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Dryer Sheets vs. Fabric Softener: 10 Key Differences

Fabric softener and dryer sheets reduce static and wrinkles and make your clothes softer and smell better.

So what’s the difference? Is one better than the other? Should you use both?

In this comparison of dryer sheets vs. liquid fabric softener, I break down the ten key differences.

You’ll learn how they compare in terms of usage, ingredients, safety, price, and more.

By the end, you’ll be able to make an educated decision on whether dryer sheets, liquid fabric softener, or a proven alternative is the best choice for your home.


Use the links below to navigate the comparison:


Dryer Sheets vs. Fabric Softener: Comparison Chart

If you only have a minute, the chart below provides a quick comparison of dryer sheets vs. fabric softener. For more detailed information, please read the entire article.

Swipe to view the entire chart on mobile.

Dryer SheetsFabric Softener
Softens FabricsYesYes
Protects ColorsNoYes
Prevents StretchingNoYes
Reduces WrinklesSometimesYes
Prevents StaticYesYes
Anti-FuzzNoYes
Adds FragranceYesYes
DownsidesPotentially harmful chemicals, buildup on clothing and dryers.Potentially harmful chemicals, buildup on clothing and dryers.
How It WorksCoats fabric with a heat-activated film that reduces static and makes clothes feel soft.Penetrates fabric to provide anti-static benefits, softening, and fabric protection.
How to Use ItAdd to the dryer with your damp clothes.Add before the rinse cycle.
Fabric ProtectionDoes not provide fabric protection.Provides fade resistance and maintains the shape and fit of clothes.
IngredientsDipalmethyl hydroxyethylammonium methosulfate, fatty acid, clay or stearic acid, polyester substrate, and fragrance.Water, fragrance, polyquaternium-33, formic acid, dyes, and pentasodium pentetate.
SafetyUses chemicals with potential health and environmental risks.Uses chemicals with potential health and environmental risks.
PackagingUsually packaged in a recyclable cardboard box.Plastic container. Sometimes offered in an eco-friendly box that uses less plastic.
Price$ (view on Amazon)$$ (view on Amazon)
Alternative UsesCleaning, dusting, deodorizing small spaces, pest repellant.Removing hard water stains, removing sticky substances, refreshing carpet, removing burnt food from cookware.

Benefits

Dryer sheets are effective at softening fabrics as well as removing static. They’re inexpensive, easy to use, and require no measuring or pouring. In most cases, they come in recyclable cardboard packaging.

Fabric softener is equally effective at removing static cling and softening clothes. It also provides advanced fabric protection to prolong the look, shape, and quality of clothes over time.

According to Downy, the seven main benefits of fabric softener are:

  • Adding lasting freshness
  • Protecting colors
  • Softening fabrics
  • Fighting stretching
  • Reducing wrinkles
  • Preventing static
  • Preventing fuzz
Benefits of fabric softener
Benefits of fabric softener

Fabric softener is easy to use, as well. Just measure the amount and pour it into a dispenser before a wash. You’ll find that it offers a wider variety of scents than dryer sheets.

Downsides

While there are benefits of using fabric softener or dryer sheets, there are also downsides to consider.

Here are the main cons of using dryer sheets:

  • With frequent use, they can create a lasting film on moisture-wicking clothing and fabrics that removes their effectiveness.
  • The buildup from using dryer sheets can cause towels to be less absorbent over time.
  • You may be exposed to toxic chemicals that cause skin, eye, and airway irritation.
  • They can stick to clothes, so you’ll often need to hunt for them and pull them off.
  • Over time, the chemicals in the dryer sheets can build up in your dryer. This may cause the machine to work less effectively due to clogged lint filter screens and reduced air circulation.

