There have been a lot of claims about dryer sheets containing toxic ingredients, so it’s natural to worry about how sustainable or safe they are.
The biggest concern about dryer sheets’ environmental impact is the fact that they are an unnecessary single-use product.
When it comes to toxicity or pollution, the answer is not straightforward.
Here’s what you need to know about the environmental impact of dryer sheets.
1. What Are Dryer Sheets Made Of?
Dryer sheets are fabric sheets that are coated with fragrances and softening agents.
More often than not, the material is polyester, but it’s not unheard of to come across dryer sheets made from cellulose fibers or cotton.
They are coated with substances to help dry clothing. These are often dipalmethyl hydroxyethylammoinum methosulfate, stearic acid, montmorillonite, and fragrances.
2. How Do Dryer Sheets Affect the Environment?
The main way dryer sheets affect the environment is through waste because most dryer sheets can only be used once.
While small, this waste can quickly accumulate when you consider how many people use them and how often people do laundry.
Since dryer sheets are commonly made from polyester, they do not break down in landfills.
And even if some are made from biodegradable materials like cotton or cellulose, sending them to landfills is still bad for the environment.
That’s because in landfills, biodegradation often happens anaerobically due to lack of oxygen, which leads to the emission of methane.
According to the EPA, landfills are the third largest contributor to methane emissions in the United States from human activity.
That’s problematic because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
3. Do Dryer Sheets Cause Pollution?
In addition to the waste problem, dryer sheets may also cause air pollution.
One study found that dryer vents emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which cause air pollution.
However, this study focused on both laundry detergent and dryer sheets.
The study found that the dryer-vent emissions contained 29 VOCs, ten of which were from laundry products.
Some VOCs included benzene, toluene, acetaldehyde, ethylbenzene, methanol, m/p-xylene, and o-xylene.
Toluene is toxic for plants and marine life. Benzene has been linked with smog and is considered a carcinogen by the EPA.
The EPA considers acetaldehyde a carcinogen.
Research also found it’s acutely toxic to humans, animals, and marine life – but it does not persist in the environment since it biodegrades.
Ethylbenzene is toxic for animals, plants, and marine life.
Methanol is also harmful to animals, plants, and marine life.
Xylenes are toxic to marine life and can harm crops.
It is unclear if the remaining 19 VOCs were from dryer sheets, as the dryer itself, the towels used in the study, or the local environment potentially could have been behind some of the emissions.
4. Are Dryer Sheets Sustainable?
Dryer sheets are not sustainable.
Dryer sheets are mostly a single-use product, so not only do they accumulate waste, but there is always a demand to produce new dryer sheets, which requires energy and resources.
Many of the materials needed to make dryer sheets are not particularly sustainable.
As mentioned earlier, dryer sheets are usually made from polyester.
Polyester is a type of plastic, which means it is non-renewable.
Plastic like polyester is also not sourced sustainably since crude oil mining contributes to pollution and environmental damage.
Cellulose fiber and cotton dryer sheets are more sustainable since these are from renewable, plant-based sources.
However, it’s not a perfect solution.
For example, cotton crops are not only water intensive – needing more than 2,500 gallons (9,464 liters) of water per kilogram, but they also account for 5% of all pesticide sales and 10% of insecticide sales.
5. Are Dryer Sheets Biodegradable?
Most dryer sheets are not biodegradable since they are commonly made from polyester.
While cellulose and cotton may be biodegradable, the materials the dryer sheets are coated with can change this.
Stearic acids usually come from plants or animal fats, so it is biodegradable.
Montmorillonite is also biodegradble.
Since fragrances are such a broad category, it’s hard to discern their role in biodegradation, especially when it comes to synthetic fragrances.
However, studies show that the degradation of VOCs – which can often be emitted by fragrances – remains highly problematic.
Also, remember that compostable and biodegradable are not the same thing.
Biodegradable means an item can decompose, but compostable means items break down into natural, non-toxic materials.
So, if you find biodegradable dryer sheets, they may not automatically be compostable.
Plus, not all so-called compostable products are home-compostable but often require an industrial composting facility.
Read the packaging carefully to determine how they should be disposed of, i.e., in a general waste bin, home compost bin, or industrial composting.
6. Are Dryer Sheets Recyclable?
Dryer sheets are not recyclable.
While polyester, cotton, and cellulose fibers may be recyclable by themselves, mixing them with other ingredients complicates things.
A recycling facility could not separate the fabric from the other compounds.
A recycling facility is unlikely to have the infrastructure to process small fabric sheets like dryer sheets.
Plus, the fabric is likely too damaged to repurpose after being in the dryer.
7. Are Dryer Sheets Toxic?
Most dryer sheets are generally not considered toxic if used as intended.
The lingering concern and potential risk is mostly related to the use of fragrances, which manufacturers are not required to disclose.
Studies have shown that fragrances can release harmful VOCs or cause allergic reactions, asthma or migraine attacks in sensitive people.
As the study mentioned earlier pointed out, 9 out of the 25 VOCs emitted from dryer vents are classified as toxic or hazardous.
However, it’s not clear how many of those VOCs can be attributed to dryer sheets, rather than the detergent or textiles.
The main problem comes down to the fact that dryer sheets are almost always “scented” – which means you are most likely buying something with an undisclosed mix of potentially problematic fragrances.
8. Are Dryer Sheets Necessary?
No, dryer sheets are not necessary.
They are intended to make clothes softer and smell good.
They can also inhibit the build-up of static electricity in the dryer.
However, they are not necessary to dry your laundry, so you can do without them.
In terms of waste and saving on energy use, the most sustainable way to dry your clothes is to air-dry clothes when the weather is good.
9. What Are Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Dryer Sheets?
Dryer balls are reusable balls that make laundry softer and reduce static electricity.
They’re usually made from wool, but it’s not uncommon to find plastic dryer balls.
While dryer sheets usually last only one wash, dryer balls can be used up to 1,000 times which dramatically cuts down on waste.
Plus, they usually do not contain any fragrances or other chemicals.
Soap nuts are often hailed as replacements for laundry detergent and dryer sheets.
Soap nuts are reusable, renewable, and biodegradable.
They contain saponin, which is a cleaning agent. They can also reduce static.