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Some fibres get stiff and crunchy when dried naturally

Prior to the early 20th century, people had no concept of or application for chemical fabric softeners. Laundry was washed by hand or with archaic machinery, and it was wrung and then hung to dry. Natural fibres may have become a bit scratchy and stiff when line-dried, and the best that could be done for them was to be softened up through further wringing, beating, or normal wear (after all, people also washed their clothes much more infrequently back then, so they would stay soft while on the wearer for longer amounts of time). With the advent of more modernized laundry techniques and products at the turn of the century, however, the earliest fabric softeners were introduced as water emulsions of soaps and oils that could be added to the washing to render the fabrics softer as they dried.

While softeners were rare only a few decades ago, nowadays it’s uncommon to find a household that doesn’t use these softeners as part of their regular laundry routine. All modern washing machines come equipped with special slots or compartments for the addition of these products, and competing brands on TV show us just how snuggly and soft their product can make a stack of towels (as soft as white baby kittens, apparently!). So, what exactly are these modern chemical softeners comprised of, and where do they fit into the laundry routine for a cloth diapering family?

What are Fabric Softeners Made Of?

Fabric softeners, whether liquid additives for the wash cycle, or dryer sheets for laundry that tumbles dry, work on the same basic principle as the original stuff from the early 1900s. They rely on oils and chemicals to coat the surface of the fabric and remain on it to make it feel lubricated, smoother, and softer. These chemicals and additives also have the inherent ability to conduct electricity, which helps to prevent the buildup of static electricity in the fabric. Sure, these chemicals make our clothes feel soft, but what exactly is included in the average fabric softener?

There are often compounds to adjust for pH (to facilitate optimal absorption into the fabric), fragrances, electrolytes, emulsion stabilizers, polymers, artificial colors, anti-foaming agents, and more. All in all, this chalks up to an awful lot of chemicals that are getting further and further absorbed into your textiles every time they go through the wash–chemicals which then sit on your skin after that. For this reason alone, using fabric softeners (liquid) and dryer sheets is not recommended for use with baby laundry, diapers in particular. These chemicals, fragrances, dyes, and other additives are not healthy for babies’ sensitive skin, especially in their constantly covered diaper region. However, even with chemical concerns laid aside, there is another critical reason why fabric softeners should not be used at all with the laundering of your cloth diapers.

Fabric Softeners Hurt the Absorbency of Fabric

Since the primary function of a fabric softener is to coat and cling to a fabric without washing away, they provide a barrier layer of chemicals and oily residue on the surface of the textiles they come in contact with. Now, for your average t-shirt or pair of jeans, this is not going to make any difference to you at all. However, over time, you will start to notice a true decline in the performance of household items meant to absorb liquid, such as towels, kitchen cloths, microfibre cleaning rags, and–of course–cloth diapers. Fabric softeners will leave a layer of buildup over all of these items, rendering their absorbent properties useless. These fabrics will instead start to repel liquid (you will see them smear liquid or will watch water bead off of them rather than getting mopped up into their fibres). Yes, this buildup can often be removed through multiple hot, soapy washes and rinses and by stopping the use of fabric softeners and dryer sheets with them. However, it is better, if possible, to practice prevention than to try and treat problems with buildup and repeling later on.

The Bottom Line for Cloth Diapering Families

Overall, you really shouldn’t be using fabric softeners or dryer sheets on your cloth diapers, ever. Likewise, even using them on your baby laundry or other household laundry is not a good idea either, not only because of the health concerns associated with these products, but also because of the principle of transference; dryer sheets, in particular, are known to coat your entire dryer itself with oily residue which can then be transferred over to your cloth diapers, even if you only use dryer sheets on your own personal stash of jeans.  So, it really is best, as a cloth diapering family, to phase these products out of your home altogether.  However, does the thought of scratchy towels or static-ridden laundry piles make your skin crawl? Don’t worry, because there are a couple natural solutions to combating these laundry woes as well.

Vinegar can be added to the final rinse of your wash cycle (or right into your regular “Fabric Softener” compartment) and used as a natural fabric softener and static reducer (the hydrogen ions in vinegar help this along). Be cautious, however, when using vinegar on diaper covers containing elastic or PUL as it

An example of wool dryer balls from The Willow Store

can cause harsh wear & tear on them with constant use (and may void your warranty on some brands; please check manufacturer’s instructions before trying this).

Another simple way to “beat” your laundry woes is by literally beating your laundry with the use of dryer balls. Plastic dryer balls are available for purchase in most large chain stores in their laundry aisle, and they work by literally pummeling textiles to soften them, increase fluffiness, and reduce static as the load tumbles dry. In a pinch, some people even throw tennis balls or (clean) running shoes in with a load of laundry to replicate this effect.

Not crazy about the idea of plastics (which sometimes release fumes) heating up in your dryer? Then switch to an all-natural solution and use 100% wool dryer balls. These can be purchased online from shops like Buddha Bunz, The Willow Store, or from a variety of crafty Etsy vendors. Alternately, you can make your own wool dryer balls by sourcing out an online tutorial such as this one from goodmama diapers.  Superior even to plastic, these wool dryer balls have no additives, can hold 30% of their own weight in water and naturally have anti-microbial properties as well.  In the long run, the use of dryer balls (of any kind) will also save you time and money as they are known to reduce drying time and, once purchased or made, they cost no money to continue to use.

Before long, by making these few simple switches to your everyday routines, you’ll likely find that, in the end, your family doesn’t miss the fabric softeners at all. 

Acknowledgements:
Fabric SoftenerWikipedia article

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  2. An Older Version says:

    >I'm one if those oddball households who never uses fabric softener or dryer sheets. I haven't in over 10 years. Only the line dried stuff is scratchy though. I find a lot of crunchy scratchiness comes from not rinsing all the detergent out. Aside from hard water.

  3. David says:

    >Great article! Thanks!

    sigh…why do the evil multinational corporations like Unilever, Johnson and Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, and so on insist on continuing to destroy the world with toxic basura.

    If they were transparent about their practices, people would make the right choice.

    oh Capitalism…I so look forward to humanity moving beyond your power/greed saturated philosophy.

    For today though, goodbye Fabric Softener, hello Wool Dryer Balls and Vinegar!

  4. Jane says:

    Came up on the article searching for remedies to conditioner and dryer-sheet saturated clothing. Made a mistake and purchased used pants that could stink up a football field, not to mention the chemical effects on skin and the body in general.

    I’ve never used conditioners or dryer sheets and never will. The neighbor regularly makes the air unbreathable with her frequent washing emissions – even in winter. There should be a law – and I ain’t that pure.

    I guess I doubt that the chemicals, once so thoroughly impregnated, can ever be totally removed.

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