When I was in college, I spent a summer studying in Norway. To save money, another American friend and I decided to go in on groceries and other essentials. When we selected what we thought was laundry detergent, we were surprised by the small size of the bottle and the thin consistency of the liquid contained therein. Weeks later, I was doing laundry one afternoon and poured a generous amount of the stuff into the washing machine.
A passing student remarked, “Wow, you must like your clothes very soft.” When I asked what he was talking about, he informed me that the oily liquid in the little bottle was not detergent, but fabric softener. I thought it was a joke until I checked a Norwegian-English dictionary and discovered that the word printed on the label literally translated to “soft clothes.” We never made that mistake again!
Fabric softener is one of those things you don’t think about much until you need it. Here’s an overview of the different types of fabric softener, as well as some other practical uses for this product besides adding it to your machine for soft, static cling free clothes.
What Is Fabric Softener Anyway?
Just the way some people use conditioner on their hair to make it soft and smooth, you can add fabric softener to your laundry to achieve a similar effect. Plus, it cuts down on static cling and gives your clothes a fresh scent.
But those aren’t the only reasons to add fabric softener to your laundry routine. This “clothing conditioner” protects fabric fibers so your apparel lasts longer. This laundry product also keeps lint from sticking to your clothes.
Fabric Softener: A Little Backstory
Fabric softener wasn’t a “thing” until the early 1900s. In those days, dyeing cotton fabric left it with a harsh texture. To smooth things out, the textile industry developed cotton softeners. The first products were made of seven parts water, one part soap, and one part tallow, corn, or olive oil. These rudimentary softeners still left something to be desired, so chemists improved upon them to come up with something better. These “upgraded” products eventually came to be marketed as commercial fabric softeners.
By the 1960s, several large manufacturers were marketing fabric softeners to the average consumer. During the next few decades, they enhanced the quality of their products and added a wider variety of fragrances. It’s no wonder then, that these softeners really took off.
Back then, though, they had one serious shortcoming. They couldn’t be mixed in with regular laundry detergent. This required people to have to add the softener after the final rinse cycle when all the soap had been flushed out. The extra hassle led to innovation, and the 1970s saw the advent of the much-easier-to-use dryer sheet.
A new trend in fabric softener manufacturing emerged in the 1990s as people became more eco-conscious. Manufacturers developed more highly-concentrated softeners so that people could use smaller amounts per load, making a bottle last longer. However, since the containers for these “ultra formulations” are usually also smaller, it’s debatable whether consumers actually get more use out of them.
What Are the Different Types of Fabric Softener?
Fabric softener comes in three forms:
Liquid softeners (think Downy) will usually give you the best results. But they tend to be more expensive than the other types. Liquid softeners are fairly easy to use; all you have to do is pour them into a dispenser in the machine before starting the wash cycle. The washer automatically releases the liquid during the final rinse cycle. But if your appliance doesn’t have a fabric softener dispenser, you’ll have to add it yourself after the last rinse.
Another advantage of liquid clothes softener is that it leaves your garments virtually wrinkle-free by the time they come out of the dryer. This is great for those of us who would rather not iron.
Liquid softener is especially effective at tackling tough odors. You’ll want to have some around when you’re laundering a dog bed or your child’s gym clothes.
There’s one drawback to liquid fabric softener. Because it’s derived from silicone oil, it can stain clothing and linens. One way to avoid stains is to make sure the softener is always diluted with water; it should not be poured directly onto clothing, sheets, or towels. Liquid softeners aren’t really a good idea for towels anyway. They can bind to the fibers, making your towels less absorbent.
Fabric Softener Sheets
Using dryer sheets (like the ubiquitous Bounce dryer sheets) considerably reduces the likelihood that you’ll end up with softener stains on your clothes. However, sheets tend to leave a residue on the inside of the dryer, including the lint trap. When those little holes become clogged, it may become increasingly difficult to remove lint. The fuzzy stuff will then begin to accumulate in the dryer, causing the machine to run less efficiently.
