When it comes to dryer sheets & fabric softeners, it’s difficult to find brands that are non-toxic and safe for those who are pregnant or have sensitive skin. But never fear! Mamavation can help! You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like the best non-toxic laundry detergents for sensitive skin, safest cookware, and best mattresses without fire retardants & PFAS treatments, now join us for the best non-toxic dryer sheets, dryer sheet alternatives, & fabric softeners for sensitive skin.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
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Laundry Products May Clean Clothes, But at The Expense of Our Health & The Environment
Many of us were raised to associate clean laundry with certain smells and sensory-charged feelings, but do our traditions betray us when they lead us to toxic chemicals?
The truth is, we are hard-wired to associate certain smells with clean, but companies know this and take full advantage to market those smells to us as something that is good for us. But are they? Not when they are also mixed with chemicals that are linked to harm like irritation or can trigger asthma.
We found so many problematic chemicals inside conventional fabric softeners and conventional dryer sheets, it was hard to find anything that would be considered safe for humans and the environment. Since these products are not mandatory, we focused on categorizing which products were ranking and then gave you some alternatives.
Why should you care about the chemicals on fabric softeners and dryer sheets? These chemicals can vent into the air as we breathe them in and they can be rubbed off our clothes into our skin. They can also be problematic to waterways, wildlife, and the Planet in general when we dispose of and use them.
Washer & Dryer Efficiency Decreases With Use of Dryer Sheets & Fabric Softener
There are many different reasons not to use dryer sheets and fabric softeners. It’s not just the toxic chemicals that are linked to human and planetary harm, but it makes your washer and dryer less energy efficient.
Dryer sheets sadly cause our clothing to take longer to dry. They are made of woven sheets coated with a solution of a quaternary ammonium salt (Quats) or a silicone oil-based fabric softener, while also infusing an additional cocktail of various chemicals into the product. As the chemical concoctions melt from the heat, it coats your entire dryer with a film. This residue can clog the screen of the lint filter reducing air circulation and leading to longer drying periods for your laundry. It can also coat the electronic moisture sensor, which can cause your clothing to overdry (and increase your utility costs).
It’s important to know that good circulation inside your dryer is important not only as an efficiency tool, but also because keeping good circulation can prevent overheating and fires. This statement is highly controversial in the industry and you’ll hear lots of arguments against it, but we are airing on the side of precaution here.
When it comes to fabric softener, the residue builds up on the filter after each load. The sicky film gets worse and worse after each load. Then lint gets inside and sticks to the film and blocks the holes in the filter. This not only damages your washer over time but also makes it less energy efficient.
Fabric Softener & Dryer Sheets Can Damage Laundry
Fabric softener & dryer sheets do make your clothes feel softer in the short run, but in the long run, they actually work to make your towels and other clothing stiffer and less absorbent.
When it comes to towels and things made from terry cloth, the chemicals on fabric softeners decrease your towel’s ability to absorb water. This is because chemicals like Polydimethylsiloxane (PDS), which is basically a silicone oil that can destroy the absorbent properties of terry cloth and thus making them less useful over time, are present.
And have you ever noticed an oily stain on your darks and don’t remember ever spilling oil on them? Well, this could be because of the chemicals on your dryer sheets. Yes, the mystery is solved!
Fragrances Inside Dryer Sheets & Fabric Softeners Can Emit VOCs & Harm Human Health, Especially Women
As you may remember from our recent Laundry Detergent Investigation there are so many chemicals involved in creating synthetic fragrances, many that are never listed as anything other than “fragrance.”
Many scented products, like dryer sheets and fabric softeners, contain over 50 synthetic fragrance chemicals. Dryer sheets, in particular, can emit over 25 VOCs mostly with the highest concentrations of acetaldehyde, acetone, and ethanol. Other chemicals like d-limonene, linalool, pentane (studies from 2011 & 2018) were present as well, so we decided it was time to do some hunting for less toxic dryer sheet options.