The main cons of fabric softener use are as follows:

  • They contain chemicals that may irritate your skin, cause breathing issues, and trigger allergies.
  • Many fabric softener formulas are not sustainable because they are petroleum-based or non-biodegradable.
  • Over time, fabric softeners can buildup on fabrics, creating a barrier that water cannot penetrate. When it gets to that point, the fabric softener can trap stains and odors that detergents and other cleaning agents can’t remove.
  • It can make fabrics like towels less absorbent and remove the effectiveness of moisture-wicking materials.
  • Just like dryer sheets, fabric softener can slowly build up and cause your dryer to work less efficiently or even overheat. Additionally, it can cause electronic moisture sensors to malfunction, making your cycle run longer than needed.

How It Works

Dryer sheets and fabric softener both reduce static and make clothes feel softer. However, the way they each achieve those results is not the same.

Fabric softeners contain softening and scent agents designed to penetrate clothes down to the fibers. It’s a complex process made simple by ingredients like quaternary ammonium cations (quats), emulsifiers, and other additives and chemicals.  

As clothes tumble around during the wash cycle, they build up a static charge. Quats contain positive compounds that bind with the negative charges in fabrics, thereby reducing static cling. Emulsifiers are responsible for penetrating fabric, inside and out. Together they deliver softer, fragrant, static-free clothes.

By contrast, dryer sheets are infused with surfactants, fragrances, and chemicals that coat clean fabric with a thin film. The dryer’s heat activates and disperses that film across the surface of the clothing, resulting in static-free, soft, and fragrant clothing — unless you use an unscented brand. 

Overall — fabric softener penetrates fabric while dryer sheets add a film on top of it.

How to Use It

Dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener are both easy to use and deliver similar results, but the way you use them is entirely different.

How to Use Dryer Sheets

Dryer sheets are the best mess-free option. You don’t have to worry about drips, and there is no mess to clean up. The sheets engage with clothes in the dryer after a wash.

You drop the recommended number of sheets in the dryer along with the clean clothes and turn the appliance on. After the clothes are dry, you simply take out the dryer sheets and discard them.

How to use dryer sheets
How to use dryer sheets

How to Use Fabric Softener

Unlike dryer sheets which are added to the dry cycle, liquid fabric softener is added to the wash cycle (specifically, during the rinse cycle).

Many newer washing machines have a compartment labeled “Fabric Softener” to pour the product into before starting the wash cycle. These machines automatically dispense the fabric softener during the rinse cycle.

Fabric softener compartment
Fabric softener compartment

If your washing machine doesn’t have a timed dispenser, you can either add the fabric softener by hand during the rinse cycle or use a fabric softener dispenser, like the Downy Ball.

Fabric Protection

Fabric softener is the only option for fabric protection, including fade resistance and maintaining the ideal shape, fit, and feel of clothes and other garments.

Dryer sheets often claim to reduce static and wrinkles and soften clothes, but they don’t offer any advanced fabric protection.

It makes sense, especially since both products interact with clothes differently. Fabric softener penetrates fabric down to the fiber, while dryer sheets only coat the outer layer of your clothes.

Ingredients

In this section, you’ll learn about the ingredients of both fabric softeners and dryer sheets and how they work.

Immediately following this section is more information about known safety concerns with common ingredients in fabric softeners and dryer sheets.

Fabric Softener Ingredients

To give you an idea of the ingredients in fabric softener, let’s look at what’s in Downy (in April Fresh scent).

The ingredients are as follows:

  • Water: The solvent in the formula that allows all ingredients to combine and work together.
  • Diethylester dimethyl ammonium chloride: An agent that creates a softening effect on fabrics.
  • Fragrance: Made up of several chemicals that, combined, provide the fabric softener with a unique scent.
  • Polyquaternium-33: An anti-static agent that also thickens and stabilizes the formula.
  • Formic acid: Provides pH balance to the formula.
  • Blend of polyoxyalkylene substituted chromophores (blue and red): The combination of these elements provides the color to the formula.
  • Pentasodium pentetate: Responsible for stabilizing the formula. It also works as a chelating agent to soften the water and improve the bonding of ingredients to the fabric.

Note: Unscented Downy Ultra contains the same ingredients, minus the colors and fragrance.

