Are you wondering if you need fabric softener when washing clothes? Is it really necessary?
In this article, I break down the pros and cons of fabric softener.
- What fabric softener is and how it works
- The benefits of using fabric softener
- The downsides of using fabric softener
- The best alternatives to fabric softener
So, if you’re wondering whether the pros of fabric softener outweigh the cons, keep reading.
Use the links below to navigate the article:
- What Is Fabric Softener?
- Pros of Fabric Softener
- Cons of Fabric Softener
- Alternatives to Fabric Softener
- Bottom Line: Is Fabric Softener Necessary?
What Is Fabric Softener?
Fabric softener, also referred to as fabric conditioner, is an additive that interacts with clothing during a wash cycle.
It contains lubricating ingredients that attach to clothing fibers to make them feel soft to the touch. It also protects clothes against wear, fuzz, pilling, fading, and shedding of fabric.
Some key ingredients in fabric softener include:
- Diethyl Ester Dimethyl Ammonium Chloride: This is a compound responsible for the soft feel of your garments. It’s also an antibacterial agent.
- Polyquaternium-33: This acts as a strengthening agent and stabilizer.
- Pentasodium Pentetate: This serves as a binding agent.
Although specific ingredients differ among brands, all fabric softener has a similar makeup. The ingredients reduce friction during a wash to keep clothes looking newer, longer.
Fabric softener mostly comes in liquid form, but brands like Downy are formulating new ways to deliver the effects. Its latest innovation is conditioning beads called Downy Defy Damage.
Unlike liquids you add at a specific time during the wash cycle, these solid beads are added at the start, even before the clothes. They interact with laundry throughout the wash and eventually dissolve.
There’s not much difference in performance between liquid fabric softener and beads, but you don’t have to worry about measuring or spills with the beads.
Pros of Fabric Softener
Whether using liquids or beads, there are undeniable benefits to adding fabric softener to your laundry cycles.
Here’s what you need to know.
As the name suggests, fabric softener makes clothes feel softer. If you compare clothes washed with fabric softener to clothes washed without it, you’ll notice a clear difference. The clothes and bed linens washed with fabric softener feel softer and more comfortable against your skin.
The tumbling action of a dryer causes clothes and linens to rub against each other and create static electricity. If you pay attention, you can hear and see small electric reactions when pulling the clothes apart after a dry cycle.
That static comes from an imbalance of positive and negative charges that build up as the clothes rub against each other.
Fabric softener reduces the static by lubricating the fibers of your clothes, so there’s less friction as they tumble.
Locks in Colors
Many fabric softeners claim to help retain colors and brightness of clothes. In fact, Procter & Gamble (the makers of Downy) went all out on a Twitter marketing campaign to prove it.
Since fabric softener coats clothes by lubricating the fibers and reducing friction during the wash cycle, clothes are “protected” from normal wear and tear.
Of course, make sure to follow the label instructions. For example, washing colors at the right temperature will ward off fading naturally.
Some garments are prone to shrinkage, but fabric softener can give them an added boost of elasticity. However, simply following the laundry instructions on the labels of your clothing or linens is the best defense against losing the original shape or fit.
You can avoid wrinkles with good laundering practices, such as immediately removing them from a dryer, hanging them to dry, or folding them promptly.
Yet, with the use of fabric softener, you get some leeway. Since the fabric is in a more relaxed state, it’s less likely to wrinkle.
If you are a fan of scented laundry, fabric softener offers a layer of fragrance to keep laundry smelling fresh long after a wash. Since there are a variety of scents, you are likely to find one that appeals to you.
Cons of Fabric Softener
Now that you know the pros of fabric softener, let’s look at the cons.
Here’s why you might want to avoid using it.
Many fabric softeners are made up of chemicals and chemical compounds. While these ingredients can add to the life and look of your clothing, they can potentially trigger dangerous side effects.
Here are the top offenders to look for:
- “Quats”: Quaternary ammonium compounds give clothing and linens that soft feel, but they are also known for triggering asthma. Besides that, some studies show that they may impact reproduction. There are many quats, but a few prevalent ones are diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride (mentioned earlier), distearyldimonium chloride, and benzalkonium chloride. Also, look for ingredients descriptions like cationic surfactant or softening agents, as they can group quats together to make them sound more appealing.
- Preservatives and Dyes: Most fabric softener contains preservatives and dyes, and these chemicals can irritate sensitive skin.
- Fragrances: Fragrances often use phthalates to release scents into the air, and research suggests they’re linked to skin irritation and breathing issues, among other health risks. These chemicals can also be released into the air outside your home via dryer vents and trigger asthma or impact chemical-sensitive neighbors.
Avoid fabric softener if you prefer sustainable, eco-friendly products. Many fabric softeners contain petroleum-based chemicals that are harmful to the environment, and most formulas are not biodegradable.