Some of the brands we investigated bragged of their small list of natural ingredients which included four main ingredients along with a fifth ingredient (fragrance). But the term “fragrance” is never one ingredient. “Fragrance” is an umbrella term that can hide over 3,000 chemicals. It’s unlikely you have 3,000 chemicals inside your dryer sheets or fabric softener, but the problem is, when that term is used, you have no idea what you are getting into. And they don’t have to tell you either.
But what we DO know is “fragrance” does typically include problematic ingredients. Women’s Voices for the Earth published an incredible report in 2021 called Beyond the Label, where they call out cleaning brands hiding problematic ingredients in their “fragrance.” These brands in particular were caught using phthalates inside their formulations: Gain, Tide, Fabuloso, Mrs. Meyers, & Snuggle. Here are some additional problematic ingredients you’ll find in fabric softeners and dryer sheets:
- Carcinogens such as styrene, methyl eugenol, pyridine and BHA,
- Reproductive toxins such as phthalates, lilial and nonylphenol,
- Neurotoxicants such as xylenes and phenol,
- Skin allergens such as linalool, hexyl cinnamal, geraniol, and HICC.
Sadly, if you are someone with asthma, this can be a very problematic issue. Results from a study in the Journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health in 2018 indicate that “64.3% of asthmatics report one or more types of adverse health effects from fragranced products, including respiratory problems (43.3%), migraine headaches (28.2%), and asthma attacks (27.9%).” And it gets worse. If you have someone at home with asthma, this is their reality.
- 41.0% of asthmatics report health problems from air fresheners or deodorizers,
- 28.9% of asthmatics report health problems from scented laundry products coming from a dryer vent,
- 42.3% of asthmatics report health problems from being in a room cleaned with scented products,
- 46.2% of asthmatics report health problems from being near someone wearing a fragranced product.
- Of these effects, 62.8% would be considered disabling under the definition of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- 99.3% of asthmatics are exposed to fragranced products at least once a week.
- 36.7% of asthmatics cannot use a public restroom if it has an air freshener or deodorizer
- 39.7% of asthmatics would enter a business but then leave as quickly as possible due to air fresheners or some fragranced product
- 35.4% of asthmatics have lost workdays or a job, in the past year, due to fragranced product exposure in the workplace
Seems to us that “fragrance” is harmful to people in general, especially people with asthma, and should be treated like second-hand smoke.
More Chemicals of Concern in Dryer Sheets & Fabric Softeners
This is a list of chemicals of concern to avoid when considering dryer sheets & fabric softeners. However, if you avoid all these chemicals, you’ll have to cease usage of these products.
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds or “Quats”
The most common softening chemicals are called “quats” (short for quaternary ammonium compounds) and include some of the following chemicals:
- diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride,
- dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate,
- dihydrogenated palmoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate and
- di-(palm carboxyethyl) hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate.
- benzalkonium chloride,
- benzethonium chloride,
- alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides,
- alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride,
- didecyldimethylammonium chloride,
- dioctyldimethylammonium chloride,
- distearyldimonium chloride,
- variants of hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate,
- Also hiding as “biodegradable fabric softening agents” or “catatonic surfactants”.
Quats are problematic for lots of reasons, but in terms of human health and children, they have been flagged as an “Asthmagen” that is linked to developing and exasperating asthma. They are also known to release toxic fumes like formaldehyde, a carcinogen, and also are toxic to aquatic life.
Artificial Colors and Preservatives
Artificial colors and preservatives seem to be rampant in many of the popular liquid fabric softeners and dryer sheets. In our investigation of these products, we discovered lots of problematic ingredients. While artificial preservatives, like BHT and BHA, may be a carcinogen and endocrine disruptor, there were other problematic chemicals found in these products like the ones below.
- The most worrisome preservatives in fabric softeners include methylisothiazolinone, a potent skin allergen linked to organ system toxicity & neurotoxicity. We found lots of products with this ingredient.
- Glutaral, is also a big problem linked with triggering asthma and causing skin allergies. Not to mention, it’s also toxic to marine life.
- Artificial dyes are associated with ADHD when eaten, however, we don’t know very much about what happens when they are used in fabric softeners. But some of them are linked to cancer and are inside dryer sheets as well.
- Among the list of artificial colors used in fabric softeners & dryer sheets, D&C violet 2 has been linked to cancer and we found this ingredient as well.
