I like 7th Generation and also use Soap Nuts in the wash, which requires no fabric softener.