Many Americans Are Ditching Their Fabric Softener – And Experts Warn You May Want To As Well

Laundry is a part of life – every grown-up knows this. And every grown-up also knows that there is a tried-and-tested routine for cleaning clothes. It goes a little something like this: you fill a washing machine with dirty garments, you add the detergent and then you reach for the fabric softener. But if this sounds familiar, it might be time to stop skipping that third step. Why? Well, more and more experts are warning against using dryer sheets or liquid softener in the wash.

This will come as a surprise to many people. After all, most American laundry rooms wouldn’t be complete without a bottle of their favorite fabric softener – or a box of their trusted dryer sheets. These items became commonplace during the 1960s and have stayed that way for decades because, well, they work. We all want our fresh, clean clothes to feel comfortable, and these solutions do the trick. So what’s the problem?

It seems that, in recent years, experts have uncovered some disturbing truths about fabric softener. This has resulted in more and more Americans ditching traditional laundry products for new solutions to make their laundry fluffy and fresh. And you might do the same after you learn the truth about these products, too.

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Yet the issues with fabric softeners are nothing new. At the beginning of the 20th century, you see, textile manufacturers had a problem. Namely, the pigments they employed to color cotton gave the resulting fabrics a rough texture. To fix this, then, the manufacturers washed their products in a mixture of soap, water and oil made from olives, tallow or corn. That blend would subsequently inspire scientists to produce formulas that would work as softeners. All of which sounds okay so far…

However, it took a little over a half-century for fabric softener to catch on with the masses. Big-name brands such as Procter & Gamble then offered their versions to the public in the 1960s. From there, more effective substances – laced with better scents – brought more people round to using softeners. It worked, too.

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As of 2019, fabric softener is an industry worth more than $2 billion in the United States alone. And people have plenty of good reasons for using the most modern versions of this century-old product. For starters, it fulfills the original purpose for its creation: it makes clothes and other items feel more comfortable.

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Softeners do more than what their name tells us, though. They can also help garments to last longer by soothing any tension between threads. And if this friction disappears, it lowers static cling – and most of us have first-hand experience of how annoying that can be. There’s more good news, too.

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Crucially, people use fabric softener because it includes a dash of fragrance – and who doesn’t want their clean clothes to smell good? This is true of softener in its most common forms, whether it’s liquid being added to the wash or dryer sheets. So what are the problems that the experts have with this handy substance?

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Well, even though fabric softener can do a world of good for your clothes, it may not be as beneficial for you and your body. But don’t just take our word for it. Cotton Incorporated’s evaluation manager Suzanne Holmes and senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group Samara Geller know just how these products work – in good and bad ways.

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The first negative of fabric softener is one particular ingredient. Have you ever had it when, after washing clothes with a liquid softener or drying them with a sheet, your garments are left feeling almost slimy to the touch? You’re not alone. Yet it’s this coating that’s supposed to give garments the softness and anti-static properties we seek.

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However, the veneer contains a substance known as quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs. Plenty of cleaning products contain QACs, and they can prove vital to the people who use them. For example, some rely on QAC-laden solutions to sanitize hospitals, schools and other places that need to be clean to be safe.

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QACs start as solids that are then placed in liquids to dissolve. But if QACs subsequently dry out, they may return to a solid form. This is why many people try to avoid buying items containing the substance. Yet you can’t always tell if your cleaning products contain them – because they typically make up below one percent of the solution. That means they don’t have to appear on the Safety Data Sheets that come with such products.

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This is a big problem, according to Geller, who pointed out to Apartment Therapy in February 2020 that scent-free or so-called green products – fabric softener included – can still contain ingredients that many users would otherwise want to avoid. She said, “Labeling is a massive issue with cleaning products, and their ingredients are disclosed less often.”

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The QACs-induced slimy sensation is just one of the documented flaws of fabric softener, though. It can also adversely affect particular materials, stopping them from working as intended. For instance, adding some to a load of athletic wear can cause the garments’ moisture-absorbing properties to fail.

