Clotheslines laden with wash drying in the sun may seem like an iconic thing of the past. When automated clothes dryers hit the market, doing laundry quickly became an indoor activity and a very convenient one at that. But little did we think that this welcome change would add to the chemical load on the clothes already carrying the residues of detergents. Truth be told, we would all be better off if we went back to the “good old days.”
Machine washing and drying made fabrics rough, so softeners became necessary. Machine-dried clothes have a tendency to stick to each other. Again a chemical solution had to be invented to prevent skirts from wrapping around the legs and pants sticking to the socks. That’s where anti-static dryer sheets came in.
Thanks to these products, all the clothes we wear, even the underwear worn right next to our skin, are full of chemicals. Dirt and grime get replaced by even more potentially harmful chemicals every time they go into the wash. All the undesirable substances they carry inevitably rub onto our skin.
When dryer sheets were first introduced, liquid fabric softeners were already in use. They contained ammonium compounds, particularly distearyl dimethyl ammonium chloride which was later discontinued in favor of other chemicals.
Reducing static electricity buildup in clothes was the main objective of dryer sheets, but they were found to be better at distributing a thin layer of fabric softeners all over the clothes as well. People found it more convenient to just add the sheets to the laundry than wait for the right moment to add the liquid softener.
Fragrances were then added to give you a more pleasurable experience. Today we have products that do away with the fragrances, but the other two functions still require a plethora of chemicals.
Dryer sheets mainly do three things:
1. They counteract the static electricity on machine-dried clothes
When clothes made up of different materials are washed and dried together, the constant rubbing against one another knocks off some electrons. This results in some clothes ending up positively charged and the others carrying a negative charge. The opposite charges naturally attract, and that causes the clothes to stick together.
Dryer sheets are impregnated with cationic chemicals that carry a positive charge. They neutralize the negatively charged particles on the clothes and thus remove the basic cause of static buildup.
2. Dryer sheets make the clothes come out soft to touch and wrinkle free
The action of fabric softeners is similar to that of cationic antistatic chemicals. These chemicals carry a charge that causes the fabric fibers to stand up, resulting in a soft, velvety feel rather than the crisp feel of cotton clothes dried in the sun. When cationic chemicals are used in softeners, they can do a double function, fluffing up the fabric as well as making it non-static.
Dryer sheet chemicals deposited on the surface of clothes help prevent wrinkles and piling too. That makes it quite unnecessary to iron the clothes in most cases. In case you do want to iron them, you will feel the iron gliding across the fabric, thanks to the waxy coating.
3. Dryer sheets impart a pleasant smell to the clothes
Who doesn’t want their laundry to smell fresh and clean? Although clean fabric does not naturally have any smell, we have come to associate certain smells with cleanliness. That’s why when the odor neutralizing Febreze was first introduced in its odorless form, it did not become popular. The company had to add fragrances to it give people a sense of satisfaction.
You have a wide choice when it comes to the fragrance variations in dryer sheets. Most of them are chemical substitutes of natural fragrances because they need to be long-lasting. You can find products offering natural ingredients for smell, but you need to take their word for it in the absence of mandatory labeling.
Why you should stay away from dryer sheets:
It is not uncommon for detergents and fabric softeners to cause skin irritation or allergic dermatitis. People often find their skin problems disappearing when they change brands, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the new brand is any better. It may take repeated exposures before the body becomes sensitized.
Allergic dermatitis is just one of their many hazards of dryer sheets.
Many of the toxic substances in these sheets are released into the indoor air from our laundered bed linen and towels. They can cause respiratory allergies and asthma.
Some of the chemicals are carcinogens; they can accumulate in tissues over time and trigger malignancies.
Nervous system disorders could be another fallout of these chemicals. In mild cases they may appear as irritability, confusion, loss of coordination and memory loss.
Here’s a short list of the toxic substances commonly found in dryer sheets:
Benzyl acetate – Mainly used for its pleasant fragrance, this organic compound is combustible below the boiling point of water. Exposure to it may cause dizziness, drowsiness and confusion, red eyes and dry skin. Inhalation of its vapors is known to cause a burning sensation in the airways and cause a sore throat and labored breathing. People handling this chemical are advised to use protective clothing, gloves, and goggles and to wash contaminated clothes in soap and water. Paradoxically, this chemical continues to be used in laundry.
