Yes, typically, fabric softeners or conditioners can contain several elements that have a negative impact on the environment.
These range from water contaminants to wider issues such as air pollution and emissions, which can affect the climate as a whole.
However, many companies are starting to develop more eco-friendly alternatives to counter these harmful outcomes.
In this article, we look at the environmental implications of fabric softeners, their effects, and whether we actually need such products in the first place.
How Do Fabric Softeners Affect the Environment?
Although the most obvious use of fabric softener is to smooth the fibers of clothing, giving them a soft feel, they also incorporate other laundry functions such as adding various scents, reducing static, and wrinkle reduction.
As a result, there are many chemicals involved, such as fragrances, dyes, and water-softening agents, such as phosphates and preservatives, to kill bacteria and keep clothes clean.
They also can contain quaternary ammonium compounds (known as quats or QACs), which reduce static and can aid in softening.
However, these chemicals (in addition to the packaging of fabric softeners, which often come in plastic) can have a wide range of environmental impacts.
As this study highlights, while fabric softeners may not be one of the most obvious sources of pollution, they can contribute to poor indoor air quality.
Depending on the material of washed fabrics, various volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can attach themselves to fabrics as a result of conditioning and spread to the surrounding area.
While not all of these compounds are toxic, some are and can cause health issues to the respiratory, central nervous system, and organs.
And like other pollutants, it can cause headaches, dizziness, and visual problems depending on their levels and length of exposure.
Although the VOCs released by fabric softeners may be minute (approximately 1-9 µg/m2 per the above study), research suggests that certain VOCs can be cumulative, meaning they build up rather than get dispersed, and the softeners can themselves increase these levels by 10 to 163% (compared to water-washed clothes).
There’s also a concern that certain VOCs, in particular, can affect water supplies.
For instance, one VOC that gets released by fabric softeners called 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene has been detected in US water supplies.
Moreover, we have to remember that VOCs aren’t the only pollutants that get released.
Another is the quats we mentioned above, which can be equally toxic and environmentally damaging.
Not only do they cause a risk to human and mammal health as they can disrupt our skin’s barrier, but prolonged exposure can cause reproductive issues and immune system dysfunction.
Quats are a mixture of compounds that contain positively charged nitrogen atoms, and these atoms can interact with the negatively charged membranes of living organisms, get into water supplies, and persist in the environment for a long time.
And unlike VOCs, where their concentration must be high to cause significant damage, some older research argues quats can kill invertebrates, bacteria, and fish, as well as damage plant growth at relatively low levels and with short exposure time.
Global Warming and Climate Change
Although VOCs don’t typically have as adverse an effect on health outdoors, in some instances, as they are highly volatile, they can react with sunlight to form ozone in the atmosphere.
According to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, this can come in the form of tropospheric ozone, a type of ground-level oxygen species that absorbs heat from the sun.
This traps heat at the surface level of the planet, leading to global warming and, as a result, climate change.
And interestingly, fabric softener, in general, contributes to this effect in other ways.
Namely, a study highlights that its use can exacerbate water and energy use, as people appear to wash their clothes more frequently to enjoy the scent of fresh clothing regardless of whether the items are actually dirty or not.
This, they explain, is because the use of fabric softeners on clothes actually causes them to smell again faster than if they were washed with water.
Thus overall increasing individuals’ carbon footprint and inadvertently worsening climate change.
Most fabric softeners are classed as surfactants, which means that they contain cations or positively charged ions to attract negatively charged static from clothes.
However, as part of this mechanism, surfactants can also have an effect on the properties of the water it enters into – i.e., wastewater.
As one piece of research further explains, this can mean large quantities of it end up in sediments and soils as it travels through water supplies and ends up in landfills.
Here, their presence can accumulate, posing a risk to the surrounding environment and biota, where they don’t naturally degrade easily.
One example of this is that they change the properties of soil even at low concentrations and can potentially inhibit microorganism activity, which affects how plants grow and the species that rely on them.
Another factor is the chemical xylene, which is used as a fragrance in softeners and other detergents.
This chemical has a toxic effect on marine organisms, according to scientific reviews.
It can reduce the growth and population and increase the mortality of fish, plants, shrimp, and mollusks.
A big problem with modern clothing is actually one that is relatively hard to see, and that is the release of fiber fragments into water supplies.
Research highlights that effluent plastic materials such as those from polyester and acrylic apparel that are typically released in the washing and drying process can spread through wastewater and get consumed by aquatic species.
These microplastics not only have an effect on species in terms of their toxicity, but as the materials pass from animal to animal through the food chain, they can impact human health through the consumption of sea creatures, table salts, and water supplies.
And according to research, there’s some evidence that the mechanism of these fibers entering into water supplies can be exacerbated by softener use.
They may increase the entanglement of fibers as they interact with water, changing the fabric properties in a way that increases fiber separation and, thus, plastic effluent.
However, there is conflicting evidence about the degree to which softeners do this in other research.
But we should nevertheless keep in mind that fiber components aren’t the only waste products involved.
An average bottle of hygiene or cleaning product is 48% plastic by volume, with laundry products having the second most plastic by mass out of all household hygiene and cleaning packaging waste.
In other words, when you buy a bottle, there’s far more plastic that comes with it than everyday household care products.
