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

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    Person placing wool dryer balls in a machine Photo: Getty Images

    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.”

    @consumerreports Replying to @Mmandi Hi, our advice is to skip fabric softener year round. Learn more at cr.org/laundry ✨ #cleantok #laundrytok ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports
    More on Laundry

    If you’re concerned about odor in your synthetic workout clothes or sweaty, smelly summertime garb, there are a few things you can do to keep your gym gear fresh. Store your sweatiest, stinkiest clothes away from other laundry in the hamper, and wash them separately, to keep the odor from transferring and building up. Wash your clothes inside-out, where much of the smell accumulates.

    Mold in your machine may be causing your linens to retain a smell after the wash, but compensating with fabric softener won’t help matters. Using too much detergent and—yes—fabric softener can actually cause buildup in your machine and leave behind a residue that can result in mold, thereby causing a problem you may feel compelled to fix with even more laundry detergent and scented fabric softener. Tissues left in pockets, lint, and other organic material can lead to washer mold, too. Cleaning out your pockets before washing your clothes, and using the minimum amount of detergent necessary, can reduce smelly buildup. 

    But don’t fall for tips that recommend deodorizing your washing machine with vinegar. Vinegar can damage the rubber hoses and seals in your machine and even cause leaks. Front-load washers are particularly vulnerable. Removing your laundry from the machine immediately will help prevent mildew from growing in the machine, which is a significant contributor to gross washing machine smells. 

    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.

    Angela Lashbrook

    Angela Lashbrook

    I believe shopping should be fun, safe, and sustainable, and I shape my coverage at Consumer Reports around how consumers of all ages can have better shopping experiences. I’ve worked in media for seven years, and my diverse time in the industry has taught me that quality service journalism is a critical resource. When I’m not working, I’m usually reading, cooking (or, more likely, eating), and hanging out with my dog, a Libra named Gordo.