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And these properties – that pull sweat from your body quickly and allow it to dry out more rapidly – are why you buy such items in the first place. After all, they help you stay cool during a gym session, and your perspiration doesn’t drench your workout gear. Once you wash this fabric with softener, though, these abilities will be diminished.

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That’s because the residue left behind after a softener-laden wash can fill the fabric’s breathable apertures. This prevents your gear from doing its job. Without aeration, you see, it can no longer help sweat dry. So you should start to skip the softener when you wash your exercise clothes – but that’s not the only type of fabric ruined by this product. Nor is it the real reason experts are warning customers to ditch their fabric softener.

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Interestingly enough, then, fabric softener can ruin one of the very products it was meant to improve in the first place: towels. For one thing, terry or microfiber cloths – items designed to be super absorbent – will lose this quality if you add a liquid softener or dryer sheet into the mix.

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And even cotton towels will lose their softness over time. This is, of course, counter-intuitive – considering these products are specifically meant to keep fabrics feeling soft. “Cotton naturally washes cleaner and feels softer against skin than synthetics,” Holmes explained. “This is important because relying too much on dryer sheets can turn items like towels into nonabsorbent, ineffective rags.”

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And then there’s another, even more serious issue created by fabric softener – and, in many cases, the warning is right there on the container. In fact, in July 2019 a mom’s Facebook post went viral after she shared the notice on the back of her Lenor-brand bottle of fabric softener. She wrote, “Never seen this before, but all mums need to know. DO NOT PUT THIS ON YOUR KIDS’ SLEEPWEAR!”

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The Lenor fabric softener in question had a list of ingredients on its container. Beneath that, the bottle featured guidance that stated: “Liquid fabric softener can increase fabric flammability. Using more than recommended can increase this effect.” Although the label didn’t explain further, there’s a reason why the softening solution can heighten an item’s likelihood of burning.

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You see, fabric softener segregates the fibers that make up fuzzy fabrics such as fleece, flannel and even cotton. This process gives them a fluffier feel after a wash and dry. But while this is fine for natural materials, for some human-made and coated materials too much fabric softener can have an unexpected side effect.

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For one thing, fabric softener can break down flame-retardant additives that coat children’s pajamas and other garments. And even natural materials covered in fabric softener can catch fire more easily, simply because it causes their fibers to spread out. This means that there’s more of the garment that’s at risk of beginning to burn.

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The database of the Department of Health & Human Services Products contains warnings about this possibility, though. And this notice came to light after a nine-year-old girl’s nightgown caught fire in 2012. Specifically, the guidance advised against using fabric softener on already fuzzy or fluffy materials to prevent them from catching fire.

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The database entry for Ultra Downy Liquid Fabric Softener stated: “By increasing fluffiness, using liquid fabric softeners can increase the flammability of these types of fabrics. Therefore, do not use this product on clothing made with these types of fluffier fabrics.” Experts also warn against using fabric softener on flame-resistant clothing, including kids’ pajamas and other garments.

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McGill University’s Joe Schwarcz issued further guidance to the Montreal Gazette in 2017. Firstly, he advised parents to dress their little ones in polyester-inclusive pajamas, as the synthetic material is less flammable than cotton. He also calmed minds by pointing out that fabric softener-coated fabrics wouldn’t just burst into flame on their own.

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“Remember that going up in ‘a ball of flame’ requires a source of ignition!” Schwarcz wrote. “You can lounge around in a comfy fabric-softened flannel robe to your heart’s content without worrying about it spontaneously bursting into flame. Just don’t do it next to a fireplace and don’t go dropping any cigarette ashes on it.”

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That isn’t the end of the concerns about fabric softener, though. Others go back to the inclusion of quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs, in dryer sheets and liquid softener. For some users, then, this particular ingredient can exacerbate pre-existing health conditions – or even create entirely new ones.

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Environmental Working Group analyst Geller told Apartment Therapy that softener has been shown to cause skin problems and make asthma worse. She added that it also has links to serious medical conditions, including reproductive issues and even cancer. But experts need to conduct more research to conclusively confirm the link. The next issue with QACs, though, is beyond doubt.

