Here’s why fabric softener is bad news for you and your washing machine

Someone measuring out fabric softener in front of a washing machine
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When it comes to laundry day, most of us stick to a routine. We load up the best washing machines, chuck in our chosen detergent and then finish it off with some fabric softener. Fabric softener is something many of us consider to be essential when it comes to washing clothes. After all, It reduces static as well as wrinkles, and leaves a pleasant fragrance behind. 

But, did you know that fabric softener might be doing more harm than good to both you and your washing machine? Here, we will break down exactly what fabric softener is contributing to your wash and why you’re better off taking it out of the equation. Here’s why fabric softener is bad news for your laundry room. Just don't make any of these 7 laundry detergent mistakes that could cost you.

1. Fabric softener can cause allergies 

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First of all, if you’ve got sensitive skin, fabric softener can trigger an allergic reaction. This is because of the heavy fragrance and chemicals it often carries. It can lead to itchy or inflamed skin on contact and in serious circumstances, can cause respiratory issues as well. Fabric softeners often contain Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (quats), which studies have found can trigger asthma as well as skin irritations. 

Board-Certified Dermatologist Elizabeth Mullans M.D., at Uptown Dermatology says ‘Fabric softeners can lead to flare-ups for those who suffer from sensitive skin and eczema due to chemicals and heavy fragrances, leading to allergies and irritation of the skin. So, while fabric softeners may upgrade one's laundry routine, I recommend that sensitive skin sufferers avoid using them.’

If you suspect you’re having a reaction to fabric softener, stop using it immediately and seek medical assistance if necessary. Clothes which have been washed with the fabric softener will need to be laundered to remove the residue before you can wear them again. 

2. Bad news for your clothes 

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Fabric softener might make your clothes feel sleek and silky, but the situation is not as good as it seems. Fabric softener works by coating your clothes in a waxy residue — this is actually what makes it feel soft. However, this coating impairs the item’s ability to absorb, which can be quite detrimental in some cases. For instance, towels will no longer absorb water as effectively. This also means any athletic clothes won’t be able to pick up your sweat as you work out. 

If you use fabric softener in every wash cycle, it will also likely build up on your clothes. This effectively stops your clothes from absorbing water or detergent as thoroughly, resulting in ineffective wash cycles. This may be why you sometimes find odors are trapped in your clothes, which you just can’t remove.

This layer of fabric softener will take time and persistence to remove. Soaking the clothes followed by washing on the highest temperature allowed is a good start.  

3. Bad news for your washing machine  

Someone pouring fabric softener into the dispenser drawer of a washing machine

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Fabric softener isn’t exactly beneficial for your washing machine either. It’s a thick substance, even when diluted, and it can easily leave behind a slimy residue which gums up your detergent drawer and washer. If left untreated, it can even block the pipes and drains, causing the washer to stop functioning. It won't dissolve in low temperature washes, so you would have to take the time to learn how to clean a washing machine to keep on top of this. 

Elizabeth Mullans continues: ‘too much fabric softener can lead to a build up in the washer machine and an overgrowth can actually lead to the growth of mold. You want to avoid a build up of fabric softener as that can stick to clothes and lead to further allergic reactions and irritation if you suffer from sensitive skin.’

So, not only can excess fabric softener be detrimental to your machine, if a build-up occurs it can actually worsen the effects of an allergic reaction. Any growth of mold in your washing machine could also transfer to your clothes during the wash cycle, so it’s imperative that you keep an eye on how the fabric softener is affecting your machine — better yet, just stop using it. 

 4. Fabric softener doesn’t clean 

A running washing machine with suds in the load

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Contrary to popular belief, fabric softener does not help with the cleaning process. It is applied during the rinse cycle and acts simply as a conditioner, coating your clothes in a substance to soften the feel and add more fragrance. If you ran a wash cycle with just fabric softener, the clothes would not be clean, while if you ran a cycle with just detergent, the cleaning power wouldn’t be affected.

That means you could indeed remove fabric softener from your routine with little overall difference. While the use of fabric softeners was necessary during the 1900s, clothes are much softer these days and don’t require the added conditioning so much. The level of fragrance will be reduced, but your clothes would ironically be just as clean in its absence. 

5. Environmental impact 

Fabric softener being poured into the cap in front of towels

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Most fabric softeners contain a petroleum base and are not biodegradable — that means the substance won’t break down once it drains away. It will cause substantial damage to the environment over time. Quats are also known to be toxic to marine life, which is a key ingredient in most fabric softeners. Then there’s the packaging to think about. As fabric softener is technically unnecessary, that’s a lot of excess plastic for no reason.   

What can I use instead of fabric softener?  

Thankfully there are DIY alternatives you can use if you just can’t give up the fabric softener ghost. 

Either ½ cup baking soda or ¼ cup distilled white vinegar can be added to the final rinse cycle to help soften the load — although remember not to use bleach if you add vinegar. Mixing bleach and distilled white vinegar creates a lethal chlorine gas. If the smell of the vinegar is too strong for you to bear, you can always combine a few drops of essential oils with it prior to dispensing. We've also covered how to make your own laundry detergent, if you want to take matters into your own hands. 

Whatever you do, it is best to stop using fabric softener. It doesn’t help your clothes, the washing machine, or ultimately the environment. Plus, ditching this product will save money in the long run. Is that overpowering fragrance really worth the cost? 

For more washing tips, tricks, and how-tos, check out our guides on best clothes dryers, 7 signs that you need a new washing machine and what do laundry symbols mean?  Also, don't make this one mistake when doing your laundry

Katie Mortram
Homes Editor

Katie looks after everything homes-related, from kitchen appliances to gardening tools. She also covers smart home products too, so is the best point of contact for any household advice! She has tested and reviewed appliances for over 6 years, so she knows what to look for when finding the best. Her favorite thing to test has to be air purifiers, as the information provided and the difference between performances is extensive.