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Toxic Chemicals in Fabric Softener

By Kim Robson:

I’m one of those people who never uses fabric softener, either in liquid or dryer sheet form. I grew up in a house equipped with a water softening system, and I guess we just never needed it. When I struck out on my own, it just never became part of my laundry routine and never has been. I don’t feel as though my clothes or towels are especially rough, so why spend the money?

Now it seems that fabric softener sales have plummeted by twenty-five percent over the last decade. Proctor & Gamble blames it on millennials, reasoning they’re “too dumb to figure out what fabric softener is.” The head of the company has said they “don’t know what the product is for.”

Another explanation that makes more sense and doesn’t insult the intelligence of young people? They don’t care to coat their clothing in carcinogens and neurotoxins that can harm their health, damage the environment, and pollute the air inside and outside their home. Those silly kids!

Over at Snuggle, the vice president was a little more diplomatic, saying it was likely because millennials are more “eco-conscious” than their parents’ generation and don’t want to use too many chemicals in their home.

Fabric softeners became a thing in the 60s because detergents and washing machines left clothes feeling rough and stiff. Since then, detergents, washing machines and fabric blends have vastly improved, making fabric softeners more of an option than a necessity. I’ve also heard of people rubbing their hands with a fabric softener sheet before petting cats to avoid building up static cling. Needless to say, DON’T do that.

More importantly, millennials — and indeed the entire population, regardless of age — have increased their awareness of toxic chemicals lurking in otherwise-innocuous everyday products. The chemicals that can be found regularly in fabric softeners include these:

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: make clothes feel soft and wearable, but known to trigger asthma attacks; may be toxic to reproductive systems. Check labels for distearyldimonium chloride, diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride, variants of hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate, or vague terms like “biodegradable fabric softening agents” or “cationic surfactant.” Avoid them all.

Synthetic Fragrances: may contain phthalates, which disperse the scent; or synthetic musks such as galaxolide, which accumulate in the body. Can cause allergies, skin irritations such as dermatitis, difficulty breathing, and potential reproductive harm. Studies show that fragrances also cause irritation when vented outdoors, especially for asthmatics and others with chemical sensitivity.

Preservatives and Colors: the terms “preservatives” and “colors” or “colorants” on an ingredient label may refer to any number of chemicals. They include methylisothiazolinone, a potent skin allergen, and glutaral (or glutaraldehyde), known to trigger asthma and skin allergies and is also toxic to marine life. Artificial colors include D&C violet 2, which has been linked to cancer.

Also found in fabric softeners:

  • Alpha Terpineol: causes central nervous damage and respiratory problems
  • Camphor: causes central nervous disorders; is easily absorbed through skin
  • Chloroform: carcinogenic neurotoxin
  • Benzyl Acetate: linked to pancreatic cancer
  • Benyl Alcohol: respiratory tract irritant
  • Ethanol: on the EPA’s “hazardous waste” list; can cause central nervous system disorders
  • Ethyl Acetate: a narcotic; also on the EPA’s “hazardous waste” list
  • Limonene: known carcinogen that causes eye and skin irritation
  • Linalool: causes central nervous system disorders; depresses heart activity

Now imagine coating your baby’s blanket or favorite stuffed animal with these chemicals and letting him or her snuggle their face into it. No way!

For a more natural way to soften your clothes, try these eco-friendly alternatives:

  • Add 1/2 cup of baking soda to the wash cycle and 1/2 cup of distilled white vinegar during the rinse cycle. Don’t worry: the vinegar smell won’t linger on your clothes.
  • Try wool dryer balls. These solid balls are of 100% felted wool wrapped around a fiber core. Wool’s natural lanolin softens laundry and reduces static. Generally safe for sensitive skin and babies, the balls also lift and separate clothes in the dryer, shortening drying time and saving energy. Purchase ready-made balls(look for unscented versions) or make your own with wool batting or wool yarn.
  • Line dry your clothes outside in the sun and breeze! Saves on gas and electricity, too. Check with your homeowners’ association bylaws first, though.

To learn more about the ingredients in laundry products and other home cleaners, visit the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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