Facts About Fabric Softeners

What are fabric softeners?

Detergents can wash fibers so thoroughly that hey leave clothes feeling scratchy; dryers cause clothes to cling to each other because of buildup of static charge. (This is especially true with synthetic fabrics).

Fabric softeners are waxy materials that are related to soap. They work by coating your laundry with waxy lubricants and humectant chemicals. The lubricants allow fibers slide past each other, which reduces wrinkling. They also separate a napped fabric’s fibers and stand them on end, which makes a towel, for instance, feel fluffy. The humectants assist the fabric retain moisture, dissipating the static charges that

may otherwise cause fabrics to cling and sparks to fly when you pull them apart. Many people use a fabric softener to cut static cling caused by the dryer’s tumbling. The friction-reducing chemicals in softeners prevent a static charge from accumulating.

There are three basic types of fabric softeners. Rinse liquids are added to the wash during the rinse cycle; many washing machines automatically add them from a dispenser atop the agitator. Drying sheets are infused with softener. When you put a sheet into the dryer along with the laundry, contact and heat release the softener. Detergents with fabric softeners are added at the start of the wash cycle.

For best results, add rinse liquids at the beginning of the final rinse (after a wash with a regular laundry detergent that does not contain softener). Place dryer sheets on top of the wet laundry to help prevent spotting.

The most effective softeners are the rinse liquids, but the

least effective rinse liquids perform much more poorly than the best. Major brands and store brands of dryer sheets soften to roughly the same degree; about as effectively as average-performing rinse liquids. Detergents that contain softeners are mediocre at softening as well as cleaning.


The waxy coating left by fabric softeners may eventually make clothes look dingy. If whiter whites and brighter brights are important to you, use a high-performing laundry detergent with high brightening ability before you add a fabric softener.


Makers of laundry detergents include fragrances partly because some consumers like them and partly to hide the smell of other chemical ingredients. No matter how potent it seems in the package, the fragrance is muted considerably by the time the wash is done. If you like a fabric softener for its other qualities but dislike the smell, let your clothes air out for a while before you put them away. Some people can’t tolerate any fragrance, whether for aesthetic or medical reasons. Fabric softeners and laundry detergents that are perfume-free are available.


The cost per use of rinse liquids tends to be higher than that of dryer sheets. Detergents that contain fabric softeners are not money-saving products. You can save money by buying whatever is on sale or using cents-off coupons.


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