Even though we don’t need it to wash our clothes, fabric softener has become super popular in the United States. In 2019, Americans purchased $1.3 billion worth of liquid fabric softener.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
Fabric softeners remove wrinkles and static from our clothes and linens, and make them smell fresh and feel cozy. What’s not to like about that? Well, the ingredients that create that softness and those scents can actually have major consequences on people and the planet. Several ingredients in fabric softeners are known skin irritants and can actually decrease the flame resistance of certain fabrics over time. If that wasn’t bad enough, those ingredients can also have adverse impacts on aquatic life when they enter our waterways from washing machines.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Quaternary ammonium compounds, aka “quats”, are a class of cationic surfactants that prevent static cling in the dryer. Moisture can naturally reduce the friction of static cling, but since we want our clothes to be dry, we needed something to remove all that friction in the absence of moisture. Enter: quats. Not only do they make our clothes static-free, but they are also responsible for making our clothes feel softer since their molecular structure is similar to those found in fats, making for a silkier, more lubricated feeling to fabrics. Sounds nice, right? Ehh, well there’s a little more to it… Quats can trigger asthma symptoms, provoke allergic reactions, and cause skin irritation. Studies even found that exposure to common quats, like those found in fabric softeners, can actually decrease fertility.
It’s quite difficult to find a fabric softener made without any sort of quat, but there are two types of quats that you can differentiate between. (We’re about to use some hard-to-pronounce words right now, so buckle up!) Some quats are petroleum-derived (like diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride or dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate). We take issue with these quats because they come from the fossil fuel industry, which can cause destruction to the sites surrounding drilling and fracking sites (*cough*, oil spills, *cough*). There are also plant-based quats (like dihydrogenated palmoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate), which might sound better, but they’re made from palm oil, which isn’t without its issues. The increased use of palm oil has directly led to deforestation, child labor exploitation, the displacement of Indigenous peoples, increased global warming, and has threatened 321 species with extinction. All of that being said, if we had to steer you in one direction we’d advise opting for the plant-based quats since we just can’t get behind supporting the fossil fuel industry.
The most elusive ingredient of all might be “fragrances”. That’s because fragrances are protected from disclosure. While “fragrance” might appear to be one ingredient on the label, that word could potentially comprise hundreds of chemical compounds just for one scent! What’s our beef with smelling like roses? It’s not the scent that worries us, but what comes along with it. In particular, phthalates, which enable fragrances to become soluble. They are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children. Yikes. Always double-check the label to make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re putting on your body.
What about non-synthetic fragrances? Essential oils, botanicals, and plant extracts – while naturally occurring – can still cause skin irritation. Enter: contact dermatitis. Fragrances like linalool and limonene, fragrances extracted from citrus fruit peels, can cause allergic reactions in delicate, or sensitive, skin. However, if your skin can handle these non-synthetic fragrances, go for it.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on fabric softeners.
Managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the BioPreferred label makes it easier for consumers to opt for bio-based products. This means that the product’s ingredients are primarily derived from raw materials, such as plants, that provide an alternative to conventional petroleum-based products. Products that bear this label have a verified amount of renewable biological ingredients that are strictly monitored by the USDA. Laundry products with the BioPreferred label have at least 34% bio-based ingredients, which can reduce adverse environmental and health impacts.
EPA Safer Choice
An EPA Safer Choice label indicates that the chemicals in a product have been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health. All ingredients have to meet these standards and manufacturers have to disclose all ingredients (looking at you, fragrances!). After investigating product performance, pH, packaging, and other criteria, some fabric softeners can earn the Safer Choice label so that you can rest easier knowing your product isn’t harming you, workers’ health, fish, or the environment.
Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted with any ingredients in a product. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.
Much of today’s fabric softener comes in plastic packaging, and unfortunately, they’re usually made with several types of plastic. This makes it difficult to recycle the entire unit through curbside pick-up programs in one piece. Luckily, P&G teamed up with Terracycle to create a recycling program that allows people to send in any of their brand’s used laundry products via mail or drop-off – check the website for any nearby locations.
Plastic is made of carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels, which we extract from the earth’s crust by drilling and fracking. Drilling and fracking have a host of negative environmental consequences that can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. Because plastic is such a strong material, products made from plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade or decompose. The only sprinkle of sugar is that plastic provides a lighter-weight, durable option that can lessen emissions associated with transportation and distribution. But when plastic is only used once, those potential savings still leave us with a pretty bitter taste.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
Technically, you don’t need to wash your clothes with fabric softener, so if you’re looking to lower your personal carbon footprint, perhaps it’s time to part ways. If you can’t live without it, we recommend opting for ones that are fragrance-free, have plant-based quats, and are EPA Safer Choice or USDA BioPreferred certified.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of fabric softener is the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” fabric softener because using it will always come with resource tolls and associated waste, we came up with this list of more sustainable fabric softeners based on what they’re made of.
“What fabric softener is non-toxic?”
To be honest, ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t actually mean much of anything. In fact, no chemical or material is purely “non-toxic”. Instead of saying “non-toxic”, scientists will determine whether something is NOAEL (aka it has ‘No Observed Adverse Effect Level’). The NOAEL is the highest amount of a chemical an organism can be exposed to before it begins showing some sort of toxic response, like getting sick or developing a rash. When it comes to fabric softeners, older quaternary ammonium salts have observed adverse effects, so we recommend avoiding those to protect your skin and the environment.
“Is fabric softener safe for the environment?”
Well… no. It’s not. Most fabric softeners are made with fragrances, which can disrupt the health of aquatic life. Even fragrance-free fabric softeners are made with quats that are either associated with deforestation from palm oil production or polluted air from extracting petroleum. Our advice? Avoid using liquid fabric softeners and try wool dryer balls instead.