Last Updated: January 13, 2022
We previously talked about fabric softeners, their constituent materials, and whether or not they can actually go bad.
However, there was also another aspect we scratched only on the surface when we talked about it, and that is whether or not fabric softeners are outright bad.
We’ve now dedicated the entire article for this discussion which is backed by professional knowledge from experts and relevant resources both online and offline.
Without wasting much time, let’s get to it.
Are fabric softeners bad? Fabric softeners are, in the long run, bad, and are known to inflict serious damage on some fabrics, the environment, and even your health, all thanks to the chemical elements that make up their composition.
What is fabric softener made of, and how does it work?
Fabric softeners are fortified with chemicals that not only make the fabric, well, softer and wrinkle-free — combating the squashing and fraying effects on fibers that happens due to the mechanical stress imposed by the washer, it also helps eliminate static build-up which could cause your clothes to stick to your body, attract more dirt, or even, in some cases, shock you.
The main ingredient in fabric softeners used to be a special organic compound known as dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride, also known as DHTDMAC, which degraded slowly and posed a serious threat to the environment and aquatic life. It has long been phased out and substituted with esterquats that degrade more quickly and offer less toxicity to marine life on the long run.
The esterquats which make up the new formulation of fabric softeners contains lubricating molecules, and it’s those molecules that make your clothes feel soft, smooth and slippery. Apart from having lubricating molecules, quats salts also contain positive charges which help counter balance the negative charge from your fabrics, thus preventing it from building up static electricity.
Modern day fabric softeners need to penetrate deep into your clothes down to the fiber level, unlike the older versions that were mostly deposited on the surface due to their insolubility in water as they are mostly made up of fats, and had a very short lasting effect.
To achieve that, manufacturers decided to add emulsifiers like emulsion polymers, micro-emulsions, macro emulsifiers, etc.
With all these out of the way, how exactly do the above listed features affect your clothes, the environment, and ultimately, you.
I’m going to start with clothes
If you’re using fabric softeners on materials like cotton (which is actually the best material for fabric softeners), you’re pretty much good to go.
However, if you’re using synthetic materials like the ones used in sportswear, there’s going to be a problem. You see sportswear are designed to push away moisture to the surface so they can easily get evaporated.
And that’s where the ester-quats, and those other emulsifiers I talked about come in. They are all filled with fats, and the fatty materials will end up blocking the tiny spaces between fibers, thus preventing the trapped moisture from reaching the surface.
This will prevent the clothes from drying properly, and then it’ll start to smell really bad. Also, if you don’t store the clothes properly, due to it not being able to dry properly, it could get attacked by mold.
Another problem the fatty materials may cause with time is a slow build up of yellow color in some parts of the clothes. Also, you know how much oil and water don’t mix right? Good, because with time, once the fatty build-up is much, materials that were once designed to absorb water, such as towels, will slowly lose their absorbent power.
Why? Because instead of individual fibers in your fabric to absorb fractions of moisture on their own, the fatty materials will envelope them and push away the moisture instead.
Lastly, if you’ve ever gone camping, you’ll agree with me that fat is quite flammable. Apart from fats, other components like fragrance, perfumes, etc, which may be added to the fabric softener may end up increasing its flammability.
Now imagine you use fabric softener on your baby’s clothes? Baby’s clothes are supposed to be fire resistant, but with time, once the components of the fabric softener have accumulated inside, the clothes will end up losing their fire resistance properties, and it could keep losing it until the clothes turn out to become easily flammable.
The next on the list is to see whether fabric softener is bad for the environment
If you’re an eco warrior, or you at least care about the environment, experts recommend you stay away from fabric softeners, due to how some of them are made (the raw materials), and the long lasting effect they have on the environment.
For starters, a major component of fabric softener (esterquat) is of animal fat origin. To be specific, they are obtained from fatty tissues around the kidneys of sheep and cattle.
So, if you’re not one to see animals get killed for non essential purposes, this is probably a reason to stay away from it. Yes, non-essential especially when you have so much alternative to choose from aside the harsh chemicals of the fabric softeners.
Apart from that, most fabric softeners contain petroleum based products which, when disposed of, do not get decomposed.
These, in turn begin to accumulate, and not only cause land pollution but are capable of destroying aquatic life if introduced to water bodies.
Lastly, we’re going to find out just how bad fabric softeners are to your health in the long run.
According to the industry generated material safety data sheet (MSDS) and the US environmental protection agency (EPA), there’s a high amount of petrochemicals used in fabric softeners, and the horrific part is that a lot of them are in unregulated and untested combinations.
Some of them include:
Chloroform: Chloroform is a popular neurotoxic anaesthetic that’s known to cause cancer. People who inhaled them by smelling the fabric softeners were known to experience nausea, dizziness, sneezing, irritations of the respiratory system, headaches, and loss of consciousness. In more serious cases, kidney, liver, and heart problems were known to occur.
Of course this doesn’t apply to all types of fabric softeners, but the organizations I mentioned above made it clear that they aren’t able to effectively regulate each type of fabric softener in circulation, so, who knows, you could end up unlucky.
Fabric softeners also need to smell good because it’s one of the only way to outdo the competition. Not only do they need to smell good, the smell also needs to last long.
And that’s where special compounds known as Phthalates come in. Phthalates help to carry fragrance around the fabric, as well as make their effects last longer. The bad thing is that they are carcinogenic (known to cause cancers), and have been implicated in numerous cases of breast cancer, as well as respiratory illnesses.
Phthalates can also trigger an allergic reaction for people who are allergic to them.
Another component in fabric softener is camphor, which is used as an insect and pest repellent. Prolonged exposure to camphor could lead to problems of the central nervous system.
Also, camphor gets absorbed into the skin very easily, and when it gets in, could cause muscle twitching, convulsions, itching, and irritation of the skin, eyes, and throat.
Fabric softeners contain special compounds that help them preserve and maintain the color of your clothes. These compounds are known as Methylisothiazolinone and glutaral.
While they may be very good at their job, they have also been known to cause skin irritations, as well as trigger asthma episodes.
Another ingredient is benzyl acetate, which is known to cause pancreatic cancer.
Other harmful components include;
Limonene: Which has been proven to cause cancer, and is damaging to the eyes.
Linalool: Which can damage the central nervous system and disrupts cardiac activities
Benzyl alcohol: Which irritates the respiratory tract.
All the chemicals listed above are emitted in gaseous form at a much higher amount when the fabric softener is applied to the clothes, and then made to go through the dryer. This, alongside the fact that the fumes are also emitted into the environment, is why it’s not advisable to dry clothes that have received fabric softeners in the dryer.
If the dryer does not release the chemicals, they could end up staying in your clothes, waiting to be absorbed by your skin whenever you put it on.
Babies, children, and the elderly are particularly more susceptible to complications that could arise from over exposure to fabric softeners, with some babies reacting with rashes, diarrhea, and fever.
Some of the chemicals I mentioned above have a strong unique smell which could give them away. So, to prevent this, manufacturers pay so much attention to covering up these smells with fragrance. This is probably another use for them.
What are the precautions to take when handling fabric softeners, as well as some health, and environmentally friendly alternatives?
We’ve talked about them extensively here “Can Fabric Softeners Go Bad? And Other Questions You Might Ask” and you’re free to check it out.
Fabric softeners are bad, bad for your clothes, for the environment, and for you.
Your clothes could lose its absorbency, the disposed ones do not decompose, which is bad for the environment, as well as aquatic life, and lastly, it could give you cancer.
I don’t know about you but unless I’m going for the natural alternative, none of these provide a positive justification for using fabric softeners.