By Emma Stessman
When it comes to cleaning your clothes, there’s a laundry list (ha!) of products that can contain potentially harmful ingredients—conventional detergents, stain removers, dryer sheets, etc. But the one product you should just start skipping altogether? According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), it’s fabric softener.
What’s In Fabric Softener?
It turns out freshly washed clothes get that sought-after softness from ingredients called quaternary ammonium compounds (or quats), which have been shown to cause asthma or trigger asthma symptoms in certain people. They’ve also been linked to reproductive issues in animal studies, although much more research is needed.
Quats are made from lipids that essentially coat your clothes in a fatty layer, making them smoother and softer to the touch. Another issue is that these fats can be derived from plants, minerals, and even animals like cattle, sheep, or horses. If you’re a vegan, you often won’t be able to tell if your softener is (unless it explicitly says so on the label).
And since the fatty coating tends to cling to clothing,your exposure to the chemicals can last longer than just a single wear. “Think about it, these chemicals accompany you 24/7…as you wear your clothes, dry off after a shower, and sleep in pajamas under your sheets,” Marilee Nelson, co-founder of natural cleaning brand Branch Basic, explained in Real Simple.
Many softeners also contain other potentially toxic ingredients found in common household items, like 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, which have been associated with increased risk of cancer at certain levels of exposure, and methylisothiazolinone and glutaral, chemicals known to cause allergic reactions on the skin.
On top of that, while it can make your clothes feel cozier and smell better, fabric softener isn’t actually great for the fabrics. Towels washed with the stuff will lose their ability to dry, leaving you soggy post-shower. And when used on performance gear, it can leave a waxy coating that will prevent the wicking fabric from properly drying your sweat.
What to Use Instead of Fabric Softener
When looking for a fabric softener, the EWG suggests avoiding products with distearyldimonium chloride, variants of hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate (whew!), or nonspecific ingredients like “biodegradable fabric softening agents” and “cationic surfactant.” And avoid those with artificial fragrances, preservatives, and colors, which can all spark allergic reactions.
That being said, if you don’t feel like squinting at the ingredients list (and trying to remember words like hydroxyethyl-something-or-other), why not just skip the softener entirely?
Even the cleaning product brands ranked high on the EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning have questionable ratings for their liquid fabric softeners. Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyer’s softeners, for example, both have D grades. While other laundry products may also contain potentially harmful chemicals and fragrances that stack up pretty evenly with fabric softener, the big difference is that unlike detergent, you don’t need it. (And you’ll save money if you skip it!)
Fabric softener isn’t a necessary part of the laundry process, and if you feel like a regular wash and dry isn’t cutting it for softness, you can make your own natural alternative. Try this DIY recipe from Bren Did that uses essential oils and white vinegar to soften and clean. Or use an unscented wool dryer ball that helps to soften clothes and reduce static in the dryer.