Toxic Laundry: What’s in Your Dryer Sheets and Fabric Softener?

by Kentin Waits on 27 January 2012 7 comments

Fabric softeners, dryer sheets, fabric sprays...and now laundry crystals. Most American laundry rooms are beginning to look like home chemistry labs. Liquids, gels, foams, and fragrances are mixed and remixed in a never-ending (and quite ironic) search for “freshness.” It makes me wonder what, exactly, our clothes and linens are going through that requires them to so be thoroughly and aggressively treated. Are all these products really necessary, or have we wholly embraced some trendy loft full of marketers’ whiteboard dreams? (See also: 9 Ways to Help Your Clothes Last Longer)

The Chemicals

Some of these products are actually harmful to our bodies. According to the EPA and industry-generated Market Safety Data Sheets, fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain a laundry list (pun intended) of dangerous petrochemicals that are often used in untested combinations. There are enough toxins and carcinogens in most of these products to make Erin Brockovich stand up and take notice. Here are just a few:

Chloroform

In fabric softeners, chloroform is a solvent and aromatic agent. 

Potential dangers: Chloroform is an anesthetic, neurotoxin, and carcinogen. It's on the EPA's Hazardous Waste list. Inhalation of chloroform fumes depresses the central nervous system. In high concentrations, chloroform may cause headache, gastrointestinal problems, dizziness, drowsiness, irritation of the respiratory tract, and loss of consciousness. It aggravates kidney, liver, heart, and skin disorders.

Ethyl Acetate

Ethyl Acetate is a solvent used in the manufacture of dryer sheets — it disolves easily and leaves behind only a pleasant smell.

Potential dangers: This narcotic is also on the EPA's Hazardous Waste list. It irritates the eyes and respiratory tract, and may cause headache, anemia, and damage to the liver and kidneys. Prolonged exposure may lead to defatting of the skin and dry or cracked skin.

Linalool

Linalool is an alchohol compound that has a pleasant flower-like smell and is often used to scent dryers sheets and fabric softener.

Potential dangers: Linalool is a narcotic that causes CNS disorders and can cause respiratory problems and impair motor activity.

Phthalates 

In dryer sheets, phthalates are typically part of the "fragrance" ingredients. Phthalates help scents last longer. 

Potential dangers: Phthalates are getting more and more attention in the European Union and in the U.S. as the scientific community explores the health effects from long-term exposure. Phthalates are additives used in the manufacture of children's plastic toys to make them softer and more flexible. They're also a common ingredient in wide range of cosmetics and scented products. Phthalates have been linked to breast cancer, allergies, and reproductive system problems.

To find out what other chemicals are in your fabric softener and dryer sheets, check out the article in Natural Life Magazine Are Soft Clothes Really Worth It?

This toxic recipe of chemicals isn't doing our clothes and linens any favors either. Fabric softeners are designed to be absorbed into the fabric’s fibers — creating a lasting fragrance and softness. But over time, these chemicals build up in our clothes and the residue can attract dirt and grime. Why are we buying laundry products that make our stuff dirtier? On towels, fabric softeners interfere with the natural absorbency of cotton and can make that plush bath sheet about as an inviting as polyester pantsuit.

Fabric Softening Alternatives

If you want all the benefits of dryer sheets and fabric softeners, but don’t want to invest in a hazmat suit to get them, there are alternatives. To soften fabric, add a quarter cup of baking soda to the wash cycle or a quarter cup of white vinegar (don’t combine with bleach) to the rinse cycle. For more natural commercial products, check out Seventh Generation’s Natural Lavender Scent Fabric Softener that uses vegetable products instead of chemicals to soften fabric. A Canadian company, Maddocks, has created a reusable dryer sheet called Maddocks’ Static Eliminator — it’s non-toxic and hypoallergenic.

I'm no scientist, and of course every consumer should to do his own research on these chemicals, but the more gunk and goo I pour into my washer and the more perfumed sheets I toss in the dryer, the less clean I feel. Water, a bit of detergent, some good old fashioned agitation, and a line dry takes care of most things. Save yourself a few bucks and guard your family’s health in the process — shut down the laundry lab and consider experimenting with some kinder, gentler options.

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Guest's picture
Guest

"vegetable products" have chemicals in them. All of the chemicals listed above occur naturally in plants.

Kentin Waits's picture

True; these chemicals do occur naturally in plants, but that doesn't make them harmless. They're often created synthetically, undergo laboratory manipulation to enhance their beneficial properties, are mixed with other elements, and are combined with other chemicals with unknown and unstudied effects.

Guest's picture
S

So... I should be safe if I use the fragrance-free fabric softeners, right?

Linsey Knerl's picture

I still love my chemical-laden products, but I did go through a time when I was too cheap to use them. I used a clean dish rag with one or two drops of essential oils on it to freshen up clothes in the dryer. This was part of my routine when I was going through my soap nuts phase. Seemed to be effective at creating pleasant odors but did nothing for static or softness.

Guest's picture
Jenna

If you put in half a cup of white vinegar during the rinse cycle, your clothes come out fresh, clean, and static-free.

Guest's picture
Tonya

I found a company that makes very safe cleaning products, including laundry detergent and fabric softener; it is called Melaleuca. I also liked that all of the products are made in the USA. I personally use the laundry detergent, but have opted for wool balls with lavender essential oil for my dryer. My clothes are soft and smell terrific.

Guest's picture
K

Linalool is in Seventh Generation’s Natural Lavender Scent Fabric Softener that you suggested. It says so right on the back.