Here’s why fabric softener is bad news for you and your washing machine

When it comes to laundry day, most of us stick to a routine. We charge the best washing machines, pour in the detergent of your choice, then finish with fabric softener. Fabric softener is something that many of us consider essential when it comes to washing clothes. After all, it reduces static electricity as well as wrinkles and leaves a pleasant scent.

But did you know that fabric softener could do you and your washing machine more harm than good? Here, we’ll outline exactly which fabric softener helps your wash and why you’re better off removing it from the equation. Here’s why fabric softener is bad news for your laundry room.

1. Fabric softener can cause allergies

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First, if you have sensitive skin, fabric softener can trigger an allergic reaction. This is because of the heavy fragrance and chemicals it often carries. This can lead to itchy or inflamed skin on contact and, in severe circumstances, can also cause breathing problems. Fabric softeners often contain quaternary ammonium compounds (quats), which studies have found (opens in a new tab) can trigger asthma as well as skin irritation.

Board Certified Dermatologist Elizabeth Mullans MD, at Uptown Dermatology (opens in a new tab) says ‘Softeners can cause flare-ups in people who suffer from sensitive skin and eczema due to heavy chemicals and fragrances, leading to allergies and skin irritation. So while fabric softeners can improve the laundry routine, I recommend people with sensitive skin avoid using them.

If you think you are having a reaction to the fabric softener, stop using it immediately and seek medical attention if necessary. Clothes that have been washed with fabric softener will need to be washed to remove residue before they can be worn again.

2. Bad news for your clothes

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Fabric softener can make your clothes silky smooth, but it’s not as good as it looks. Fabric softener works by coating your clothes with a waxy residue – it’s actually what makes them soft to the touch. However, this coating alters the absorption capacity of the article, which can be very detrimental in certain cases. For example, towels will no longer absorb water as effectively. It also means that gym clothes won’t be able to absorb your sweat while you work out.

If you use fabric softener in every wash cycle, it may also build up on your clothes. This effectively prevents your clothes from absorbing water or detergent as completely, resulting in inefficient wash cycles. Maybe that’s why you sometimes find odors trapped in your clothes that you just can’t get out.

This layer of fabric softener will take time and perseverance to remove. Soaking clothes followed by washing at the highest temperature allowed is a good start.

3. Bad news for your washing machine

Someone pours fabric softener into the dispenser drawer of a washing machine

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Fabric softener isn’t really good for your washing machine either. It’s a thick substance, even diluted, and it can easily leave a slimy residue that clogs your detergent drawer and washer. If left untreated, it can even clog pipes and drains, causing the washer to shut down. It doesn’t dissolve in low temperature washes, so you’ll have to take the time to learn how to clean a washing machine to stay on top.

Elizabeth Mullans continues, “Too much fabric softener can lead to buildup in the washing machine and overgrowth can actually lead to mold growth. You want to avoid a buildup of fabric softener as it can stick to clothes and lead to other allergic reactions and irritations if you have sensitive skin.

So not only can too much fabric softener be detrimental to your machine, but if buildup occurs, it can actually worsen the effects of an allergic reaction. Any mold growth in your washing machine could also transfer to your clothes during the wash cycle, so it’s imperative that you monitor how fabric softener affects your machine – better yet, just stop using it.

4. Fabric softener doesn’t clean

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Contrary to popular belief, fabric softener does not aid in the cleaning process. It is applied during the rinse cycle and simply acts as a conditioner, coating your clothes with a substance to soften the feel and add more fragrance. If you were to run a wash cycle with fabric softener only, the clothes would not be clean, while if you were to run a cycle with detergent only, the cleaning power would not be affected.

This means that you can indeed remove fabric softener from your routine with little overall difference. While the use of fabric softeners was necessary in the 1900s, clothes are much softer these days and don’t require as much extra conditioning. The scent level will be reduced, but your clothes would ironically be just as clean without it.

5. Environmental impact

Fabric softener is poured into the cap in front of the towels

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Most fabric softeners contain a petroleum base and are not biodegradable, meaning the stuff won’t break down once it’s gone. This will cause significant environmental damage over time. Quats are also known to be toxic to marine life, which is a key ingredient in most fabric softeners. Then you have to think about the packaging. Since fabric softener is technically unnecessary, that’s a lot of excess plastic for no reason.

What can I use instead of fabric softener?

Luckily, there are DIY alternatives you can use if you just can’t let go of the fabric softener ghost.

Either ½ cup baking soda or ¼ cup distilled white vinegar can be added to the rinse cycle to help soften the load – but remember not to use bleach if adding vinegar. If the smell of vinegar is too strong for you, you can always add a few drops of essential oils to it before distributing it. We’ve also covered how to make your own laundry detergent, if you want to take matters into your own hands.

Whatever you do, it’s best to stop using fabric softener. It doesn’t help your clothes, the washing machine, or ultimately the environment. Plus, discontinuing this product will save money in the long run. Is this irresistible scent really worth the cost?


For more washing tips, tricks and how-to’s, check out our guides to the best clothes dryers, 7 signs you need a new washing machine and what do the laundry symbols mean? Also, don’t make this mistake when you do your laundry!


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