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Is Fabric Softener Unhealthy?

Is Fabric Softener Unhealthy

What is fabric softener? It is a combination of chemicals that coat the surface of textiles with a thin layer of lubrication. This results in clothes feeling smoother and prevents the buildup of static electricity, but it also leaves them less absorbent.

The most common softening chemicals are called “quats,” which is short for quaternary ammonium compounds. Quats are also in many cleaning products, including most antibacterial wipes.

So what about quats?

The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, a leading international authority on asthma, calls these chemicals “asthmagens,” which are substances that can cause asthma. With asthma currently affecting nearly 1 in 10 American children, why would any of us want to expose kids to unnecessary asthma-causing chemicals?  You may be thinking, but my kids don’t have asthma.  But if they are going to public schools and wear their fabric softener-ized clothes, they are exposing other kids to quats.

Many quats have antibacterial qualities, which most likely contributes to development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs too.  Certainly, the precautionary principle is warranted.

How about that “fresh, clean scent?”

The combination of chemicals that provide the fresh, clean scent may contain hundreds of untested chemicals, including ingredients like phthalates, which are suspected hormone disruptors. Fake fragrances are among world’s top five causative agents of allergies. A study from University of Washington on air contaminants from fragranced consumer goods detected between 18 and 20 chemicals in each of the laundry products tested, including likely human carcinogens acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, developmental toxics methyl ethyl ketone and chloromethane, and linalool.  A few fabric softeners for babies or people with sensitive skin are fragrance-free, but still contain quats.

Here is a list of a few more of the chemicals commonly found in commercial fabric softeners and their associations:

  • Alpha Terpineol: may cause central nervous damage and respiratory problems
  • Benzyl Acetate: linked to pancreatic cancer
  • Benyl Alcohol: respiratory tract irritant
  • Limonene: a known carcinogen that irritates eyes and skin
  • Linalool: causes central nervous system disorders and depresses heart activity

Are you thinking you are safe because you use dryer sheets?  Well, they are worse than liquid fabric softeners since those chemicals are heated and aerosolized for you to breathe into your lungs and for your neighbor to breath via your dryer vent.


Still wanting some softness and fragrance? Some alternatives are dryer balls, soy-based softeners, or a quarter-cup of either baking soda or vinegar to your wash cycle. My favorite is a wool dryer ball, to which you can add a few drops of a pure essential oil. Dryer balls soften your clothes, reduce static and shorten drying time. Also, they last a very long time, so they’ll save you money.  Happy laundering!

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