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Yes, contact with QACs can cause physical harm to you and your loved ones. If you need an example, let’s say you accidentally splash a bit of QAC-inclusive fabric softener in your eye. Well, this can cause eye or mucous membrane issues. And if a child were to inadvertently swallow some, they may suffer from internal problems as a result.

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Avoiding QACs and all of their adverse health effects isn’t as easy as skipping fabric softener or dryer sheets, though. As previously mentioned, the compounds appear in a multitude of different cleaning products – especially those that contain scents. And even so-called green varieties may contain chemicals, despite packaging that makes them seem cleaner and safer.

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For this reason, Geller highlighted the lack of regulation in the industry. According to her, this has allowed so many consumer goods to hit the shelves with unlisted QACs inside. To ensure you choose safe products for you and your family, then, you can check the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for a more thorough rundown.

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As it turns out, though, you can avoid fabric softener or dryer sheets altogether to side-step these effects. Firstly, you have the eco-friendly, all-natural option of using wool dryer balls. These can be re-used for years on end, whereas the synthetic sheets are single-use items.

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The wool spheres plump up fabrics as they roll around in your tumble dryer. They beat clothes and other textiles to soften their fibers without any superficial coating. And as they bounce around, they fight static and friction – just as fabric softener does. The spheres keep garments separated so they dry uniformly as well.

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“Dryer balls help to lift and aerate the clothing and shorten dryer time,” Geller explained. “The less dryer time, the less static there will be.” To enjoy this effect, you’ll need around four or five wool dryer balls. The larger the load, the more you’ll add in – and the better your clothes, sheets and towels will feel after the cycle.

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If you live in a calcium-heavy water zone, though, you might try another all-natural alternative to fabric softener: baking soda. Add it into your machine, allow it all to dissolve and then place your garments into the basin. After they’re washed with baking soda, clothes will feel softer, and they’ll have less static, too.

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You can also make clothes bouncy and fluffy in the dryer by adding a dry towel in with a wet load of laundry. Some have found that this combination imbues the drying garments with the right amount of softness and reduces unwanted static, too. You don’t require anything special to try out this option, either; chances are, you have at least one clean, dry towel lying around.

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Some people have also seen the same results with a much different but equally commonplace material. Crumple up a ball of aluminum foil – yes, the stuff you use to cover leftovers – and pop that into the dryer with your clothes. It agitates your wet garments, just as a dryer ball does, thus softening fabrics as they dry.

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This method does require a bit of finesse since the edges of aluminum foil can be a little on the sharp side. So make sure you carefully crumple your sheet before adding it to the dryer. For added peace of mind, skip this method when washing delicate garments – that way, you won’t find any snags or tears in them.

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Finally, there is an easy and eco-friendly option to avoid static altogether, and that’s air-drying your clothes. Sure, it takes a bit longer to do things this way, but it tends to be better for and gentler on garments. Plus, they’ll stay softer if you use baking soda in the wash with them.

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In the end, of course, it’s up to you to decide if you’ll skip fabric softener or not. At the very least, though, you should probably do some research into the subject. The Environmental Working Group and other experts have analyzed the ingredients of such products, and it very well could be safer for you and your family to skip them altogether.

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Other common household items could be a threat to your health as well. Take aluminum foil. This can likely be found in almost every home in the United States. After all, it’s cheap, readily available and useful in a variety of situations. But new evidence suggests that this ordinary item may pose a hidden danger to the people who use it.

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And although the product is also commonly referred to as tin foil, it hasn’t been made from tin since the early 20th century. This was because that particular substance often left a metallic taste on the food it was used to wrap. Additionally, the original foil was stiffer and more expensive to produce than its modern-day counterpart.

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The first example of aluminum foil, then, was made in Switzerland in 1910. And the plant where it was produced was owned by J.G. Neher & Sons, who used the hydroelectricity generated by a waterfall to power their rolling machine. In this way, modern foil was born.

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Furthermore, aluminum foil was also initially used by food manufacturers to package their products; Tobler wrapped its chocolate Toblerone bars in it, for example. And by 1913 the foil was being used in the United States to cover Life Savers and other candy.

