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Dayle Laing

The ‘coolest shade of green’ is the sustainable choice. Dayle Laing is a Professional Speaker and Author who uses her experience and training as an educator, a designer and a LEED Accredited Professional to empower Conscious Consumers to make practical yet beautiful choices for sustainable living, reducing their carbon footprint while enhancing their body, mind & spirit.

Toxicity of Fabric Softeners

Toxicity of Fabric SoftenerDo you use fabric softener or dryer sheets and want to avoid 'greenwashing'?

If so, have you considered what value they are providing to the textiles or to you? Laundering our personal and interior fabrics is a repetitive task that most of us perform without thinking what products we are using and why we are using them.

ecocare_2010_logoI recently presented a seminar at a healthcare medical conference, EcoCare 2010 in London, Ontario. In my topic “Greening of Healthcare Fabrics”, we discussed the toxicity of fabric softener use for hospital fabrics for patients, staff and hospital visitors, and what alternatives to consider instead.

Fabrics should not always require fabric softeners, and should be especially avoided for polyester or ‘microfibre’ fabrics because they interfere with the natural wicking abilities of the fibre which draws moisture away from the body and makes us comfortable.[1] Fabric softeners work as surfactants by reducing the surface tension and allow the spreading of their antibacterial and antifungal properties by leaving a residue on fabrics that does not easily wash off. [2] Fabric softeners are added either to the final rinse cycle of machine washing or in the form of softener-impregnated dryer sheets.

Most fabric softeners contain quaternary ammonium compounds. Called ‘quats’, they may cause skin irritation in the form of contact dermatitis due to their corrosive nature and they may cause bronchoconstriction in those prone to asthma.[3] Quats release formaldehyde and this is enhanced with heat from hot wash water, the dryer or ironing.[4] Formaldehyde is an indoor air pollutant that is carcinogenic (may cause cancer) to humans (Group 1 according to the Center for Disease Control).[5] It is also a neurotoxin (may damage nerves),[6] and formaldehyde is on Environment Canada’s List of Toxic Substances.[7]

chemicals_200Phthalates are added to make the scent in some fabric softeners last longer. They are typically used to enhance fragrances.[8] There are conflicting reports of phthalates linked to lower testosterone levels, testicular atrophy and estrogenic activity.[9]

When I mentioned in the EcoCare seminar that someone suggested using dryer sheets pinned to their trouser legs to keep black fliers away, and asked the audience, “what does that tell us?” One physician in the audience remarked, “black flies are smarter than we are!”

Try avoiding fabric softeners with toxic ingredients and see if static is really a problem. Also select the ‘less dry’ setting if the dryer has one, as static may appear as the fabric becomes drier. An alternative to consider is adding ¼ cup of vinegar to the final rinse cycle of washing. Another alternative, is to use Pur_Eco_Sheet. These chemical-free cloths are left in the dryer and periodically laundered themselves.

A neighbour and I were casually discussing toxic chemicals. His eyes glazed over and he said it was better not to know what chemicals are in products. I suggested that he try just one thing. Avoid using fabric softeners with toxic ingredients. It might save him money and limit some of the many chemicals to which he is routinely exposed. He called out to me as I walked the dogs a couple of weeks later. “Dayle, I quit using fabric softener and my clothes are fine!”

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[1] Jackman, D., et al., (2003). The Guide to Textiles for Interiors, Portage & Main Press, Winnipeg, Canada, 3rd Ed., 69. http://www.pandmpress.com/book_detail.cfm?biD=215

[2] Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, (2010). Guide to Less Toxic Products, http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/index.asp?fetch=household#fabr

[3] Arugonda, S.K., (1998). Poisons Information Monograph G022 (Group PIM), International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), Chemical Safety Information from Intergovernmental Organizations. http://www.inchem.org/documents/pims/chemical/pimg022.htm

[4] Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, (2010). Guide to Less Toxic Products,  http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/index.asp?fetch=household#fabr

[5] Nielsen, G.D., Wolkoff, P., (2010). Cancer effects of formaldehyde: a proposal for an indoor air guideline value, Arch. Toxicology 84, 423-446.

