Why Fabric Softener Is Bad for Your Laundry—and What to Use Instead
Consumer Reports offer tips on how to make your clothes soft and nice-smelling—without any gross residue
When we interviewed Rich Handel, a test project leader at Consumer Reports who specializes in laundry, about the things he would never do as a laundry expert, his number one tip was ditching fabric softener. “Not only can it irritate sensitive skin, but it can also leave a layer of residue on your clothes and reduce the absorption of your towels,” he told us.
Fabric softeners work by depositing a layer of electrically charged chemical compounds on fabric. This coating causes the fibers on clothes to fluff up, thus making fabric feel softer and gentler on the skin. They also neutralize electric charge, which is what makes your clothes shock you or cling together. But it comes at a cost: Fabric softener can reduce flame resistance on children’s sleepwear, and the residue buildup in the machine can create a healthy environment for mildew to grow in. It can even diminish workout clothes’ wicking ability.
Our readers wanted to know how they could replicate the effects of fabric softener without resorting to the stuff. Soft, non-staticky clothes and linens that smell nice are possible without using liquid fabric softener. Here’s what you should use instead.
How Can You Make Your Laundry Smell Nice?
Rather than scenting your clothes with fabric softener, consider a scented laundry detergent. Perry Santanachote, a Consumer Reports writer who is very particular about her scented home products, likes All Baby Liquid Laundry Detergent (Walmart, Amazon) for its fragrance. “It reminds me of back in the day when [my nieces and nephews] were peak-cute. It’s very nostalgic.”
Mary Beth Quirk, CR shopping editor, loves Persil and says people have commented on her clothes smelling good in the past. “I once gave my friend a freshly washed fabric mask and she was like, ‘oh wow, what is this detergent? This smells so good,’” she says. “And if something is right on your face and isn’t too overpowering, that’s a good sign, right?” Giselle Medina, a CR intern, agrees. “I don’t find the scent to be very strong and it has a nice and fresh smell.”
How Can You Prevent Static in Your Laundry?
If static is a concern, you can occasionally use a dryer sheet. Dryer sheets contain chemicals that melt at high temperatures and transfer onto your clothes. This residue makes your clothes slippery, which makes them feel soft to consumers. It can also decrease static. But that residue isn’t only on your clothes—it builds up in your dryer, too. As such, Rich counsels against relying on dryer sheets. “Dryer sheets may be better than liquid softener, but they can leave a residue on the dryer moisture sensor reducing its effectiveness,” he says.
Instead of a dryer sheet or fabric softener, you can try a piece of aluminum foil compressed into a ball. Take a 3- to 4-foot piece of aluminum foil, tightly scrunch it into a smooth ball with no hard edges (you don’t want it to snag on any of your clothes), and toss it into the dryer with your laundry. The aluminum is supposed to discharge static buildup and helps prevents clothes from sticking together.
If all else fails, Rich recommends hanging clothes to dry. It’s easy, eco-friendly, and won’t cause static.
How Can You Make Your Clothes Soft?
If your clothes are coming out of the wash a bit crunchy or stiff, the problem could be hard water. Hard water has a high amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium, which can deposit on your clothes in the wash. “The ideal solution is to install a water softening system to your water supply. That should help with the softness,” says Rich.
If that’s not an option, Rich says you can try wool dryer balls. They’re reusable, and are purported to be cost-effective alternatives that soften clothes by lightly beating up against them in the dryer, which works out any stiffness or lumps. You can also try using them when drying your pillows, as the balls are claimed to smooth out any clumps of filling. After a year or two of regular use, your wool dryer ball may become scratchy and hard, which is when you know it’s time to replace it. Just a head’s up: We haven’t tested the effectiveness of wool dryer balls.