GOING GREEN WITH FABRIC SOFTENERS
Everybody loves fresh-smelling, soft, static-free, and wrinkle-free laundry. With a small capful of fabric softener or one small dryer sheet, we can achieve this hassle-free.
But have you ever wondered what is in that sticky liquid you pour on your wash? Have you found your freshly washed clothes feeling a bit waxy, and looking a little grubby? Ever found yourself itching in freshly laundered shirts?
We are exposed to fabric softeners every day because they are on the clothes we wear. Let’s take some time to understand this product and how it affects us and our environment.
FABRIC SOFTENER BASICS
The oil-stripping action of detergent on cloth fibers, plus constant friction during the washing process leaves clothes rough, stiff, and wrinkled. Fabric softeners work by depositing a coating on the stressed cloth fibers, much like an oily film, that increases slip and softness. Fragrance is also added which leaves a strong and lasting scent.
The tossing and tumbling in the dryer also cause a buildup of static electricity. Typical commercial fabric conditioners have positively charged particles that bind to negatively charged particles in your laundry to neutralize the static charge.
Dryer sheets were developed as an alternative way to apply the fabric conditioner–during the drying cycle instead of the final rinse. These sheets are usually made of nonwoven polyester material coated with the fabric softener that is activated once the temperature goes up in the dryer.
THE TRICKY THING ABOUT TRADITIONAL FABRIC SOFTENERS
As with many technological advances, this nifty invention has its downsides. For one, many of the main ingredients used in softeners to coat cloth fibers and neutralize static (such as quaternary ammonium compounds or quats) can be harmful to marine life and have been associated with triggering asthma. Sometimes there are animal-derived ingredients and animal testing involved in the production. Dryer sheets are suspected to emit pollutants in the air when heated, apart from adding to non-biodegradable waste if they are made of synthetics like polyester. Fragrances, dyes and preservatives are linked with allergies, migraine, asthma attacks, and other forms of irritation.
Inappropriate and excessive use of fabric softeners can also ruin your clothes. The build-up of an oily later on the fabric can hinder thorough cleaning of clothes, making them less absorbent and more flammable! Fabric softeners are also suspected to potentially cause issues with your washing machine, as they can contribute to the build-up of residue inside your machine.
WHAT ARE OUR ALTERNATIVES?
Fortunately, businesses are responding to consumers’ environmental and safety concerns. Let us take a look at a few different brands that promise to give us the soft laundry we want, but with less use of toxins, pollutants or irritants. We look at a few products that have these eco-friendly characteristics:
- Do not use quaternary ammonium compounds
- Plant-based and cruelty-free
- Use biodegradable packaging and materials
Dropps Pods, 9 Elements and Ecoigy Wool Dryer Balls
These fabric softener alternatives are completely free of quaternary ammonium compounds. Instead, they utilize minerals (bentonite clay), a vinegar-base and physical mechanisms (added tumbling) to soften laundry.
- Dropps Fabric Softener Pods
Amazon.com: Dropps Fabric Softener Pods: Clean & Crisp | 32 | Count | Keeps Clothes Fresh | HE | Powered by Natural Mineral-Based Ingredients | Alternative to Liquids and Sheets | Low Waste Packaging : Health & Household
Dropps Fabric Softener is a mineral-based fabric conditioner. It passes through cloth fibers and fluffs them up instead of leaving a waxy layer to soften your laundry. It comes in powder form encased on a soluble film. It is meant to be placed directly in the washer with the laundry together with the detergent.
- Main softening agent is bentonite clay. Pods are free of quats, dyes and preservatives.
- Ingredients are vegan and cruelty-free.
- Pods are in a film casing that is water soluble and the packaging is totally plastic-free.
- Comes in compostable packaging.
- Does not affect fabric absorbency or moisture-wicking ability since no residue is left behind.
- Transparent disclosure of ingredients and other sustainability practices
- Available in a few fragrances –Lavender Eucalyptus, Clean and Crisp, Unscented and more.
- Tendency to leave residue on clothes and the washing machine.
- 9 Elements Liquid Purifying Softener
This liquid formulation aims to make laundry softer by thoroughly cleansing fabrics, freeing them of heavy metals and other residues that make clothes stiff, rough, and bad-smelling. Used during the rinse cycle, it may be added through the fabric conditioner dispenser tray or directly on clothes. This is not intended to be used with bleach, nor for rayon fabrics.
- Very simple ingredients, no quats, dyes, thickeners, artificial preservatives, or brighteners. The main components are plant-based vinegar, citric acid, sodium citrate, and propylene glycol.
- 95% plant-based ingredients.
- Does not leave any residue on clothes, good for hard water systems.
- Can bring back the brightness of fabric colors
- Consistency and appearance are like water. May need to add this in manually during the rinse cycle to make sure it doesn’t join the wash with detergent cycle.
- Plastic packaging
3.Wool Dryer Balls Organic XL 6-Pack by Ecoigy
Amazon.com: Wool Dryer Balls Organic XL 6-Pack by Ecoigy, Reusable Natural Fabric Softener for Laundry, Dryer Sheets Alternative, New Zealand Wool, Speed Up Dry Time, Cut Energy Costs : Health & Household
These wool dryer balls are tossed in when the laundry is ready for drying. The balls tumbling around help create space between wet fabric, thereby minimizing friction and static, and also speeding up the drying process because air is able to pass between clothes. The drying balls also help soften clothes as the additional movement or agitation bends or “massage” the fibers as they dry.