Ingredients in Dryer Sheets

While there are many different dryer sheets, most of them contain these basic ingredients:

  • Dipalmethyl hydroxyethylammonium methosulfate: Works as an anti-static and softening agent.
  • Fatty acid: A softening agent that coats the dryer sheet.
  • Clay or stearic acid: Helps release the anti-static and softening agents as it reacts with hot air in the dryer.
  • Polyester substrate: Nonwoven filaments that act as a carrier for the formula. It is the actual sheet that you toss into the dryer.
  • Fragrance: A combination of chemicals that create the signature scent of the dryer sheet.

Safety

There are several health concerns tied to the use of fabric softener and dryer sheets that you need to know.

Nonprofits like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are dedicated to helping you to make healthy product choices for your household.

The EWG, a nonprofit dedicated helping you to make healthy product choices for your household, doesn’t recommend fabric softeners. Citing harmful chemicals like quats, phthalates, and colorants, the EWG suggests that you use alternatives to reduce static and soften clothes (and I agree).

Many of the chemicals found in dryer sheets are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration. But there are still issues with the chemicals used for fragrance.

Studies suggest that breathing dryer sheets’ fragrances can cause heath issues, including migraines, asthma attaches, and skin and eye irritation.

EWG grades products from A to F based on how harmful they are to people and the environment. Products with an A are considered low risk, while F-rated products are high risk.

EWG Safety Ratings
EWG Safety Ratings

Based on EWG’s assessment, dryer sheet’s level of safety ranges significantly across brands. For example, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Dryer Sheets received a B grade, while Bounce, Gain, and Snuggle products received an F.

Similarly, EWG grades of fabric softeners vary by brand and product. While there were no A-grade dryer sheet products, there are a variety of A-grade fabric softeners.

Downy, one of the best-selling laundry brands, has products ranging from C to F, according to EWG.

ProductEWG Safety Grade
Downy Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, April FreshC
Downy Ultra Liquid Fabric Conditioner, Free & GentleC
Downy Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, Clean BreezeD
Downy Simple Pleasures Dryer Sheets, Sage Jasmine ThrillD
Downy Infusions Fabric Softener Sheets, Lavender SerenityD
Downy Simple Pleasures Liquid Fabric Softener, Lavender SerenityD
Downy Ultra Downy Liquid Fabric Softener, April FreshF
Downy Ultra Fabric Softener, Sun BlossomF

Here are some of the safety concerns from ingredients that are usually found in popular products like Downy, Bounce, and Gain:

  • Dipalmitoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate: May cause respiratory distress or trigger asthma. Also may impact a person’s development, endocrine, or reproductive systems. It may be harmful to aquatic pets if placed in water due to acute aquatic toxicity (found in Gain and Downy dryer sheets).
  • Fragrance: May cause skin irritation, respiratory issues, allergies, acute aquatic toxicity, and biodegradation (found in Downy, Gain, and Bounce scented fabric softeners).
  • Polyquaternium-33: May cause acute aquatic toxicity (found in Downy fabric softener).
  • Formic acid: May cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and respiratory issues (found in Downy fabric softener).

Based on the evidence and guidance from EWG, some products are safer than others. If you decide to use a fabric softener or dryer sheets, you’ll need to be mindful when choosing a product.

Packaging

Dryer sheets are typically packaged in a recyclable cardboard box.

Fabric softener is most often in a plastic bottle. Depending on the brand, it may be recyclable but must be rinsed thoroughly. Some brands, like Downy, also offer the liquid in an eco-friendly box made with 75% less plastic.

Price

Dryer sheets are significantly more economical than fabric softeners. While you can’t compare both products in terms of weight or volume, the sheer number of loads is the best gauge of value.

That said, fabric softeners offer more benefits than dryer sheets. So, depending on your goal for using either product, it might be worth it to spend a bit more.

The chart below shows the current prices on Amazon of popular dryer sheets and fabric softeners:

Prices pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Alternative Uses

Fabric softeners and dryer sheets have several other uses besides reducing static, adding scent, reducing wrinkles, and softening clothes. Here is a list of the most popular alternative uses.