Benzyl Acetate, and Other Benzene Ingredients
Benzene is something you are exposed to in the modern world because of the oil industry, but it’s also in natural ways like when a volcano erupts. In terms of the health of your family, laundry products are able to add this chemical to their formulations and it has the potential to off-gas into your indoor air. (Btw, click here if you want to know what the best air purifiers are.)
Per the Laundry Investigation we shared that according to its own material safety sheet, benzyl acetate is toxic if inhaled or ingested. It’s also irritating to the eyes, lungs, and skin. Benzene-based ingredients are often toxic.
However, your biggest exposure to benzene is when you breathe the fumes at a gas station or breath in first or second-hand smoke from cigarettes. But the problem of indoor air having more benzene than outdoor air points to laundry products as being a major contributor.
Other Common Problematic Ingredients
- 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde
Alternatives to Dryer Sheets & Fabric Softeners
We don’t want to leave you high and not dry so along with our in-depth investigation of common brands you might use in your own laundry room, we scoped out some alternatives to using dryer sheets and fabric softeners completely.
Those options are also limited and may come with their own list of issues depending on your personal preferences or allergies. But we have heard great things and even put some of them into practice ourselves to confirm that if you really wanted to, you could totally ditch the dryer sheets.
Ditch the Dryer Sheets By Doing This
There are plenty of options in terms of replacing your dryer sheets. Here are some of our recommendations.
- Purchase the reusable dryer sheets (like this one or this one)
- Choose more natural fabrics. Some of our fave fabrics like lycra and polyester, unfortunately, are more likely to induce the dreaded static cling. Choosing fabrics that are not synthetic can help prevent it AND your body might actually enjoy the natural fibers, too!
- DIY dryer sheets. You can start by looking up different DIY and nontoxic websites for ideas to see which one suits you. But we have seen people use a small piece of fabric or rag soaked in a nontoxic conditioner as a dryer sheet.
- Dryer Balls (usually wool) just a few of those in each load you dry can prove to bring the same outcome sans the chemicals. You have the option to use unscented dryer balls “as is”, or you could use with a fragrance of your choice by incorporating essential oils. (Don’t worry, we have several brands we are recommending down below.)
- Baking Soda add a teaspoon to the wash cycle to help soften fabrics.
- Vinegar has also been known to help as a natural “fabric softener.” Just put ¼ cup of white or apple cider vinegar in during the rinse portion of the wash cycle. (NOTE: do not use baking soda and vinegar together…..or bleach with vinegar.)
- Aluminum Foil Ball in the dryer can help with static cling.
- Good old-fashioned hanging clothes outside to dry naturally.
- Opt for scent-free products to lessen the toxic load.
Ditch the Fabric Softeners By Doing This
When it comes to replacing your fabric softener, it’s a lot easier. Sadly, in this category, we could not find any brands that didn’t use problematic ingredients. That tells us that the processing needed to soften your fabric is too much for the environment. So we have come up with some alternatives for you to use instead of fabric softeners if you choose.
- Vinegar – just add 1/2 cup to the final rinse cycle of your wash load.
- Vinegar, water & glycerin – Try adding two cups of vinegar to two cups of water. Then add two tablespoons of vegetable glycerin in lieu of fabric softener.
- Baking Soda – add 1/2 cup to each rinse cycle
Best Case Scenario: Changing the Narrative Around “Clean” to Redefine What It Means For Your Family
Reconsider where and how you may have been unknowingly programmed early in life to believe that your clothing, sheets, towels, and all fabrics needed to “smell” a certain way to indicate they were clean.
Question that narrative because odds are even if you aren’t one of the highly sensitive folks who become ill from walking near a detergent aisle at the store, or develops migraines on neighborhood walks from all of the dryer sheet scents piping out of the various homes nearby, your body is still being exposed regularly to these chemicals.
Mamavation’s Investigation Fabric Softeners
Mamavation discovered about 50 different fabric softeners for purchase in the United States. We took those brands and analyzed their ingredients and divided them into categories of “Not our favorite”, “better” and “best” to make shopping easy for you. Any brand that did not disclose ANY ingredients were automatically put in the “not our favorite” category. Brands that did not disclose 100% of their fragrance ingredients found their way into “better” if their other ingredients were better as well.