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Today, however, around 660,000 tons of aluminum foil is manufactured in the U.S., with 75 percent of it being used to package products like food, cosmetics and cigarettes. And, helpfully, the foil itself can be recycled, making it a more environmentally friendly choice than equivalents such as plastic wrap.

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Plus, aluminum foil is frequently used during barbecuing. In essence, by using foil when cooking on the grill, people can keep clean up to a minimum. Worryingly, though, experts are now warning that this could be a terrible idea.

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After all, when you cook using aluminum foil, tiny particles of the metal may transfer to the food you plan to eat. And even though the aluminum flecks might not be visible, you could nevertheless be ingesting them. Worse still, high doses of the metal have been linked to various ailments, including Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis. In extreme cases, kidney failure could even result as a result of high aluminum levels in the body.

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It’s worth noting, though, that most people do take in a varying amount of aluminum in their day-to-day lives; the metal is found in cheese, tea and many antiperspirants, for example. And that’s okay since the human body is pretty adept at absorbing and expelling small amounts of aluminum.

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Moreover, the World Health Organization has claimed that the body can take in 40 mg of aluminum without the metal causing damage. If you cook food using foil, however, your body may eventually absorb as much as six times that safe amount, according to a 2012 study by researchers from the American University of Sharjah. Their findings also established that one piece of meat could potentially carry as much as 400 mg of the metal.

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And, unfortunately, the situation may be exacerbated when food is cooked in spices or acidic substances such as lemon juice. Given that fish is often baked in foil, then, this so-called healthy food could end up containing worrying levels of aluminum.

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And it isn’t just through cooking that we are exposed to aluminum regularly. The chemical compound aluminum sulfate is used in the water purification process, for instance. Combined with other sources, then, the amount of aluminum in your body could add up.

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But despite the ramifications of the contents of the 2012 study, elements of its findings have nevertheless come under question. Some argue, for instance, that although cooking with foil means that food could have a higher aluminum content, this may not matter. Indeed, according to one report published in 2011, the body absorbs less than 0.4 percent of the aluminum it ingests.

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Moreover, of that tiny amount, only a small percentage makes it to your brain. Consequently, it makes it very unlikely that the food you eat can give you Alzheimer’s – regardless of how that food is cooked. Just 1 percent of absorbed aluminum ends up in the brain, in fact.

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And, so, if one assumes that a piece of meat cooked in foil is carrying 400 mg of aluminum, your body will absorb on average about 1.6 mg of that. It follows, then, that just 0.016 mg of aluminum will find its way to your brain.

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Indeed, to create unnatural levels of aluminum in your body, and in particular your brain, it’s said that you would need to ingest a huge amount of the metal. Not only that, but you would have to do so extremely regularly. So, where did the theory that aluminum gives you Alzheimer’s disease come from?

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Well, the idea that aluminum and Alzheimer’s are connected began years ago, when scientists noticed that people who had died of the disease often appeared to have a buildup of plaque in their brains. Subsequently, this plaque was discovered to contain aluminum.

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And ever since, debate has raged about just how much of an effect aluminum levels have on the incidence of Alzheimer’s. It’s been argued, for instance, that although there are some links between aluminum in drinking water and the disease, these are not conclusive. Likewise, it’s said that data produced does not suggest that aluminum is a key factor in inducing Alzheimer’s.

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Furthermore, while food cooked on foil could contain relatively higher levels of aluminum, it’s also the case that tea may also harbor a significant amount of the metal. Consequently, it might be that the current fears over foil are unfounded; people have been drinking tea for centuries, after all.

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Be that as it may, there are actions you can take if cooking with foil is something you’re concerned about: put bluntly, you’ll need to stop using it. Instead, when barbecuing, you could place your food directly on a rack above the heat source; if using an oven, though, put it in some aluminum-free bakeware.

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And whether you believe that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s or not, there is still one safe way to use foil: that is, simply for wrapping. After all, high levels of aluminum have only been recorded when food is wrapped in foil and then subjected to heat.

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