The desire for clean, fresh-smelling laundry is one most of us share. It’s a fabulous feeling to climb into freshly laundered sheets, to change into clean clothes after a shower. Doing laundry is one of those day-to-day, seemingly endless tasks. But what do our laundry practices mean for our health and for the environment?
Until quite recently, the environmental and health impacts of dryer sheets, fabric softeners, and detergents have gone largely under the radar. Because such products are in common use, it is easy to assume that they are safe. Fortunately, research has been done to better inform us on what is in the laundry products we buy, and they can affect our health and the environment.
Let’s start with fabric softeners. Liquid fabric softeners are quite popular for leaving clothes “fresh” smelling and soft. But not is all fabulous with fabric softeners: not only do they contain toxic chemicals, to be discussed below, “fabric becomes more flammable after treated with fabric softener.”1 Long-term use of fabric softeners can cause damage to clothes, especially athletic wear, as the materials are designed for hard use and adding these chemicals negatively impacts the integrity of the fabric.
Dryer sheets were first invented in the late 1960s before going into mainstream production in 1975.2 Since then, they have become a staple in most American households. While the original prototype used a cotton sheet2, modern dryer sheets use polyester or other synthetic fibers, alongside a plethora of chemicals and fragrances to soften clothes, reduce static, and give those ‘fresh’ scents.3, 4 Along with the toxicity of the chemicals used, dryer sheets are single-use products, meaning that waste after use is damaging to ecosystems. Not only do they not biodegrade, they continue to release chemicals into the environment long after we are finished with them.
A detailed 2012 study found that there are many endocrine disruptors and asthma-associated chemicals in products such as laundry sheets, detergent, and fabric softener.5, 6 Endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) are chemicals that can alter hormonal signaling and can have potentially significant effects on metabolism, can damage developing reproductive and nervous systems (e.g. cause fertility and neurological concerns), and can cause cancer.5, 6 An example of chemicals found in dryer sheets included high levels of diethanolamine (DEA), a chemical associated with asthma.5, 6 Within the study, “sunscreens and fragranced products — including air fresheners, dryer sheets, and perfume — had the largest number of target chemicals and some of the highest concentrations.”5, 6 This means that some of our highest exposure to unsafe chemicals in our day-to-day lives can be in the laundry room.
Not only are we exposing ourselves to these chemicals, but “given their widespread use, fragranced laundry products represent a potentially significant source of emissions.”7 A 2013 study examining the chemicals emitted from residential dryer vents found a variety of concerning chemicals releasing into the air. Two of the compounds identified are classified as carcinogenic with no safe exposure level. While these chemicals are pouring out into the environment from our homes whilst we are completely unaware, we also run the risk of being directly exposed to such toxins if our dryer vents aren’t properly secured or if we happen to be near where those vents open to the outdoors.
But how did this happen? Well, much of this is because the companies that manufacture these products are not required to fully disclose product ingredients on the label.4, 5 Safety standards for our products are based on what goes on the label. Gaps in labeling are not only problematic for regulators who base their safety studies on product labels, but they also make it more difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases.5 This is hugely problematic, as the safety ratings for products cannot be accurate if products do not have fully transparent labels. Additionally, this lack of transparency can cause problems for people with fragrance sensitivities and can expose individuals using the products to endocrine-disrupting compounds and other dangerous chemicals. Lastly, some of the chemicals found in the study have no minimum safety level, as they are severely carcinogenic. The best thing that we can do to mitigate exposure to such chemicals is by using alternatives.
While liquid fabric softeners can be ditched entirely, an excellent alternative to dryer sheets, both sustainable and ethical, is wool dryer balls. They work fabulously for softening clothes and reducing static cling without any of the toxic chemicals.8 Some have found that the use of wool dryer balls can reduce drying times too! Depending on the make and model of your dryer, wool balls could reduce drying time by up to 50%.9, 10 Those concerned about animal welfare will be happy to know that sheering the wool off sheep is vital to their health and well-being. It is a far more sustainable and healthy option over single-use synthetic dryer sheets.
Soap nuts are an excellent alternative to scented, liquid laundry detergents. Effective at both high and low water temperatures, they do not have the same toxic chemicals that other products do. They are a more renewable resource, last up to at least 5 washes, and eliminate the potential for exposure to VOC’s because of their natural origin. They can often be found in zero-waste shops or online for our convenience!
Join me in this small way to support your health, my health, our neighbor’s health, and the health of the planet! Ditch the dryer sheets for wool balls. Ditch laundry detergent for soap nuts. And save money in the process!
- Ruznan, W., et al (2012) “The Effect of Household Fabric Softener on Flame Resistance of Cellulosic Fabrics.” 2012 IEEE Symposium on Humanities, Science and Engineering Research. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261152977_The_effect_of_household_fabric_softener_on_flame_resistance_of_cellulosic_fabrics. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Wang, L. (2008) “What’s that Stuff? Dryer Sheets.” Chemical and Engineering News, vol. 86, no. 15. Available from: https://cen.acs.org/articles/86/i15/Dryer-Sheets.html. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Leverette, M. (2021) “What Dryer Sheets Do to Your Clothes and Dryer.” The Spruce. Available from: https://www.thespruce.com/are-dryer-sheets-bad-for-my-dryer-2145844. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Cafasso, J. (2019) “Are Dryer Sheets Safe to Use?” Healthline. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/dryer-sheets-toxicity. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Dodson, R., et al (2012) “Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-Associated Chemicals in Consumer Products.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 120, no. 7. Available from: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1104052?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%20%200pubmed. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Dodson, R., et al (2012) “Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-Associated Chemicals in Consumer Products: Study Fact Sheet.” Silent Spring Institute. Available from: https://silentspring.org/sites/default/files/product-test-factsheet.pdf. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Steinemann, A., et al (2013) “Chemical Emissions from Residential Dryer Vents During Use of Fragranced Laundry Products.” Air Quality Atmosphere & Health, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 1-6. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225625255_Chemical_emissions_from_residential_dryer_vents_during_use_of_fragranced_laundry_products. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Krebs-Moberg, J. (2019) “Ditch the Dryer Sheets.” Ashville GreenWorks. Available from: https://www.ashevillegreenworks.org/mind-your-plastic-may/ditch-the-dryer-sheets. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Hubbert, J. (2020) “Will Wool Dryer Balls Help My Clothes Dry Faster?” Environment911. Available from: https://www.environment911.org/Will-Wool-Dryer-Balls-Help-My-Clothes-Dry-Faster?fbclid=IwAR0tnnWTo-ahEsVuDvzFXCSlVEjcLYaLc5iNIYgomhAeA1Y729NQsKVTbto. [Accessed 16 February 2022]
- “Wool Dryer Balls Shrink Drying Time.” David Suzuki Foundation. Available from: https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/wool-dryer-balls-shrink-drying-time/. [Accessed 16 February 2022].
- Kessler, R. (2011) “Dryer Vents: An Overlooked Source of Pollution?” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 119, no. 11, pp. A474-A475. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3226517/. [Accessed 01 February 2022].
- Colborn, T., vom Saal, F., and Soto, A. (1993) “Developmental Effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in Wildlife and Humans.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 101, no. 5, pp. 378-384. Available from: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/pdf/10.1289/ehp.93101378. [Accessed 02 February 2022].
- Aljaff, P., Manhal, E., Rasheed, B. (2013) “Identification of Synthetic Perfume by Infrared and Optical Properties.” Pure and Applied Chemical Sciences, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 19-30. Available from: http://m-hikari.com/pacs/pacs2013/1-4-2013/rasheedPACS1-4-2013.pdf. [Accessed 08 February 2022].