What a lot of people really like about dryer sheets is that they are less expensive than liquid softener. They’re also more portable — a big plus if you have to take your clothes to a laundromat.
They’re also great at removing static cling, not only in your laundry but all over your home.
But as with liquid detergent, we caution you about using dryer sheets with towels. Their oils can adhere to towel fibers, making them less “thirsty.”
And last but not least, let’s look at the pros and cons of dryer balls, an often-overlooked but highly practical way to soften your clothes. Dryer balls work their way between items, preventing them from sticking together so they can dry faster. Plus, they’re reusable. They usually hold out for about 1,000 loads of laundry (about 2-3 years).
One thing some dryer ball users don’t care for is that these little round things can make some noise as they tumble about. However, the amount of racket they make depends on what they’re made of. The plastic, rubber, and aluminum variety certainly can be noisier. But a lot of fabric softener balls are made of wool, which is soft and quiet. Another bonus in using wool balls s that, in addition to separating the clothes, they absorb their moisture, optimizing drying time even more than other materials do.
One slight drawback to using wool is that it tends to shed over time. But if you don’t mind a few extra wool fibers on your clothes, it’s really a minor inconvenience.
Dryer balls aren’t scented, so your clothes won’t be as fresh-smelling. But this is easily overcome by adding a few drops of essential oil to the balls. And since they are reusable, they’re a popular choice for those who want to save money and go “green.”
The Chemistry of Fabric Softener
Fabric softener adheres to clothes fibers by way of several chemicals. Cationic softeners carry a positive charge and neutralize the negative charge of other components so they can bind to the fibers. Anionic softeners have anti-static properties that prevent clothes from “sticking.” Silicone softener enhances the durability of fabric fibers.
What You’ll Find on the Market
Go to your local grocery store and you’ll find a number of fabric softener brands. Some of these products are designed for sensitive skin or are hypoallergenic, which is good news for anyone with allergies or sinus problems.
They come in a variety of scents reminiscent of spring, the ocean, and other refreshing aromas. For a scent booster, you can add scent enhancement crystals or beads.
Other Uses for Liquid Fabric Softener
Fabric softener doesn’t have to be limited to the laundry room. You can use it all over your home. Here are some “outside the box” (or “outside the bottle” if you’re using liquid) uses for fabric softener.
- DIY dryer sheet. Moisten a washcloth with one teaspoon of liquid softener and throw it in with your clean laundry when you load the dryer.
- Paintbrush conditioner. Tired of your paintbrushes stiffening up after you use them? After your next painting job, wash the bristles thoroughly. Then, fill a coffee can with water and a drop of liquid softener. Rinse the brush in the mixture and wipe the bristles dry.
- Hairspray residue remover. Hairspray can leave a sticky mess on countertops, mirrors, and other surfaces. To remove it, fill a spray bottle with a thoroughly-blended solution of two parts water and one part liquid softener. Spray the residue-covered area, then wipe it up with a dry cloth.
- All-purpose polisher. And while we’re on the topic of surfaces, you can use liquid softener as a polish and dust-repellent on glass and other hard surfaces. Mix one part softener to four parts water and keep it in a squirt bottle (like the ones used for liquid dish detergent). Pour a small amount onto a cloth, wipe the surface, then follow up with a little polishing using a dry cloth.
- Shock-proof your carpet. Ever walk across your carpet in bare feet, only to be greeted by the sizzle of a mild electric shock? To avoid this nuisance, combine one cup of softener with 2.5 quarts (2.5 liters) of water. Fill a spray bottle with the solution and lightly spritz – but don’t saturate – the carpet. (Soaking the carpet can damage the backing). It’s best to do this in the evening and let it dry overnight so the carpet doesn’t get walked on until all the moisture is gone.
- Dish de-greaser. If you have food residue stubbornly sticking to a casserole dish, fill the dish with water, squirt in a little liquid softener, and soak it for an hour, or until the baked-on food comes off without difficulty.
