The Dirty Truth of Fabric Softeners

It is fair to say we have been washing our clothes in one way or another for as long as we have had clothes.

In the early days this would have been with just water or a naturally foaming plant like soapwort; outside in the sunshine in a natural spring where we would have been conscious of our connectedness to precious resources like clean water.

Skip forward and the first washing machine was developed in 1908, with the first tumble dryer released to the public domain in 1938. These machines changed lives making the daily chore of washing clothes more time efficient.                                         

However, machine dried clothes created issues of their own. That was until the 1960s when something was added to this daily routine to sort the problems…


Softeners were invented to solve the issue of: Scratchiness, Static (often from the residues of detergents left in the textiles) Smells (particular from polyesters) when tumble dryers were used to dry clothes.

In order to make the clothes feel soft, a type of chemical called quaternary ammonium compounds (also known as quats) was added at washing which coated the fabrics. They had a horrible smell so synthetic fragrances were also added to the mix to disguise the smell.

The health effects from this cocktail of chemicals used in softeners are very scary and here are a few of them:

4-T-NONYLPHENOL – This mimics the hormone estrogen and is an endocrine disruptor, therefore, can affect reproduction

Diethanolamine (DEA) This is known to cause nitrosamines that are linked with cancer

Phthalates – Endocrine disruptors, therefore, can affect reproduction

Quaternary Ammonium compounds – These cause allergies and asthma support the creation of cancer-causing nitrosamines

Studies have shown that liquid softeners make fabrics more flammable too. Whilst fragrances sound inoffensive the truth is very different. There are up to 3000 chemicals that are in existence that brands choose from to make the fragrances they use and a single softener could have up to 300 chemicals in it for the fragrance alone. Not only are they triggers for asthma and dermatitis but they are a massive cause of air pollution.

Whilst the health implications for humans using softeners is scary enough lets consider where these chemicals go once they leave our homes. They go into the sea and disrupt the natural balance of enzymes and kill marine life. Marine life is already suffering the consequences of our love of plastic so we need to stop adding to this already under pressure ecosystem.

Is there a sustainable replacement to softeners?


The solutions are:
Hang up your washing

Avoid buying clothes made of polyester (as these contribute towards microplastics in the sea anyway!)

Use naturally derived washing liquids like soapwort

If you can’t hang up and still need to use your dryer and you are not happy with the smell of your clothes then you can add a couple of drops of essential oil to a dryer ball. 

X Ness and Prim


    February 16, 2022 — Primrose Matheson