Dichlorobenzene – This industrial chemical commonly used in pesticides is electrophilic, which means it has a great attraction for electrons. This property makes it useful as an anti-static agent in fabric conditioners. However, it is a toxic chemical known to irritate skin, eyes, and throat on exposure. Long-term exposure adversely affects the central nervous system, liver, and the kidneys. Experimentally proven to cause liver and kidney tumors in mice, EPA considers it a possible human carcinogen.
Ethyl acetate – This chemical has a softening effect on clothes. Although considered relatively safe, concentrations above 400ppm can irritate nasal passages, throat, and eyes. It can cause skin eruptions in some people.
Camphor – Since it is derived from pine oil, it is generally considered safe for humans although its insect repellant property is well known. It has a history of being used in moth balls, skin medications and as a food flavoring agent, but FDA has discouraged its use since 1980. Even small doses of camphor are known to increase heart rate and suppress breathing and appetite.
Larger doses may affect the central nervous system, producing lethargy, disorientation, irritability, stomach cramps, and vomiting. It has the potential to cause convulsions and seizures too.
Chloroform – We know this chemical as an anesthetic that has gone out of use due to its toxicity and fatal outcomes. However, it still has many industrial uses. Anti-static products like dryer sheets use it for its capacity for hydrogen bonding. Chloroform gets absorbed rapidly through mouth, skin, and airways and cause central nervous system and respiratory depression, skin sores, eye irritation etc.
Alpha pinene, alpha terpineol, linalool, limonene are some of the other additives in dryer sheets. These aromatic compounds occur naturally in many essential oils, but their synthetic versions are more commonly used. Constant exposure can cause nervous system disorders, including depression.
7 Safer Alternatives To Dryer Sheets:
1. Add baking soda to the wash cycle
You know baking soda as a natural deodorizer. You might be using it in the refrigerator or the kitchen shelves to remove stale smells. Try adding 3 Tbsp baking soda into the washing machine during the wash cycle to soften the clothes. It actually removes detergent residues too.
2. Add white vinegar to the rinse cycle
White vinegar can remove detergent residues and take the stiffness out of dried clothes. It also reduces static to some extent. Vinegar is safe to use even for baby clothes. In fact, it was traditionally used for rinsing cloth nappies to prevent nappy rashes. Just add ¼ cup vinegar in the rinse cycle. It can even remove mildew.
3. Lower the temperature setting
Drying your clothes at a lower temperature setting can considerably reduce static build up, although it takes longer to get them dry. Another trick is to take the laundry out while it is still slightly damp and then allow it to air dry. Shake them out well before hanging up to get rid of wrinkles.
4. Smoothen out the clothes with a wire hanger
The metal attracts the electric charge on the clothes and helps discharge it. Run the hanger from top to bottom and slide it through the inside of the garment. You may need to straighten out the wire hanger to fit inside narrow sleeves and legs.
5. Use reusable dryer cloths
You can purchase chemical free dryer cloths that are reusable. They come with or without natural fragrances. You can make your own by wringing out a washcloth in vinegar. Add a drop or two of your favorite essential oil, if you want your clothes to smell good.
6. Use dryer balls
They are chemical free and reusable. They help keep the clothes soft and static-free. Dryer balls mainly work in two ways.
When you put in several highly absorbent dryer balls with the wash load, they quickly absorb moisture from the clothes. This helps dry the clothes faster. At the same time, the balls continue to release some amount of moisture, keeping the air inside the dryer slightly humid. As you know very well, humidity reduces static.
As the dryer balls move around with the clothes in the dryer, they also minimize the contact between the fabrics. This reduces the buildup of electrical charges that make clothes cling to one another.
The best dryer balls are the ones you make yourself. You can fashion handfuls of wool roving to tennis-ball sized balls tied with poor wool yarn. Stuff them into cheap nylon netting or old pantyhose and run them through hot wash cycle once or twice. You can remove the netting and use these matted balls in the dryer.
7. Shift to natural fibers
Synthetic fibers make easy-care materials. However, a healthier alternative would be sticking with natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool according to the prevailing weather. They are good for your skin, and also eliminate the need for harmful chemical additives.
Bonus Idea: Make Your Own Natural, Non-Toxic & Reusable Dryer Sheets