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Commercial Fabric Softeners are the Problem Not the Solution

In the laundry room, most of us are prone to overkill. We want beautifully clean, brilliantly white, soft, and fluffy laundry results. And we don’t measure. We pour stuff out of jugs, straight into the washer, often adding a second big glug just to make sure.


A store shelf filled with books

We use liquid fabric softener by the gallon and dryer sheets by the hundreds because there’s no such thing as too soft when it comes to towels and sheets. And when things come out looking gray, and feeling stiff and crunchy, what do we do? More detergent, more softener—even more dryer sheets!

Grungy build-up

The problem is product build-up that never gets rinsed out. Every time you do the laundry, more and more product gets left behind. This build-up of detergent and softeners can make appliances stink, colors look dingy, whites turn gray and linens feel stiff and scratchy. Towels, especially, can turn sour and stinky no matter how much you re-wash and re-soften. The detergent and softeners that aren’t properly rinsed away begin to harbor odor-causing bacteria. The washing machine gets stinky, too. But that’s not the worst.

MORE: Stinky Laundry, Smelly Machine: How Nasty Germs Survive in Your Washer and What To Do About It

Health and respiratory issues

The medical website, WebMD.com reports that the perfumes and additives in laundry products may cause skin problems—from itchiness to full-blown dermatitis. Fabric softeners are very allergenic and can cause eczema, which can appear as dry, flaky, chronically itchy skin.

Dryer sheets contain volatile organic compounds like acetaldehyde and butane, which can cause respiratory irritation. Fabric softener chemicals known as quaternary ammonium compounds have been linked to asthma. Acetone, also used in dryer sheets, can cause nervous system effects like headaches or dizziness.

Ironically, commercial fabric softeners—liquid softener you put into the washing machine and sheets that go into the dryer—are not the way to turn out beautifully soft, fluffy clothes, sheets, and towels. They are the problem! The more you use, the less satisfactory and healthy your results will be.

Measure well

Check the owner manual to discover the right amount of detergent for your particular washer. If yours is a HE machine, it uses very little water. This is the reason you do not want to add more than you know will be adequately rinsed away. As a reference point, I use 1 tablespoon concentrated liquid laundry detergent to one load of laundry in my front loading HE washer.

MORE: Quick ‘n Easy Homemade Laundry Detergent: Update with Tutorial

No commercial softeners

Stop using liquid softeners and dryer sheets. Skip scented laundry products. The perfume in many cleansers and fabric softeners can irritate your skin. You’re better off using gentle, scent-free products. Enjoy the savings.

Double rinse with vinegar

If you’re coming off a laundry-product high, you may need to double rinse for a while to coax all of the detergent and product build-up from your laundry. Adding 1/2 to 1 cup white vinegar—depending on the load size—to the final rinse (fill the liquid softener dispenser and it will release automatically) does wonders to rinse out detergent and other product build-up. Don’t worry. You only notice the vinegar smell when clothes are wet and not when dry, even if dried on a clothesline.

Wool dryer balls

They don’t contain toxic chemicals, they last for thousands of loads, get rid of static cling and wrinkles, soften clothes, and they actually save time and energy by cutting down on drying time. Dryer balls are the solution!

Dryer balls of 100% wool are the best dryer balls of all. They mechanically soften your laundry without any of the harmful chemicals you find in fabric softener or dryer sheets.

They lift up and separate laundry while drying, reducing both the drying time and wrinkling.

Wool dryer balls also retain the heat which it then transfers to your clothes as they tumble, this further speeds up the drying process saving energy and money.

We have many choices in dryer balls. Wool Dryer Balls by Smart Sheep are my choice because they are solid, will last for years and years without deteriorating, falling apart or losing the ability to turn out beautifully soft clothes and linens. These come in a 6-pack and are extra large at 9-inches in circumference, each. As dryer balls go, these are perfect in every way.

I want to encourage you to rethink commercial fabric softener and dryer sheets to give wool dryer balls a try—for your health and wealth!

First published: 10-6-16; Updated 8-12-19

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  1. Karen Sugalski says:

    Hi, I just read the article. I make dryer balls from wool roving. Unlike the commercially produced ones that are produced by machines and have a rather hard outer “shell” mine are soft and squishy which allows them to absorb the dampness from the clothes and thereby eliminate the static. That’s how dryer balls do it. By absorbing the moisture and feeding it back as the dryer air gets too dry. If you have issues with these machine produced balls. Try dampening them first. You can also add a.couple drops of essential oils to add a little fragrance.

