Sunny alpine meadows, pristine streams, cuddly teddy bears…these compelling images are all used to promote commercial fabric softeners. All promise to make our clothes, bedding, and towels softer, better smelling, and free of static cling.

Fabric softeners have been around for more than 50 years but it was in the 1970s, when synthetic fibres were popular, that single-use dryer sheets were introduced to battle static cling. Fabric softener usage became common in North American households.

Fabric softeners work by changing a detergent’s negative electrical charge back into a positive, reducing static. They also coat fibres with a film that fluffs fibres and often scents the fabric.

Sounds simple enough, but the use of dryer sheets can create xenoestrogens, a synthetic estrogen that builds up in fatty tissue and may affect the natural function of our hormone-producing glands. Research has linked xenoestrogens to the increase of breast, testicular, and other cancers. Liquid softener and dryer sheets also contain neurotoxins and carcinogens. These hazardous chemicals are a danger to the central nervous system, according to the data from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and are slowly released as we wear our clothes and use our towels and sheets. In addition, when we tumble-dry laundry containing fabric softener, those toxins are released into the environment through the dryer vent. Top it all off with recent news that fabric softeners may increase the flammability of clothing and sleepwear, and suddenly those alpine meadows and cute teddy bears don’t seem quite as appealing. Fortunately, by changing the type of fabric softener we use, as well as by following a few laundry-room tips, we can enjoy soft, fresh-smelling clothes without resorting to hazardous chemicals.

It’s time to question the value of commercial fabric softeners versus their cost to our health. By breaking the cycle of “soft at any cost,” you’ll improve your health and the health of our planet, one wash load at a time.

Soft and Static-Free the Natural Way

  • Choose natural fibres such as cotton, wool, linen, and hemp, which are much less conducive to static.
  • Lower your dryer’s heat setting and drying time to make clothes less prone to static. Take clothes out of the dryer when they’re still damp, shake them out, and hang to dry.
  • Do like our grandmothers did: line-dry your wash on dry, breezy days.
  • If you go to a laundromat, look for an extractor, a machine that uses centrifugal force to spin excess water and soap residue from your wash, reducing drying time.

Alternatives To Commercial Fabric Softeners

  • Natural fabric softeners aren't harmful to you or the environment. Available at health food stores and green markets, they replace toxic chemicals with vegetable-based ingredients, salts, and herbal fragrances.
  • X-Static products use a material spun with pure silver to help dissipate static electricity. Silver's antibacterial properties also help combat mildew and discolouration.
  • Dryer balls are a pair of spiky balls that you place in the dryer with your clothes to tumble and separate items, reducing drying time, static, and wrinkles.

About the Author

Jenn Farrell is a Vancouver writer and editor. She writes on a variety of topics for alive and other magazines.