Why is Fabric Softener Bad for the Environment (+ Best Natural Alternatives)?

As far as I remember, I've always seen my mum use two big bottles when washing clothes: one to actually wash clothes, and one to make them smell good. I didn't know any better, and of course, at the time, I had no clue about the environmental impact of fabric softener.

I never really questioned the practice until I started working in the fashion industry. Of course, by then, I knew the nice-smelling product was fabric softener. But only then did I start caring about the real purpose of it. And while the name was quite self-explanatory (it softens fabrics, right!), I started understanding its use nuances.

I also started to see that fabric softener was potentially harmful in more ways than not and was definitely not recommended for all types of fabrics. And it all comes down to what it's actually made of. But we'll get to this in a minute.

So today, we'll have a look at a few questions about fabric softener. Why is fabric softener bad for the environment, why it's not ideal for you, and what are some alternatives to fabric softeners that are kind to the planet.

Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links that may earn me a small commission, at no additional cost to you.

What is fabric softener?

First things first, let's have a look at the obvious question. What is fabric softener?

Fabric softener typically comes in two different forms: as a liquid, as dryer sheets. And it is an everyday laundry staple used to soften fabrics. It's designed to help prevent static, to reduce wrinkles, and to make clothes feel softer. It also usually has a pleasant smell to it, and if you're used to that smell, it becomes synonymous with clean clothes (I was that person! For so long!).

So how does fabric softener work?

To put it simply, we'll say fabric softener creates a thin layer of wax-like film on top of your clothes to help reduce friction. The thin waxy layer will basically make your clothes slippery, which, in turn, will prevent static. The thin layer of wax also traps in smells, which is why your softener's smell will linger on your clothes for days, weeks, or even months.

So what's the problem then?

Do not use fabric softener symbol: what does it mean?

You'll notice that some labels will instruct you not to use fabric softener on specific pieces of clothing. There is no symbol for it; but the instruction will be nearly written. Usually on sportswear. And now that we've explained how fabric softeners work, it'll be easier to understand why.

Sportswear is usually designed to help eliminate moisture – instead of keeping it trapped.

So what does it have to do with fabric softeners? Well, it's quite simple! Remember the thin layer of coating that keeps the lovely smell in? It also causes less absorbency for your textiles – yes, it keeps the sweat in – and therefore, it also keeps the body odours in.

So if you're wondering why your sportswear doesn't smell very nice. My question is: do you use fabric softener when washing your sportswear? If yes, then you have your answer.

This phenomenon also applies to other materials that are designed to keep you dry – while, granted, it's to a lesser extent.

By the way, I'll just add here that fabric softeners decrease the absorbency of your towels – which no one wants, right. So, it should definitely be avoided.

Oh, and did I mention that this fat-based coating tends to make clothes more flammable? Right. On top of penitentially being animal fat or palm oil, I don't think I'll take the risk at all…

Why is fabric softener bad for the environment?

Ok, so now that we've covered the foundation of what fabric softener is and how it works, let's get to the touchy questions.

What is fabric softener made of?

Usually, fabric softeners contain cationic surfactants of the quaternary ammonium type (also called QACs). Right. If you're anything like me, then this means nothing to you. So let's make it straight English: QACs are common disinfectant products, which are, at first glance, perfectly fine.

But the problem is, even though they biodegrade easily in the air, they don't biodegrade very well in water. They are actually not completely removed during wastewater treatment. And of course, that's a problem, because our washing machine water goes straight into the oceans.

Many manufacturers are now shifting to more eco-friendly ingredients, but we'll see that even that is not necessary either.

Something else to keep in mind is the impact on you, your health and your skin. And you might want to rethink your use of the product.

Why is fabric softener bad for you?

When it comes to how harmful they can potentially be for you, the main problem with fabric softeners is the lack of transparency. Especially when it comes to what they actually contain. On top of the components we've just discussed, they also contain fragrances. And honestly, for the longest time, I thought that was the only use of fabric softeners. So what's wrong with that? Well, let's see!

This Healthline article says:

Products that may contain fragrance ingredients, but are not applied to the body, like dryer sheets, are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn't require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients used in their products on the label.

And a 2008 study from the University of Washington found that this was highly problematic.

“Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,' which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level,” Steinemann said.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't make me very confident in these products… Like. At all.

Ok, so we get it. Fabric softeners are bad for the environment. And they're also bad for you. But what should we do then? Aren't fabric softeners necessary? Well, I'm glad you've asked.

Is fabric softener necessary?

No. They're absolutely not. Fabric softeners came about at a time when laundry detergent was really harsh on fabrics. Therefore, it was quite pleasant to have a product to balance that harshness and make the textile a bit softer. Decades later, laundry detergent has dramatically improved and do not need to be overbalanced by fabric softeners.

But if you are still wondering what to do and which alternatives to use, then keep reading.

Fabric Softener Alternatives

So why is fabric softener bad for the environment? We answered that question. But I know you might still want to replace it with something else. So let's look at eco-friendly alternatives to fabric softener, and what we can use instead. As established, fabric softener isn't actually necessary. But I know old habits are difficult to get rid of. So I thought I would give you a few options, if you really want to replace it with something.

– Air drying

But because I'm still trying to convince you to simply ditch it; I'll give you the most eco-friendly option on the list: sun and air!

Air drying your clothes will actually make them softer than putting them in the dryer – plus, a dryer is actually quite harmful in so many ways, but that's a topic for another day.

– White vinegar

I stopped counting the many uses of white vinegar in a sustainable home. But yes, a cup of white vinegar in your wash will do wonders to soften your clothes just enough – without having to wonder what will happen to all those chemicals.

– Baking Soda

Another all time favourite of the sustainable home, baking soda! You can dilute it in a bit of water, before putting it in your washing machine as well. I will work perfectly fine.

– Wool dryer balls

Ok so for those of you who will still be using a dryer after this, then these wool dryer balls are a must have. Because yes, your dryer will make your clothes a bit stiff. But the wool balls will bounce around, thus creating movement in the machine, and softening your clothes as they dry.

– The EcoEgg

The EcoEgg is a superstar in the world of sustainable living, as it's just a little gadget that replaces both your laundry detergent and your fabric softener. You can have it scented or fragrance-free. Ideal for a guaranteed planet-friendly laundry routine.

– Eco-Friendly fabric softener

And last but not least, here is an option for a planet-friendly fabric softener. Not compulsory at all, but at least it won't be harmful!

So to recap. Is fabric softener bad for the environment? Yes. Is it bad for you? Yes. Is it necessary? No. You can now learn how to actually build a more sustainable wardrobe, by checking the sustainable fashion hub.

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