Other ways you can use fabric softener:

  • Eliminate hard water stains
  • Remove stickers from glass
  • Freshen and soften carpet before a deep steam clean
  • Remove wallpaper
  • Minimize static electricity at home by lightly misting carpet before bed
  • Remove hairspray residue
  • Clean paint brushes
  • Remove burnt food from pots

Other ways you can use dryer sheets:

  • Clean eyeglasses (used dryer sheets)
  • Dust around the house (used dryer sheets)
  • Clean up dry spills like powder, flour, or cornstarch
  • Freshen up enclosed spaces like cars, drawers, and closets
  • Deodorize trash cans
  • Remove pet hair from clothes
  • Remove soap scum or waxy residue
  • Ward off pests like gnats and mosquitoes
  • Remove deodorant stains from clothing
  • Help deodorize carpet by adding a sheet to a vacuum canister
  • Scrub grease off your stovetop or from inside your oven

Keep in mind product manufacturers may not approve alternative uses. I strongly recommend using products as directed, but do your research first if you decide to try any of these other uses.

Never rub a dryer sheet or fabric softener directly on your skin, as it may cause skin irritation.

FAQs About Dryer Sheets and Fabric Softener

Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about dryer sheets and fabric softener.

Can you use both fabric softener and dryer sheets?

You could, but it’s not recommended, and it’s a waste of money since they have similar functions. Also, using both increases your exposure to chemicals, worsening the potential health risk.

How many dryer sheets should I use per load?

For small loads, one is sufficient. Two dryer sheets can get the job done for medium to large loads. For extra-large loads, you might need three. Test it out with different size loads and examine how your clothes feel to get just the right number of sheets.

How much fabric softener should I use per load?

It varies by brand. Each bottle generally has a diagram to show you how much to dispense. There is usually a measuring cup with markings for different-sized loads.

Are dryer sheets and fabric softener necessary?

No. There are other ways to reduce wrinkles, static cling, and make clothes softer without fabric softener or dryer sheets. Learn more about why fabric softener is not necessary.

Can I use fabric softener as a detergent?

No, they serve different functions. Detergent cleans, and fabric softener protects. Learn more about the differences between fabric softener and laundry detergent.

How can I remove fabric softener stains?

With a toothbrush, clean off the excess fabric softener.

Next, run the fabric area under a high-pressure stream of cold water.

Then, add laundry detergent directly to the fabric to cover the stain.

Add laundry detergent to your machine and place the stained garment in the drum. Wash on a normal cycle at the hottest temperature.

If the garment cannot withstand hot water, use the directed temperature on the care label. If the stain persists, follow the steps again.

Do not dry the garment until the stain is removed. Otherwise, heat from the dryer will set the stain, making it nearly impossible to remove.

What fabrics are incompatible with fabric softener and dryer sheets?

Towels, microfiber, moisture-wicking fabric, cashmere, wool, synthetic fabrics like polyester, and chemically-treated fabrics such as water or fireproof clothing are not compatible with fabric softener or dryer sheets.

The chemicals in these products can coat the fabrics and alter their appearance or effectiveness. Try using a wool dryer ball for these items instead.

Can I use fabric softener on my sheets?

You can, but it’s not recommended. Again, try using wool dryer balls as an alternative. If you want a pleasant smell, you can add a few drops of essential oil to the dryer balls before tossing them in the dryer.

Alternatives to Dryer Sheets and Fabric Softener

If you are looking for alternatives to dryer sheets and fabric softener, these are my top recommendations.

Wool dryer balls

Wool dryer balls are a solid alternative to dryer sheets because they produce similar results without all the chemicals.

They’re sustainable, inexpensive, and help save energy by reducing drying time.

They work by bouncing off the clothes during the drying cycle to soften them, wicking away moisture and reducing static. Because they create separation between the clothes, air flows more freely, decreasing dry time. Bonus: they are also reusable.

