18 January 2011

Five things you should know about fabric softener, plus an eco-friendly fix

In terms of all-time desirable tactile sensations, grazing fingers across a plush garment or fluffy cotton towel ranks right up there with sliding au natural into a bed covered with impossibly high thread count satin sheets…or touching the velvety petals of a rose...or the cheek of a newborn child. Our culture appreciates fluffy silky goodness so much, in fact, that we ensure that everything we launder is rendered dewy soft thanks to an instrumental tool in our domestic arsenal – fabric softener.

Available in ‘liquid’ and ‘dryer sheet’ form, products of this nature – which rake in at least one billion U.S. dollars every year -- possess the extra added benefit of imparting a pleasing scent, removing wrinkles and tempering static cling. Killing all those birds with one stone? We sure do like our multi-functioning innovations.

As you can imagine, with all seemingly good things, there always seems to be at least one big bummer of a drawback and unfortunately, fabric softener is no different. We go through the trouble of removing the dirt from our duds in the washing machine, only to then end up saturating them in a fine layer of softening compounds…otherwise known as chemicals, emulsifiers and other curious ingredients that were cooked up in a laboratory. Here are five little facts that add up to one big reason why you might want to scratch fabric softener from your shopping list altogether.

1) If you are vegetarian, vegan, or the idea of dousing your clothing with animal-derived fat kicks your gag reflex into high gear, then you definitely want to steer clear of fabric softeners. One major ingredient found in major and minor brands of the laundry room staple is dihydrogenated tallow dimethlyl ammonium chloride – which, in layman’s terms is chemically-enhanced tallow or animal fat. This, incidentally, is the same stuff used to lubricate factory equipment and produce conventional soap and candles.

2) Another main ingredient in commercially-produced fabric softeners is fiber-lubricating silicone based fluids such as siloxane and polydimethylsiloxane. Silicon itself has natural origins – 27.7% of the earth’s crust is actually made of the element – and it has fast become a handy and integral part of our lives, particularly if you value non-stick cookware and tools, construction sealants and the larger-than-life gravity-defying physiques of many Hollywood personalities and porn stars.

However, once it is transformed into synthetic compounds known as ‘silicones’ and introduced into the human body, it compromises the immune system, often with toxic effects. Do you really want to expose your body’s largest organ (hello, head out of the gutter, please) – your skin – to a constant supply of the stuff? That’s what could happen when your fabric-softener-treated duds hug your body in all the wrong places.

3) Looking for another compelling reason why you should nix fabric softener altogether? Additional chemicals which can be found in both liquid and dryer sheet versions include various carcinogenic compounds like limonene, benzyl acetate and chloroform as well as ethanol and linalool (both of which cause nervous system ailments according to the EPA) and benzyl alcohol (which irritates the tissues of the upper respiratory tract).

4) The chemical cocktail of fabric softening ingredients found in these products is apparently so foul-smelling that manufacturers mask the off-gassing with copious amounts of pungent petrochemical-based fragrances. It is worth bearing in mind that the scent industry is notoriously under-regulated, with a shockingly small amount of the chemicals that they commonly use actually tested for safety. Furthermore, many of the potentially toxic effects of these compounds are amplified when they are heated during the drying cycle.

5) Aside from restoring the softness to fabrics, the main reason why consumers embrace their liquid or dryer sheet habit is simply to combat static cling. Interestingly, synthetic, chemical-based fabrics such as Lycra and polyester are typically prone to the dreaded cling monster, whereas natural vegetable and protein-based clothing made with such materials as flax, cotton, hemp, etc. are not. Materials of the latter variety actually become naturally softer when laundered and dried over an extensive period of time.

Is there a greener option? Of course there is, silly. Think back to what your grandparents may have done before Downy fabric softener became the apple of Procter & Gamble’s eye. They added 1 cup of white vinegar or -- even better -- ½ cup of naturally water-softening baking soda to the wash cycle and called it a day. Why not go the extra mile by adding equal parts of both ingredients into your load of laundry for a naturally cleansing and freshening effect with none of the chemical consequences?

Want a naturally softening mixture that you can pour into the fabric softener dispenser of your washing machine? No problem-o. Mix 1 cup of baking soda, 1 cup of white vinegar and at least 10 drops of an essential oil such as tea tree oil or lavender into 2 cups of water – preferably in a really large container because the stuff is going to bubble like a crazy grade school science experiment. Once the reaction tames down, pour the blend into a reusable container (a recycled laundry detergent bottle with a screw-on measuring cap would be ideal). When you’re ready to do your next load of laundry, just add ¼ cup and smile from ear to ear!

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/f1rstborn