While store-bought dryer sheets may give your clothes a softer feel and a scented aura you love, hiding inside those fragrant folds are some questionable ingredients—some of which raise red flags from a health and efficacy standpoint. Not only have their odors been shown to induce headaches and respiratory difficulties, they can actually make your clothes harder to dry.
In an interview with Apartment Therapy, Samara Geller, a senior healthy living science analyst at the Environmental Working Group, noted dryer sheets contain quaternary ammonium compounds (QACS), which have been shown to cause or worsen asthma and skin irritations. Studies have also shown that dryer vents emit more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which have been classified as hazardous air pollutants by the Environmental Protection Agency.
What’s more? Dryer sheets don’t actually make your clothes and towels softer. What they do is release a slick coating of melted, stearic (fatty) acid that temporarily prevents static and leaves behind a surface coating of smoothness (until it wears off). And where else does that coating collect most? Inside your dryer, of course. Over time, the residue builds up, creating a sticky film that clogs the screen of the lint filter. Due to the lack of air flow in the filter, more lint will be deposited on your clothes.
If that’s not enough, dryer sheets also make towels less absorbent and less fire-resistant. So what can you use instead? Here are a few alternatives.
Wool dryer balls
Instead of imitating softness, wool dryer balls do the work to create actual softness. As the dryer balls bounce they separate your clothing, creating more even heat flow and decreasing drying time. Their repeated contact with the fabric gently beats out lumps and soften the fibers, too. A set of three to six will last a year or two. (You may want to steer clear of dryer balls with spikes, as those can cause runs, snags and pilling.)
They won’t soften clothes, but tossing a few tin foil balls in the dryer can work wonders to reduce static cling. How? All clothes exchange electrons when they roll around the dryer, and aluminum balls keep the negatively charged clothes away from positively charged ones (that really want to cling together). For each ball: Use three to four square feet of aluminum foil, tightly compress it into a two to three inch round shape. Neatly tuck in any errant sharp pieces.
Ah, good ol’ vinegar. Is there anything you can’t do? Not only does white distilled vinegar brighten, whiten, and reduce odor in clothes, it can also soften them! Add 1/4 of white vinegar to the fabric softener dispenser or the final rinse cycle. If you’re worried about a strong scent, mix the vinegar with a few drops of essential oil, such as lavender.
Where there’s a vinegar hack, baking soda can’t be far behind. Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda in with your detergent and apply as usual to your laundry cycle. Besides acting as a deodorizer, the baking soda works as a natural suspension agent, keeping detergent and minerals from redepositing on the clothes, which can make them feel stiff. To the twin beacons of natural household cleaning, we bow down.
DIY dryer sheets
Did you know you could make your own fabric softening sheets? Cut any old scraps of cloth (rags, old t-shirts) into squares. Place the squares in a sealed jar with vinegar—enough to make them damp, but not soaked. Add essential oils such as lemon, lavender, orange, grapefruit, or bergamot if desired. Wring one out when you’re ready to dry, toss it in with the wet clothes and presto: Cheaply softened clothes, minus the strong chemical fragrances.
Ready to switch but don’t want to waste the dryer sheets you already bought? Check out these novel alternative ways to use them.