If you want an alternative that keeps your laundry smelling great, this is the one to try because you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to your wool dryer balls before you pop them in the machine.

White vinegar

White vinegar is an excellent alternative to fabric softener because it can keep your clothes bright and eliminate odors without harsh chemicals.

Unfortunately, it does not have a pleasant smell like many fabric softeners on the market today. Thankfully, the scent dissipates within a few minutes.

White vinegar helps to soften fabrics and reduce static cling, but it also reduces fading, deodorizes clothing (and washing machines), and removes stains. It’s a highly versatile and inexpensive swap for fabric softener.

Add ¼ cup of white vinegar to the fabric softener compartment before washing. It’ll be dispensed right before the final rinse cycle.

Note: Cleaning vinegar has 1% more acidity than white vinegar. It’s ideal for cleaning, but you cannot consume it like white vinegar.

Baking soda

Baking soda is another effective alternative to fabric softener. It fights stains, moves odor, and keeps your fabrics soft. Plus, it’s affordable, and you likely already have it around the house.

It softens wash water, making any laundry detergent more effective.

To use, just add 1⁄2 cup of baking soda to your washer drum, followed by your favorite laundry detergent. Wash your clothes and linens as usual.

Line drying with vinegar

Line drying clothes, indoors or outdoors, is cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. It takes more work, but the payoff is evident in lower energy bills and less exposure to chemicals in your home.

However, line drying can make clothes stiff. To reduce stiffness, spray a light mist of vinegar on your clothes before washing. The vinegar also doubles as a stain fighter and odor reducer.

You’ll need a glass spray bottle or a plastic bottle that can store vinegar, such as a PET or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottle. Fill with one cup of white vinegar and one cup of water.

You can also add essential oil to the mixture, adding as little or as much as you prefer. Just be sure to research the best essential oils to use to avoid staining fabrics, as some oils like patchouli have a natural yellow color.

Vinegar is not well-suited to all types of clothing. Some fabrics like velvet and chiffon are sensitive to vinegar and can be ruined, so proceed with caution.

Bottom Line: Should You Use Dryer Sheets or Fabric Softener?

Now that you know how dryer sheets and fabric softeners work, the ingredients they contain, and safety concerns, it’s time to decide if they are the right choice for your home.

First, let’s recap the key differences between dryer sheets and fabric softener:

  • You use dryer sheets by tossing them in a dryer with damp laundry. With fabric softener, you need to measure out the right amount for your load and add it to the fabric softener dispenser before a wash cycle begins.
  • Fabric softener penetrates clothing fibers during wash cycles. It softens fabrics and
  • prevents static, wrinkles, and fading. Dryer sheets coat fabric with a film that reduces static and makes clothes softer.
  • Both products have uses outside of laundry. For example, used dryer sheets are perfect for dusting, and fabric softener can eliminate hard water stains.
  • Dryer sheets and fabric softener have different ingredients. Both contain chemicals associated with health concerns such as skin irritation, respiratory issues, and aquatic toxicity.
  • Dryer sheets tend to use more sustainable packaging than fabric softener and are less expensive.

Bottom Line — if you want fabric protection, go with fabric softener. If you only care about removing static and making clothes feel softer, you can save money by choosing dryer sheets.

However, the benefits of dryer sheets and fabric softener do not outweigh the chemical exposure and risk of ruining your clothes. And, for most people, I wouldn’t recommend using either.

Instead, try adding baking soda to your wash cycle and dryer balls to your dry cycle. You’ll get similar benefits without the risks or costs of dryer sheets and fabric softeners. These wool dryer balls are the ones I recommend.

Andrew Palermo Founder of Prudent Reviews

Andrew Palermo - About the Author

Andrew is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prudent Reviews. He’s studied consumer buying behavior for 10+ years and has managed marketing campaigns for over a dozen Fortune 500 brands. When he’s not testing the latest home products, he’s spending time with his family, cooking, and doing house projects. Connect with Andrew via emailLinkedIn, or the Prudent Reviews YouTube channel.

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