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The Best Alternative to Dryer Sheets

The thing with fabric softener is that it doesn’t actually soften anything.

Apartment Therapy

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Photo by Bethany Nauert

If your parents used dryer sheets in the laundry, chances are you do, too. But have you ever thought about why you’re using them? Do you know how they work? We spoke to the Environmental Working Group’s senior research and database analyst Samara Geller and laundry care expert Suzanne Holmes, manager in the product evaluation laboratory at Cotton Incorporated, to understand what dryer sheets are and what they do.

How do dryer sheets work?

Dryer sheets are designed to slowly release fabric softener during the drying process. The thing with fabric softener is that it doesn’t actually soften anything. Instead, it lubricates the fabric with a slimy coating that prevents static and creates the sensation of softness.

Why shouldn’t I use them? Are dryer sheets toxic?

Not only does fabric softener not do what it promises, but it also prevents the fabrics from functioning the way they’re designed. With regular use of fabric softeners or dryer sheets, activewear becomes less breathable, children’s clothing becomes less flame-retardant, and towels become less absorbent.

“Cotton naturally washes cleaner and feels softer against skin than synthetics,” says Holmes. “This is important because relying too much on dryer sheets can turn items like towels into nonabsorbent, ineffective rags.” She emphasizes that it is important to read the directions on both the fabric softener and the care instructions on the tag of the item being wash to prevent any damage to your laundry.

That slimy coating is made up of a chemical called quaternary ammonium compounds (QACS) that has been shown to cause or worsen asthma and irritate sensitive skin. Geller says that the chemical has been linked to long-term health problems like cancer or reproductive issues, but that it hasn’t been studied enough to make a conclusive determination. The chemical is quite common in cleaning products—especially those that have fragrances—so you want to cut down on their use as often as possible.

Even if you use dryer sheets that are “green” or fragrance-free, they may still use chemicals that can impact your health. Geller explains that consumer goods are unregulated to the point that their list of ingredients can be misleading or incomplete. “Labeling is a massive issue with cleaning products and their ingredients are disclosed less often,” she says. The best way to find out what’s really in your cleaning products is to look them up, like using EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

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Photo by Ashley Poskin

What is a good dryer sheet alternative?

While a dryer sheet can only be used once, a set of wool dryer balls can last for years. Instead of just imitating softness, the balls rub and beat the fabric to mechanically soften the fiber. They bounce around to separate the clothing which helps the heat circulate evenly and prevents the buildup of friction and static. “Dryer balls help to lift and aerate the clothing and shorten dryer time,” says Geller. “The less dryer time, the less static there will be.” Stick a set of three to six balls in the dryer, and even your heaviest loads will dry quickly and evenly.