PeopleMaking a Difference

Stop using fabric softener – your clothes will be just as clean, if not even cleaner

Save money, save the planet: Clothes not smelling like ‘morning silkwood’ or any other AI-named ‘fragrances’ is something we can live without

What do fabric softeners actually do? Photograph: PA

Fabric softener – do you need it? Soft, fresh-smelling clothes, free of static and wrinkles is what the ads promise. Don’t buy it and your clothes will be hard, stale-smelling, creased and, well, shocking, seems to be the implication. Some softener ads feature babies, so maybe this will happen to your children too.

But what do fabric softeners actually do? This usually pastel-coloured gloop is a concoction of chemicals that act by coating individual fibres with a film that makes them more slippy and stand more upright. This can make them feel softer and reduce static.

What’s in it?

Fabric softener typically contains three main ingredients – a conditioning agent, an emulsifier, as well as colouring and fragrance, according to Australian consumer advocacy group Choice, which has researched the matter.

The “conditioning” bit comprises silicone or ammonia-based fatty, lubricating compounds that leave an oily, softening coating on your clothes. They may feel softer, but it can have the effect of reducing water absorbency. Not great for towels.


It can also affect workout gear – the coating left behind by softener on stretchy and moisture-wick fabrics makes it harder for water and detergent to fully penetrate the fibres. This can lead to the build-up of bacteria, according to detergent company Ariel.

Softener can also reduce the fire-retardant properties of clothing such as children’s sleepwear, according to the non-profit Consumer Reports.

Clothes may have a “no softener” washing label, but not everybody reads them.

Save money, save the planet: How to dry your clothes fasterOpens in new window ]

The emulsifier ingredient is just there to get the oily, fatty stuff on to your clothes rather than it floating on top of the water. You’ve probably noticed it clogs your detergent drawer too, where mildew can grow.

The fragrance? Who knows what’s in that. There is no law requiring full disclosure of the ingredients in fragrance. Of course, your softener fragrance could indeed come from “moonlight jasmine”, “satin cherries” or “vacay vibes” like it says on the bottle. Consumers really haven’t a clue what they’re wearing against their skin and inhaling.

What’s wrong with fragrance?

There is a downside to some scented products. Indeed, the American Lung Association advocates for fragrance-free workplaces because fragrances from things such as scented cleaning products have been associated with headaches, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath and difficulty with concentration. People with allergies and asthma report that certain odours, even in small amounts, can cause asthma symptoms.

Any other issues?

The softener mix also includes chemicals unrelated to softness that are there to make sure it can be sold for as long as possible after manufacturing.

The silicones and petrochemical ingredients of softener go down the drain at the end of the wash. This can be harmful to marine life.

Some remains on your laundry. Adults could be wearing clothes or sleeping in bed linen with significant residues of cleaning products, a small amount of which – about 10 per cent – is known to leach into the wearer’s skin, according to the Netherlands’s National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

What’s the cost?

The typical European household washes clothes 365 times a year, according to the Netherlands’ institute. Depending on the brand, fabric softener is costing you between 3 cents per wash for an own-brand budget retailer version, to 15 cents a wash for a bottle of the “luxury” branded stuff. That’s up to €56 a year on softener.

You’re paying in bin charges to dispose of the packaging. Sometimes the bottles come sheathed in plastic film. It’s hard to reconcile the immaculate, sweet-smelling cleanliness being sold to us with the environmental impact of all.

What’s the alternative?

Just don’t use fabric softener. Your clothes will be just as clean and may even be cleaner without them, says Choice. Your washing machine will be cleaner too.

Some people swear by a cup of white vinegar as an alternative, or a cup of white vinegar mixed with one sixth of a cup of baking soda. It froths up, so mix it over the sink.

It’s hard to tell whether it made any difference to the “softness” of my already well-worn towels. Unlike many commercial fabric softeners, vinegar doesn’t affect absorbency, it won’t irritate skin, or leave a residue on clothes. Vinegar cleans your washing machine to boot. You might prefer a towel that wasn’t fluffy but was absorbent to one with chemicals on it.

If you use vinegar, your clothes won’t smell of vinegar, but nor will they smell of “morning silkwood” or any other ChatGPT-named “fragrances”. That’s probably a good thing.