- Hard-water stain-remover. Trying to remove hard-water stains from glass surfaces can be a losing battle…but not when you have liquid fabric softener on hand. Just apply some (make sure it’s the full-strength variety) to the stains, let it sit for ten minutes, then wipe the surface clean.
- Wallpaper remover. I tried this. It really works. Stir one capful of softener into one quart of water. Generously sponge the solution over the wall. Let it soak for 20 minutes. Next, scrape or peel the paper from the wall. If the paper is water-resistant, scrub it down with a dry bristle brush first to remove the coating, then apply the solution.
Alternative Uses for Dryer Sheets
Dryer sheets, too, can be put to work for a variety of uses besides making clothes feel silky-smooth. You can use them to:
- Get rid of pet odor and other unpleasant smells that linger in closets and shoes. The sheets make good car-fresheners too.
- Deodorize a whole room. Just tuck a dryer sheet into the back of a box fan while it’s running.
- Remove the ring in your toilet bowl
- Polish chrome surfaces
- Clean up pet hair
- Remove soap residue from a shower door
DIY Fabric Softeners
If you’re concerned about using synthetics or just prefer to soften clothes the all-natural way, there’s good news. You can make your own softeners. And you probably already have many of the ingredients around your home. If you like DIY household products, roll up your sleeves and try the following:
Baking Soda and Epsom Salt Recipe
- Epsom salt (you can use coarse sea salt as a substitute)
- Essential oils
- Baking soda
Using 1/4 cup baking soda for every cup of Epsom salt or sea salt, combine these two ingredients in a sealable container. For every cup of salts, put in 10-15 drops of essential oil. Seal the container and shake well. Every time you load the washer, add two to three tablespoons of the mixture.
- Essential oils
Pour vinegar into a spray bottle. For every cup of vinegar, add 10-15 drops of your favorite essential oil. Those oils do a great job at masking the vinegar smell. In lieu of using dryer sheets, just lightly spray your clothes after tossing them in the dryer.
Vinegar and Baking Soda Recipe
- Warm water
- Baking Soda
- Essential Oils
In a bowl, combine one cup of warm water for every 1/2 cup of baking soda. Mix thoroughly. Then, for each cup of water you used, slowly add in 1/2 cup of white vinegar. Also for each cup of water, pour in 5-10 drops of essential oils. Pour 1/4 cup of the mixture into the washer for each clothes load.
Vegetable Glycerin Recipe
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 1/8 cup vegetable glycerin
- 10-20 drops essential oil (optional)
Combine all the ingredients into a container that allows for easy pouring. Shake well before using. Add 1/2 cup to the washer.
Can I make dryer balls last longer?
You can extend the life of your wool dryer balls by freshening them up every 8-12 months. Place each ball into a sock and tie the socks closed. Put them through the hot water cycle in the washer, then run them through the dryer until they’re completely dried. Giving them a little TLC helps recompact the wool fibers so the balls last longer.
What is fabric conditioner?
Fabric conditioner is another term for fabric softener, so you can use it in the same way you use the conventionally-named product. Take care not to pour liquid fabric conditioner directly onto the clothing, as it can stain.
What are fabric softener beads?
Fabric softener beads are designed primarily to enhance the fragrance of your freshly washed clothes. You can use them in tandem with another fabric softening product.
Can you use aluminum foil instead of a dryer sheet?
Since dryer balls are sometimes made of aluminum, some people wonder if they can just use foil instead of a softener ball or sheet. But foil won’t make your clothes softer. Plus, it will probably make noise as it tumbles in the machine.
Wise Bread: The 5 Best Fabric Softeners
Reader’s Digest: Fabulous Uses for Fabric Softeners
Made How: How Fabric Softener is Made
Bob Vila: The Best Fabric Softener for Laundry Day
Made How: Fabric Softener History
Cleanipedia: How to Use Fabric Conditioner: Your Essential guide
Wikipedia: Fabric Softener
Textile Today: Role of Softeners in Textile Wet-Processing