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Fabric Softener: Are Soft Clothes Really Worth the Dangers from Fabric Softener?

Ask Natural Life:
Are Soft Clothes Really Worth the Dangers from Fabric Softener?
By Wendy Priesnitz

Q: What is fabric softener made of and is it harmful? I personally don’t use it; I quite enjoy stiff jeans and crispy towels. But my neighbors do. And it seems many (most?) people do use it from the way everyone smells.

A: Although they may make your clothes feel soft, be static-free and smell “fresh,” fabric softeners and dryer sheets will also make them toxic. Health problems can range from headache, lightheadedness and fatigue to serious organ and central nervous system damage, and even cancer. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and industry-generated Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), there is a mind-boggling list of dangerous petrochemicals in these products, many of them used in untested combinations. They include: 

  • Benzyl Acetate: Is linked to pancreatic cancer and its vapors can be irritating to eyes and respiratory passages, creating coughing. Can be absorbed through the skin. 

  • Benzyl Alcohol: This upper respiratory tract irritant can cause central nervous system (CNS) disorders, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and dramatic drops in blood pressure. 

  • Ethyl Acetate: This narcotic is on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list. Irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract, it may cause headache and narcosis, anemia with leukocytosis and damage to the liver and kidneys.

  • Limonene: A known carcinogen, as well as an eye and skin irritant and sensitizer.

  • A-Terpineol: Causes CNS disorders and is highly irritating to mucous membranes. Aspiration into the lungs can produce respiratory depression, pneumonia or even fatal edema.

  • Camphor: Causes CNS disorders and is on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list. Is easily absorbed through body tissues, causing irritation of eyes, nose and throat. Also dizziness, confusion, nausea, twitching muscles and convulsions.

  • Linalool: A narcotic that causes CNS disorders and respiratory disturbances, which, in animal testing, have led to death.

  • Chloroform: Neurotoxic, anesthetic and carcinogenic and on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list. Inhalation of vapors may cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, irritation of respiratory tract and loss of consciousness. Aggravates disorders of the kidney, liver, heart and skin disorders. Especially a problem when subjected to heat.

  • Phthalates: Notorious for being used in children's plastic toys and other baby products, phthalates are also used in scented products to help the scent last longer. They have been implicated in breast cancer, allergies, reproductive system problems.

The effects of most of these chemicals are more acute when heated in clothes dryers, making dryer sheets worse than liquid softeners. And, of course, dryers exhaust the toxic fumes into neighborhood air.

Because fabric softeners are made to stay in your clothing, the chemicals are slowly released, either into the air for you to inhale or onto your skin for you to absorb. You may have noticed that using fabric softener sheets results in less-absorbent towels; that’s because of the residue that is left in the towels. That residue can clog up the dryer’s vents, causing some dryer manufacturers to include a warning in their user manuals not to use fabric softener sheets, or a clause stating that use of chemical-based dryer sheets will void the dryer’s warranty.

Babies, children, older people and those who are already sick are especially at risk from these chemicals. Damage can be permanent, causing lifelong illness. Babies often react with rashes, frequent crying and/or diarrhea. Some researchers have even suggested the need for research into a possible connection between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and the use of these products for washing baby clothes and bedding. They say that in at least some cases of SIDS, an anaphylactic reaction is responsible, so fabric softener, with its many chemical components, shouldn’t be ruled out as a possible cause.

To make problem worse, most fabric softeners have fragrance added to them in order to cover up the chemical smells. For many reasons, this is one type of product to avoid.

Keep Your Clothes Soft and Cling-Free, Naturally
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There’s no reason to expose yourself to these risky chemicals when natural alternatives exist. Not only are they safer for you, your family and the environment, but they’re often much more economical too.

  • Add a quarter cup of baking soda to wash cycle to soften clothes

  • Add a quarter cup of white vinegar to wash or rinse cycle to soften clothes (don’t use bleach at the same time)

  • Dry your clothes outside on a clothesline to eliminate static cling

  • A piece of wadded up aluminum foil placed in the dryer with clothes will cut down on static cling

  • Use less laundry detergent for softer clothes

  • Install a water softener

  • If you really feel that you need to use a commercial product, check out your local health food store for a natural fabric softener or reusable cloth dryer sheets that use a natural base like soy instead of chemicals.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books.


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