Builds Up Over Time
Fabric softener adds a coating to fabric that builds up over time, preventing water from penetrating your clothes during the wash cycle.
As a result, clothes and linens may not get as clean as before. The buildup could also lock in dirt and odors.
The buildup can not only damage fabric but can also affect washing machines and dryers, reducing their effectiveness over time. It can clog parts in washing machines and reduce water flow or impact fabric softener dispensing.
In dryers, fabric softener can build up on the lint screen, blocking airflow (which could cause overheating) and reducing drying performance. You’ll need to clean your lint screen regularly with a small brush and mild soapy water to counter the buildup.
Not Compatible With All Fabric Types
Fabric softener can damage certain materials, including cashmere, moisture-wicking clothes, wool, swimwear, microfiber, terry cloth, and down- or feather-filled clothing/items.
The wax-like buildup it can put on these materials causes them to flatten and lose fluff or luster.
For example, microfiber towels lose their absorbency when you use fabric softener. The coating repels water and creates a barrier between the towel and the soiled surface.
Fabric softener can also remove a garment’s ability to pull moisture away from your skin, making clothes less breathable.
Can Cause Towels to Become Less Absorbent
Finally, fabric softener and towels aren’t a good combination. Towels are cherished for their absorbency, and fabric softener, with repeated use, renders them less absorbent.
You may find yourself washing a towel for extended cycles just to restore fluffiness and absorbency, leading to the towel wearing out sooner.
Alternatives to Fabric Softener
If you want the benefits of fabric softener, like softer clothes, less fading, or reduced static cling, but don’t want the negatives that come with that, consider the alternatives.
These options are healthier, more sustainable, and less costly:
- Wool dryer balls: Wool dryer balls are an affordable and simple way to get some of the benefits of fabric softener without chemicals. As they bounce around in the dryer, they create space between the damp clothes, which reduces the drying time and reduces wrinkles. Although the dryer ball makers say they reduce static cling and make clothes feel softer, I conducted tests that debunked that claim. They tend to be quiet and can be reused as much as 1,000 times, making them a more sustainable choice. For fragrance, you can put a few drops of essential oil on the balls. Just be sure to allow them to dry before adding them to the dryer.
- Tennis balls: Tennis balls provide the same function as wool dryer balls, but they’re much noisier. If you want to use essential oils with them, wrap the tennis balls in an old sock to absorb the oil. Also, I recommend using old tennis balls as new ones might have an undesirable smell.
- Dry towel: Placing a clean, dry bath-sized towel among the wet clothes in your dryer helps separate fabrics, reduces static, and encourages your clothes to dry faster. You don’t need to keep it in for the entire cycle. For a full load, let it tumble with the other clothes for 15-20 minutes.
- Baking soda: To soften fabrics, remove stains, and reduce odor, add a quarter to a half cup of baking soda to warm water. Add it to your washing machine during the rinse cycle.
- Vinegar and essential oils: Mix white vinegar with a few drops of your favorite essential oil (like eucalyptus, lavender, or ylang-ylang) in a spray bottle. Spritz your clothes as you add them to the dryer. The vinegar helps to eliminate static, and the essential oils will give your laundry a fresh scent.
Bottom Line: Is Fabric Softener Necessary?
Now you know the pros and cons of fabric softener, but the question remains: is it necessary?
Before I give you my recommendation, let’s quickly recap:
Pros of Fabric Softener:
- It makes clothes feel softer, removes static, and reduces color fade and wear.
- It adds elasticity to fibers, so your clothes hold their form better
- It reduces wrinkles and makes clothes less stiff.
- It makes your clothes smell good long after a wash.
Cons of Fabric Softener:
- It contains chemicals that can irritate your skin, trigger asthma or other health issues.
- Many formulas aren’t biodegradable or sustainable.
- The buildup from fabric softener lubricants can eventually impact the cleanliness and feel of your clothes and linens.
- The buildup can also hinder the effectiveness of washers and dryers over time.
- It will ruin some fabrics, including cashmere, wool, and microfiber.
- It’s more costly to use than most natural alternatives.
Bottom line — fabric softener is not necessary, and the cons far outweigh the pros. Fabric softener contains chemicals that can impact your health, and the lubricating coating it leaves behind can ruin your clothes and damage your washing machine and dryer over time.
Besides that, most detergents on the market today are already formulated to help soften fabrics.
Sort your clothes by color (whites and colors) and fabric type (i.e., jeans with jeans, towels with towels, delicates with delicates).
Sorting by fabric type is essential because heavy fabrics can damage lighter ones during the wash cycle. Also, more lightweight fabrics dry quicker, and leaving clothes in the dryer for too long leads to wrinkles.
When the wash cycle is complete, shake each item before putting it in the dryer along with a few wool dryer balls.
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