[6] Songur, A., et al, (2010). The Toxic Effects of Formaldehyde on the Nervous System, Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 203, 105-118.

[7] Canadian Environmental Protection Agency (2010). List of Toxic Substances, http://www.ec.gc.ca/toxiques-toxics/Default.asp?lang=En&n=98E80CC6-1&xml=223CB432-A28C-4C29-BCE9-D3F3EAF394A0

[8] Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, (2010). Guide to Less Toxic Products, http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/index.asp?fetch=personal#commo

[9] Center for Disease Control, (2009). Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, 258. http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/FourthReport.pdf

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  • Sharyn Kastelic

    Thanks Dayle,<br /><br />I'm with you, on stopping use of toxic products.<br /><br />Best,<br />Sharyn<br /><br /><br />Hi Sharyn,<br /><br />It is difficult to know what is toxic, and that is why I have done research to look at scientific journal studies and what government agencies are reporting, in order to be able to sort out the conflicting information we see in the popular press.<br /><br />Thank you for your comment,<br />Dayle

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  • Jennifer Nickel

    There are some chemical-free products out there... you can use "dryer balls" or reuseable dryer sheets to help reduce static and soften fabrics without the use of chemicals. <br /><br />http://www.nelliesallnatural.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=18<br /><br />http://www.onestepahead.com/catalog/product.jsp?productId=311762&cmSource=Search<br /><br />Jen<br /><br /><br />Hi Jennifer,<br /><br />Thanks for this information. I searched both links you kindly supplied.<br /><br />Without knowing exactly what is in these products, I cannot comment. I would pose the questions: what happens to the plastic in a dryer ball when it is heated, and if it contains pthalates as most plastics do to make them flexible. I would also be cautious about the fragrance sticks sold separately to be placed inside. See my reference in the article above to the Nova Scotia government's Guide to Less Toxic Products and what it lists about fragrances. It does recommend one particular dryer ball. My questions remain.<br /><br />As for the reusable fabric dryer sheet, the website said it was made of polyester and nylon. I cannot from a textile science point of view see how that would be effective, but as I said, I have not tried it nor found any analysis to be able to make a comment.<br /><br />Thanks for your addition to this discussion, as we need to make informed choices.<br /><br />Regards,<br />Dayle

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  • Ligia Bertrand

    Dayle thank you for sharing. I am so glad we decided not to use fabric softners of any kind for sometime now. Every bit helps!<br /><br />Ligia,<br /><br />I have not used any fabric softeners for several years and have not had a problem with static myself.<br /><br />Cheers,<br />Dayle

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  • Susan Sintichakis

    I discussed this topic with a small group of people, and these questions came up:<br /><br />1. Have there been any cases of serious illness or death relating to the use of fabric softener or dryer sheets to which you can provide sources?<br /><br />2. What prevents suppliers from pulling these products from the shelves?<br /><br />3. Can you provide sources for extensive scientific studies that specifically test the effects of the ingredients found in fabric softeners and dryer sheets?<br /><br />Thanks<br /><br />Susan,<br /><br />Thank you for the questions. Your first question about providing sources for information is important and that is why references are cited at the bottom of the article and correspond to the numbers throughout. <br /><br />The chemicals discussed are those that are contained in some fabric softeners and may not be in all products, as is very carefully mentioned in the article. Every chemical mentioned is described and backed up with either a scientifically published study and / or a government authorized report or listing of toxicity. <br /><br />The variety of products on the market and the differences in the way in which people use them would make a controlled study of the overall toxicity of fabric softeners very difficult to prove or disprove. <br /><br />There is much in the literature that points to toxicity of many different chemicals in our environment when either laboratory animals or humans are exposed to high doses. Far more difficult to 'prove' are the low doses we are exposed to over long periods of time. Usually governments wait for an overwhelming body of evidence and even then, work out a negotiated discontinuation of the chemical or product. For example, in August, the Canadian Environmental Protection Agency published their Final Revised Risk Management Strategy for PBDEs, including the main flame retardant Decabrominated diphenyl ether and put it on the List of Toxic Substances, but it is still not banned in Canada. They had been researching this since 2006.<br /><br />The purpose of the article is to raise consciousness that these products may not be always necessary, and in the case of polyester fabric, may even be undesirable.<br /><br />Regards,<br />Dayle

