Dryer Sheets or Liquid Fabric Softener – Which is Greener?

December 6, 2008

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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk:

Which is better for our environment: to use dryer sheets in the dryer or liquid fabric softener in the wash? It seems they both have properties that are not very green.

– Deborah, via e-mail

If you’re concerned about the health and safety of your family members, you might want to stay away from both conventional dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners altogether. While it may be nice to have clothes that feel soft, smell fresh and are free of static cling, both types of products contain chemicals known to be toxic to people after sustained exposure.

According to the health and wellness website Sixwise.com, some of the most harmful ingredients in dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener alike include benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen), among others.

Since fabric softeners are designed to stay in your clothes for extended periods of time, such chemicals can seep out gradually and be inhaled or absorbed directly through the skin. Liquid fabric softeners are slightly preferable to dryer sheets, as the chemicals in dryer sheets get released into the air when they are heated up in the dryer and can pose a respiratory health risk to those both inside and outside the home.

For those who don’t want to give up the benefits of fabric softeners but are afraid to risk exposure to potentially toxic chemicals, National Geographic’s Green Guide recommends adding either a quarter cup of baking soda or a quarter cup of white vinegar to the wash cycle. Either one will soften clothes, while the latter will also address static cling. (Be sure not to mix either with bleach, though, as resulting chemical reactions could cause noxious fumes.) If eliminating static cling is your top priority, try drying natural-fiber clothes separately from synthetic materials. The combination of cotton and polyester is often the culprit behind static cling. Better yet, reports Green Guide, line dry synthetic clothing, as it tends to dry fairly quickly anyway. new dryer - YEY

Creative Commons License photo credit: miss pupik

A few companies have heeded the ever-increasing call for greener, safer ways to soften clothes and reduce static cling. Seventh Generation’s Natural Lavender Scent Fabric Softener and Ecover’s Natural Fabric Softener are both good choices that rely on vegetable products and natural essential oils instead of harsh chemicals to get the job done.

Another safer option is Maddocks’ Static Eliminator, a non-toxic, hypoallergenic reusable dryer sheet made out of a proprietary, chemical-free polynylon. The Canadian company Maddocks originally developed the material to rid industrial-scale mechanical systems of explosion-inducing static electricity, but soon realized that it could benefit consumers as well, who can now buy the sheets—each one is good for some 500 wash loads—from natural foods retailers as well as from several online vendors.

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4 Responses to “Dryer Sheets or Liquid Fabric Softener – Which is Greener?”

  1. Robin on December 7th, 2008 6:41 pm

    I quit using any form of fabric softener about a year ago and I do not miss it. I bought the 2 dryer balls to soften the fabric and I just deal with the very little static. My husband washed some clothing at his parents house a while back and the scent was so strong to me I couldn’t stand it. If I feel the need for a scent in my linens i just pop in some of my lavender sachets that I have in muslin cotton bags. It really was great to eliminate that extra shopping expense also.

  2. Carrie on December 7th, 2008 8:48 pm

    I don’t use any type of laundry softener either Robin. I’ve never seen the need.

  3. Charndra at Part Time Diaper Free on May 1st, 2009 3:02 am

    I don’t use either. I’m in Australia, and we can’t even get ‘dryer sheets’ – I’d never heard of them before!

    If I want a nice smell I pop a few drops of an essential oil on a cloth and throw it in there, though of course we strive to minimise our drier use.

    What do the dryer balls do? I’m assuming they bounce around and collect static or soften the fabric or something?

  4. carrie on May 1st, 2009 10:01 am

    @Chandra, can’t wait to check out your diaper free site :-) Thanks for your comment – I have often done the same, although I usually just put a couple of drops directly in the dryer.

    The dryer balls – yes, what you said. I’ve never used those either. Actually now I don’t own a dryer and hang all my laundry anyway so it’s a non issue.

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