  2. Pat says:

    I think I have used one box of fabric softner sheets in my lifetime. I just hang on the line or use the dryer weather permitting and have never had the need to use it I guess.

  3. PCB_Rob says:

    Big fan of your newsletter Mary, been a subscriber for years and have used many of your tips. I live alone and my wash loads aren’t that large. While I don’t seem to have the fabric softener buildup described in the column, I would like to get away from using them. Would just a half cup of vinegar work for a smaller load? I have ordered the dryer balls; they arrive on Tuesday.

    • PatriotPeg says:

      i ONLY use vinegar as softeners. i read an article how softeners have the side effect of pilling certain materials. using vinegar for over 20 yrs. works well and is cheap, cheap, cheap.

  4. Nikki C. says:

    I crumple 2-ft pieces of aluminum foil (I keep the shiny side out, but not sure if it makes a difference) and toss 3 or so in my dryer. When they get too hard and compacted many washes later I either use then as the center and add more or recycle them and start over. Sometimes they can be on the hot side coming out but has never damaged my clothing or dryer. Google it… I forget where I read about it. I also use white vinegar in my rinse cycle of every wash so not sure it is the combo of the two or not.

  5. Sharon Madison says:

    I use dryer sheets to remove static. I rip the sheets in half and find they work just fine that way. But I understand the health and environmental effects of the items you are trying to replace with wool items. My question is, what about the effect of wool dryer balls on static electricity?

  6. Miriam says:

    I bought the dryer balls – 100% wool but didn’t find they got the clothes soft enough to be static free. However, my washer has a ‘extra rinse’ cycle I can choose or not. What I do is let the washer complete without the extra cycle then add 1 cup of vinegar and do a final rinse. No balls, no softener and the clothes come out soft and static free. Also no artificial ‘fragrance’ either. Just clean, soft clothes.

  7. Jennifer says:

    My washer doesn’t have a softener dispenser, only one for bleach. Will adding vinegar that way be effective? I listen and set a timer to add vinegar to my towels but sometimes miss it so I am hoping this is an alternative!

    • Bookworm says:

      Since bleach needs to be rinsed out, that dispenser probably opens during the wash cycle or possibly the first rinse. I doubt it would work nearly as well as vinegar in the last rinse.

    • Nikki C. says:

      I use Downey balls. Not as popular as they used to be at least when I try to find them but I actually fill them to the top way past the fabric softener fill line with white vinegar and they work great.

  8. Julie N says:

    I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on the problems with washer and dishwasher slime, etc., and have come to the conclusion that most of the problems are due to the government regulating phosphates out of household products. Many different chemical combinations have been created since, but none has had the efficacy of what it’s designed to replace (even your formulas, Mary — sorry!). Different products nowadays interact differently with different hardnesses of water, too.
    It’s a pity, since the statistics I’m seeing indicate consumer use was no more than 2% of all use. Commercial use, which is far greater, is not regulated. And studies are beginning to show that some of the replacement chemicals are worse for the environment.

  9. Steve-Nancy Tose says:

    It is easy to make your own wool dryer balls. Get a 10 oz. skein of 100% wool yarn and a set of directions from the internet. There are numerous ones there. Also easy is the felting process-hot wash & dry in pantyhose. They last forever

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Excellent suggestion … provided you don’t haul off and pay more than $17 for 100% wool yarn to make six big dryer balls! But this is a great idea for all of those leftover bits of wool yarn that we knitters seem to accumulate and hoard 🙂

      • Steve-Nancy Tose says:

        So you use 6. I only use 4. That does the trick. Also wait for a coupon or sale and get the wool for less. As you can see, I read your column. Thanks for all you do! 🙂

      • Mary Hunt says:

        You’re the best, too! Here’s an extreme tip: Buy 100% sweaters from the thrift store (don’t bother with one that looks like it might be 100% wool but has no label) … even the ugliest or ones with holes. Then unravel it. There you go … lots of wool yarn to make dryer balls!

      • Kimberley Hunter says:

        This is a good idea. A good time to look for the sweaters might be right after Christmas, because of all the sweaters that are “gifted” and then promptly donated to whoever will take them, because the recipient hated them so much. And of course, all those sweaters that are bought and worn once, to an “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party”, then get donated the day after. Another good time is spring, since that’s when most people do their spring cleaning.

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