- No synthetic chemicals or fragrances, just 100% biodegradable organic wool
- Saves 20-40% electricity due to faster drying time
- Comes in a reusable cotton drawstring pouch
- Very affordable due to long useful life (1,000 washes)
- Buyer reviews mention minimal help with static
- Some balls break apart within months of use and cause shedding/pilling/leaving lint on the laundry
Attitude and Seventh Generation Liquid Fabric Softener
The following liquid fabric conditioners contain some alternative forms of softener compounds that are similar to quaternary ammonium compounds but otherwise have made efforts to keep a shorter and simpler list of ingredients that are plant-based and cruelty-free.
4. Attitude Liquid Fabric Softener
This liquid fabric conditioner has a deodorizing effect while leaving a gentle feel on washed clothes. It is available in three fragrances – grapefruit, wildflowers, and citrus zest. This softener is added to the final rinse cycle.
- Product is entirely plant-based and cruelty-free. It is free of parabens, preservatives, dyes
- Has third-party certification by ECOLOGO that it meets stringent standards for reduced environmental impact
- Comes in a plastic bottle and refills do not seem to be accessible (manufactured out of Canada)
5. Seventh Generation Fabric Softener
Seventh Generation is a liquid fabric softener made from plant-based ingredients and essential oils. It is added to the water during the final rinse cycle. It is an 84% USDA Certified BioBased Product. It comes in Fresh Lavender and Free and Clear fragrance variants.
- Primarily plant-based, animal-free formulation. Not tested on animals too.
- No dyes and synthetic fragrance
- Septic-safe – biodegradable and will not affect bacteria in the water system
- Plastic bottle packaging, although made from post-consumer recycled plastic
Method, Clean People, and Grab Green Dryer Sheets
We look at a few Dryer Sheet options next. These also have some form of quaternary compounds as their main softener ingredient. But they use biodegradable material for the sheets and plastic-free packaging. All three are plant-based and cruelty-free.
6. Method Dryer Sheets
Amazon.com: Method Dryer Sheets, Fabric Softener and Static Reducer, Compostable and Plant-Based Laundry Essentials, Ginger Mango Scent, 80 Sheets per Box, 6 Pack (480 Total Sheets), Packaging May Vary : Everything Else
These dryer sheets are made of wood pulp cellulose and are fully compostable (in some US municipalities). They soften fabrics and come in many fragrance options to gently scent your laundry –ginger mango, fresh air, lavender cypress, and beach sage. Just one sheet, torn at the perforation, is intended for use per load.
- Plant-based and cruelty-free
- Packaged in a recyclable box made from 100% recycled cardboard
- The sheets tend to bunch, roll up or crumble in the dryer, sometimes sticking to vents
7. Clean People Dryer Sheets
These plant-based dryer sheets are made of rayon, a semi-synthetic fiber that combines natural sources of cellulose with some additional chemical processing. They come in unscented, fresh scent and lavender options. One sheet with a load should leave clothes feeling soft with less static.
- Plant-based and cruelty-free, free of parabens, phosphates, and added dyes.
- Sheets are biodegradable. The product and packaging are plastic-free.
- While the rayon sheets are biodegradable, as a synthetic fiber will have some chemical additives that may not be safe to compost
8. Grab Green Dryer Sheets
These dryer sheets are wet because each one is meant to be twice. After the first use, you can return them to the resealable pouch. After two uses, the sheets can still be used as dusting cloths! They only come in an unscented variant.
- Made without phosphates, phthalates, animal by-products, toxins, dyes, or masking agents. Also cruelty-free.
- Sheets designed to be reused and are compostable
- Returning once-used sheets into packaging is cumbersome. Usually, the sheet is dry by the second use.
Read the Labels and Research
As the search for more sustainable lifestyle options continues, we have to keep learning and be open to new ways of doing things. Take time to find out the ingredients and features of different products. There is a lot of tricky jargon!
For example, “Unscented” and “Fragrance-free” are actually different. The former means the product has absolutely no smell, and additives may have been included to eliminate the scent. “Fragrance-free” products may or may not have any smell, but refers to the absence of any added natural or synthetic fragrance chemicals. “Biodegradable” refers to anything that breaks down naturally, but “Compostable” refers specifically to biodegradable matter that does not leave any visible or toxic residue. And of course not everything “Plant-based” is necessarily 100%-eco friendly—an example would be palm-oil-based products taken from unsustainable palm tree farming and harvesting.
It is a challenge to look beyond the marketing buzzwords to get to the real essence of the product.
Still, it is encouraging to see many different products that offer alternative ways to achieve fabric softening effects while minimizing adverse environmental impacts. They might be a different experience from using the usual commercial offerings –for example, different consistency, a different method of application, or lighter fragrance. (Remember: Fragrances are common irritants, even naturally derived essential oils!) But hopefully, we find one that suits our preferences and gets the job done.
Let us support companies and products that are transparent with their ingredients, sourcing and manufacturing processes. Let us patronize companies that make the effort to use biodegradable substances and packaging. You can start with the list above. Let’s try to make our laundry green!