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  • Brenda Rishea

    I have never used fabric softeners or dryer sheets mostly due to my son's allergies, but also I never liked the feel of that slick coating they leave on fabrics, and the lack of absorbency that you mention in your article. If they leave behind a scent or a coating, it can't be good for us.<br /><br />I don't buy or wear synthetic clothing, so I have never had a problem with static cling. <br /><br />One more fact to mention is that liquid fabric softener goes down our drain and eventually into our water system. How good can this be for aquatic life?<br /><br />Dryer sheets? Forever in the landfill. As far as I understand, they don't bio-degrade.<br /><br />Thank you for making this a public issue! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who is against the use of fabric softeners. Well done, Dayle!<br /><br /><br />Brenda,<br /><br />Thanks for your comment. We should consider that whatever we do put down our drains affects aquatic life and eventually affects our drinking water too.<br /><br />Regards,<br />Dayle

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  • Melanie Martin

    Hi Dayle,<br /> <br />Interesting article. You and your followers might be interested in this website (if you haven't visited it already!). It's called the Story of Stuff www.storyofstuff.com. It encompasses short animated films and talks about what "stuff" does to the environment and to our health. One particular short looks at cosmetics and the use of "fragrance", which as we know is used in so many products like fabric softeners! Hope you get a chance to check it out!<br /><br />Melanie Martin C.I.D.<br />Founder / Designer<br />Distinctive Designs<br /><br /><br />Hi Melanie,<br /><br />Thanks for this delightful link which is very well done and has such an important message! <br /><br />As William McDonough and Michael Braungart said on page 27 of Cradle to Cradle: "Cradle-to-grave designs dominate modern manufacturing. Acoording to some accounts more than 90% of materials extracted to make durable goods in the United States become waste almost immediately. Sometimes the product itself scarcely lasts longer." "But where is 'away'? Of course, 'away' does not exist. 'Away' has gone away." A sobering thought...<br /><br />Regards,<br />Dayle

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  • Great article.<br /><br />Pthalates when released into the biosphere do not break down easily. Their activity affects males of all species. So their use goes far beyond problems with people. "Quats" are broad range kill antimicrobials that do not distinguish "good bacteria" from "bad bacteria". Their use can be traced to reduced agricultural yields in some area of Canada.<br /><br />Just thought you might like to share this.<br /><br /><br />Steve,<br /><br />Thank you for the comments. Pthalates, which are plasticizers used to make vinyl (PVC) fabric flexible, are not bound to the products and can be released into the environment according the the Center for Disease Control 4th National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, 2009. The report does say there is conflicting evidence of lowered testosterone levels, testicular atrophy and estrogenic activity, and that not all pthalates have been studied.<br /><br />Regards,<br />Dayle

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  • Great article! Thought this may be of interest - I use "Static Eliminator" as an alternative to disposable dryer sheets. A friend of mine has been using one for 6 years and it's still working. <br />http://www.staticeliminator.ca/page/page/363950.htm<br /><br />Michele

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  • Dayle

    Michele,<br /><br />Thanks for the tip on the Static Eliminator. I checked out your link and found that it is developed and made locally by Maddocks Holdings in Guelph, Ontario. I tried it and found that it is quite effective at reducing static. Thanks for the suggestion!<br /><br />Best regards,<br />Dayle

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  • Dayle

    One update on this story about fabric softener alternatives. The Static Eliminator sheet that Michele referred to, has been re-branded by the same company and is now called 'Pur Eco Sheet'. The web link is the same, and retailer can be found by visiting their website.

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