Not Our Favorite Fabric Softener Brands
These brands contain many of the chemicals from our toxic ingredient list. Most of these brands will not be surprising, but some you may find to be surprising based on the other “natural” products they sell.
- All Fabric Softener (Free & Clear)
- 365 By Whole Foods Market Fabric Softener (Lavender, Lavender Mint)
- Caldrea Fabric Softener (Sea Salt Neroli)
- Downy Fabric Conditioner (Ultra April Fresh, Ultra Free & Clear, Infusions Calm, Nature Blends Rosewater & Aloe, Ultra Cool Cotton, Wrinkle Guard, and Wrinkle Guard Unscented)
- Gain Fabric Softener (Original, Botanicals Orange Blossom Vanilla, Botanicals White Tea Lavender, and Island Fresh)
- Mrs. Meyer’s Fabric Softener (Honeysuckle, Lemon Verbena, Peony, and Rainwater)
- Snuggle Fabric Softener (Sensitive Fresh Scent, SuperCare Lilies & Linen, SuperFresh Original, and Ultra Blue Sparkle)
Better Fabric Softener Brands
These brands were better, as in not having quite as many problematic chemicals, but most of them are not transparent with all their ingredients. In other words, we have no idea what is inside that “fragrance” and it could be anything. So we need a little more than “trust us” to pass them to best.
- Attitude Baby Fabric Softener Sensitive Skin
- Attitude Fabric Softener Fragrance-Free
- Attitude Fabric Softener Citrus Zest
- Attitude Fabric Softener Sweet Lullaby
- Attitude Fabric Softener Pink Grapefruit
- Botanical Origin Plant-Based Fabric Conditioner Fresh Jasmine & Wild Lavender
- Botanical Origin Plant-Based Fabric Conditioner Orange Blossom & Citrus Leaves
- Dropps Unscented Fabric Softener Pods
- Dropps Lavender Eucalyptus Fabric Softener Pods
- Ecover Fabric Softener Morning Fresh
- Ecover Fabric Softener Sunny Day
- Grove Collaborative Eco-Friendly Fabric Softener Free & Clear
- Grove Collaborative Eco-Friendly Fabric Softener Lavender
- HEX Performance Fabric Conditioner Fragrance-Free
- HEX Performance Fabric Conditioner Fresh & Clean
- Love Home & Planet Fabric Softener Lavender & Argan Oil
- Method Fabric Softener Fresh Air
- Nature Clean Baby Fabric Softener Fragrance-Free
- Seventh Generation Fabric Softener Free & Clear
- Seventh Generation Fabric Softener Fresh Lavender
- The Laundress Fabric Conditioner Classic
- The Laundress Fabric Conditioner Baby Scented
- The Laundress Fabric Conditioner No.10
Best Fabric Softeners
Here are the best fabric softeners based on avoidance of hormone disrupting chemicals.
- Attitude: Fragrance-Free, Sweet Lullabuy, Citrus Zest, and Pear Nectar.
- Greenshield Organic Fabric Softener
- Truly Free Softening Rinse (Use discount code “MAMAVATION” for 30% off products!)
If you want something more DIY, here are our suggestions to do the following instead for your load of laundry.
- Vinegar – just add 1/2 cup to the final rinse cycle of your wash load.
- Try adding two cups of vinegar to two cups of water. Then add two tablespoons of vegetable glycerin in lieu of fabric softener.
- Baking Soda – add 1/2 cup to each rinse cycle
One important thing to note, if you are putting vinegar in your washing machine, do not put any bleach in the same load. This will cause a release of toxic chlorine gas. So don’t do it. Ever.
Mamavation’s Investigation on Dryer Sheets
Mamavation found just under 70 products of dryer sheets and evaluated them based on what we already know about hormone-disrupting chemicals and chemicals of concern to the environment that we mentioned before.
Not Our Favorite Dryer Sheets
We found lots of quats, “fragrance”, benzene and all other sorts of nasties in this list. Check out the list above to see what chemicals we were mostly avoiding.