But more than that, the actual residual waste itself is particularly high for products in these categories, with the average bottle of fabric softener (here, a 2.1 kg container) carrying a residual of 6.77% of the product when it goes in the trash.
While this seems small, roughly 0.14 kg per bottle, given that around 54% of US respondents claimed that they use the product, that’s a significant amount of pure, undiluted product ending up in the environment.
Are Fabric Softeners Toxic?
Yes, fabric softeners, through various mechanisms, can cause toxicity but, in most cases, mild harmful effects.
As we discussed above, this includes their release of VOCs, which can cause respiratory issues, but also things like 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene, which is a known irritant, and xylene, which is toxic to aquatic life.
Unfortunately, though, there are other harmful effects of the product.
As one study has shown, the emissions of fabric softeners, such as their fragrances and chemicals, can cause wide-ranging effects from skin, eye, and nose irritation to dizziness, tiredness, and nerve damage.
Many of these are associated with the chemical toluene, a fossil-fuel-derived liquid often used as a dye that can cause inflammation, headaches, and confusion.
While these effects are often thought to be confined to direct exposure, as the above study highlights, they have also been reported by everyday users.
The study observed the various emissions of fabric softeners elicited sensory irritation, shortness of breath, and airflow restriction in the mice they tested on, suggesting that humans would have similar experiences based on the multitude of air-borne chemicals released.
This, they note, isn’t likely to be the result of allergies but the actual toxic effect of laundry detergent ingredients.
Are There Eco-Friendly Fabric Softeners?
Yes, the market is saturated right now with eco-friendly brands for you to choose from.
However, it’s always worth casting a skeptical eye over ingredients so that you can make up your mind with all the facts.
For instance, here’s an overview of some of the most popular eco-friendly fabric softener brands.
Based in the US, this laundry brand has made its name through its commitment to plant-based, biodegradable ingredients and carbon-neutral shipping.
Their fabric softener pods, likewise, come in plastic-free packaging with a range of scented and unscented options free of dyes, quats, and preservatives.
Rather, their pods are mineral-based. And while this is an eco-friendly option that contains far fewer harmful chemicals than regular softeners, it’s worth noting that its main ingredient, bentonite, is somewhat controversial due to its interaction with water and the mining industry it’s extracted from (study).
Ecover is a European company that joined the multinational US brand SC Johnson.
They’re well known for encouraging customers to reuse and recycle packaging by making it possible for you to buy refills as opposed to new bottles and have made a commitment to biodegradable ingredients.
With this, the main active ingredient of their softener is p-anisic acid, a type of carboxylic acid that is not known to be harmful to the environment.
It is an antibacterial and antifungal agent, but based on the available data, its toxicity appears low.
These factors seem to suggest an overall environmentally favorable product, though we will note that the product also has fragrances, but toluene isn’t among them.
This US-based brand focuses on plant-based and natural ingredients for its products.
They actively contribute to several community garden projects and have combined this with a wide range of garden-inspired scented fabric softeners, with ingredients certified by USDA as biobased.
The downside is that most of their packaging remains plastic, though it is recyclable. And we did spot that some of their ingredients are palm-oil derivatives.
Another US-based company, Public Goods, emphasizes the use of sustainable and minimalist packaging.
Their fabric softener sheets are biodegradable, plant-based, and free from synthetic fragrances.
The fabric softeners themselves appear to come in plastic-free packaging or are made from recycled plastic with carbon-neutral shipping options.
We have noted, though, that the main softening agent, Di-(palm carboxyethyl) hydroxyethyl methylammonium methyl sulfates, has been listed by environmental agencies as producing quats, along with some evidence of aquatic life toxicity.
But due to the fact that this is used in dryers as opposed to washing machines and the fact it’s biodegradable may mean these effects aren’t as concerning as they appear.
Lastly, we have a UK-based company that is fragrance-free, plant-based, and made from 100% recycled materials.
This fabric softener comes from a brand that focuses on ethically and sustainably sourced ingredients and is accredited by the QMS, an environmental standard gained through sustainable business practices.
One concern, though, is that the ingredients list for their fabric softener doesn’t specify what the active ingredient of the product is, only that it’s a cationic surfactant, which, as we mentioned above, can have issues.
Are Fabric Softeners Necessary?
There doesn’t seem to be a lot to support the idea that fabric softeners are intrinsically necessary.
Firstly, as we mentioned above, there’s some evidence that they actually speed up the generation of odor on clothing.
And secondly, they neither clean nor improve the overall quality of fabrics.
However, what they do rather is reduce static build-up and add a nice-smelling fragrance to clothes.
But although they do soften the material, it’s been suggested by the US Energy Department that the issue has more to do with hard water.
Hard water is the term used to describe when there’s a build-up of minerals in water supplies, and it affects the smoothness of the materials that the water is used on.
Conversely, when laundry is done in soft water, it’s far more effective at washing and reduces the amount of products needed to get the soft cleaning feeling, can increase material durability, and reduces the need for hot washing temperatures to remove stains.
Of course, not everyone has access to soft water, though filters are an option.
So, the question really is where to invest your money – be it in the ongoing expense of eco-friendly fabric softeners or considering the higher upfront cost of updating your water filtration system?
We’ll leave that one up to you.