- All Dryer Sheets Free & Clear
- Arm & Hammer Fabric Softener Sheets Fresh’n Soft Free & Clear
- Arm & Hammer Essentials Dryer Sheets Lavender & Linen
- Arm & Hammer Clean Scentsations Fabric Softener Sheets Purifying Water
- Attitude Static Eliminator & Fabric Softener Reusable Dryer Cloth
- Bounce Fabric Softener Sheets, Free & Gentle
- Bounce Fabric Softener Sheets Outdoor Fresh
- Bounce WrinkleGard Outdoor Fresh Mega Dryer Sheets
- Bounce Fresh Linen Dryer Sheets
- Bounce WrinkleGard Mega Dryer Sheets Unscented
- Bounce Pet Hair and Lint Guard Mega Dryer Sheets Fresh Scent
- Bounce Pet Hair and Lint Guard Mega Dryer Sheets Unscented
- Downy April Fresh Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets
- Downy Cool Cotton
- Downy Infusions Bliss Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets
- Downy Infusions Calm Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, Lavender & Vanilla Bean
- Downy Infusions Refresh Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets
- Downy Infusions Romance Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, White Tea & Peony
- Downy Wrinkle Guard Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets
- Gain Dryer Sheets Blissful Breeze
- Gain Dryer Sheets Original Scent
- Grab Green Wet Dryer Sheets Reusable Fragrance-Free
- HEX Performance Wet Dryer Sheets, Fragrance-Free
- Kirkland Premium Fabric Softener Sheets Refreshing
- Presto! Fabric Softener Sheets Fresh Scent
- Snuggle Supercare Lilies & Linen
- Snuggle Original Blue Sparkle
- Snuggle Exhilarations Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets, Lavender & Vanilla Orchid
- Snuggle SuperFresh Original Dryer Sheets
- up & up Free+ Clear Dryer Sheets
- up & up Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets Fresh Linen
Better Dryer Sheets
In this section, we found brands that are far better than the worst category, but still have problems with transparency of fragrance ingredients and using ingredients harsh to the environment or people with asthma.
- Better Life Natural Dryer Sheets Unscented
- Beyond Natural Dryer Sheets Gardenia
- Biokleen Dryer Sheets Citrus Essence
- Biokleen Dryer Sheets Fragrance-Free
- Biokleen Dryer Sheets Lavender
- Frey Dryer Sheets Jasmine Rose White Cedar
- Grab Green Newborn Baby Dryer Sheets Calming Chamomile
- Grab Green Stoneworks Dryer Sheets Rain Fragrance-Free
- Grab Green Stoneworks Dryer Sheets Birch Branch
- Love Home & Planet Dryer Sheets Coconut Water & Mimosa Flower
- Love Home & Planet Dryer Sheets Lavender & Argan Oil
- Love Home & Planet Rose Petal & Muru Muru
- Method Dryer Sheets Fresh Air
- Method Dryer Sheets Nectarine Blossom
- Mild By Nature Dryer Sheets Unscented
- Mild By Nature Dryer Sheets Geranium
- Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Dryer Sheets Honeysuckle
- Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Dryer Sheets Lavender
- Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Dryer Sheets Lemon Verbena
- Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Dryer Sheets Rainwater
- Seventh Generation Fabric Softener Sheets Free & Clear
- Seventh Generation Fabric Softener Sheets Fresh Lavender
- Seventh Generation Fabric Softener Sheets Morning Meadow
- Sheets Laundry Club Free & Clear Fabric Softening Sheets
- Sheets Laundry Club Lavender Fabric Softening Sheets
- Sheets Laundry Club Vitality Fabric Softening Sheets
- Suavitel Dryer Sheets Heavenly Vanilla
- 365 By Whole Foods Market Fabric Softening Sheets Lavender
- 365 By Whole Foods Market Fabric Softening Sheets Unscented
Best Dryer Sheets
Unfortunately, we didn’t lots of dryer sheets that had ingredients not harmful to humans or the Planet, so we decided to instead focus on alternatives made from 100% wool dryer balls. These wool balls are the size of a baseball and will not damage your dryer.