In the 1960s, Conrad Gaiser saw his wife's frustration with having to return to their apartment complex's laundry room to add fabric softener to the washer's rinse cycle. Having worked in the soap and detergent industry for years, he decided to douse a piece of cotton flannel with fabric softener, so she could add it to a load of wet laundry in the dryer. By 1969, he had a patent and sold the idea to Procter & Gamble, and dryer sheets were launched nationally in 1975.
Since that time, consumers have embraced dryer sheets as a way to reduce lint, wrinkles, and static cling while drying clothes. Billions of convenient-to-use dryer sheets have been sold by every leading laundry products company. But in recent years, some have expressed concern about the effects of some of the ingredients used to create dryer sheets.
What's in a Dryer Sheet
Most dryer sheets produced by large laundry products companies have a non-woven polyester base sheet that is coated with a softening agent. Long hydrophobic (water-resistant) chains of the softening agent can be made of fatty acids, alcohol ethoxylates, or fatty alcohols. Most sheets also contain fragrances.
As more consumers have become concerned about potentially dangerous chemicals and the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), eco-friendly companies have introduced dryer sheets that use a different list of ingredients. The sheets are often printed on a biodegradable paper pulp (rayon) base and are coated with plant-based, rather than petroleum-based, chemicals and fragrances.
Both types of dryer sheets contain chemicals that have been deemed generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since dryer sheets are not consumed, the overall safety level of dryer sheets is controlled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
How Dryer Sheets Work
The heat of the dryer slowly melts the softening compounds adhered to the sheet. The compounds are then transferred to the fabrics. The newly attached fatty acid chains make the fabric feel slippery or smoother. By creating a smoother surface, the fibers feel softer, more easily repel lint and hair, and produce less static electricity.
The deposits can build up on the fabric surface, making the fibers less breathable if they are not thoroughly cleaned away in the next wash cycle. This is most evident in bath towels. While the build-up of fabric softener or dryer sheet residue makes terry cloth towels feel much softer, it also reduces their water absorbency and can trap odors.
Are Dryer Sheets Safe?
Experts have expressed the greatest concern over the fragrances used in dryer sheets. Many people report respiratory, dermatological, and neurological problems after being exposed to scented products, and federal regulatory organizations don't require manufacturers to list all fragrance ingredients on packaging. Calling dryer sheets completely unsafe may be a bit of an overstatement, but wanting to reduce your use of them—for environmental, financial, or safety reasons—is fair.
All types of dryer sheets are toxic to pets. In addition to the ingestion of chemicals that cause respiratory and gastric issues, the ingestion of a dryer sheet may result in a gastrointestinal obstruction that may require surgical removal.
How to Reduce Your Dryer Sheet Use
Switch to a Non-scented Dryer Sheet
Since some fragrances can trigger reactions, switching to a non-scented dryer sheet may alleviate some concerns.
Switch to a Plant-based Scented Dryer Sheet
While chemical processes are used to distill plant-based fragrances or essential oils, they may be less likely to produce a negative response than synthetic fragrances. Look for brands that carry the Safer Choice seal issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Cut Dryer Sheets in Half
Reduce your exposure by using just half of a dryer sheet. You'll still get the benefits of softening and static reduction.
Use Natural Wool Dryer Balls
Wool dryer balls contain simple materials, and you can make your own. They soften clothes and reduce static by fluffing the wet clothes and reducing friction as they tumble in the dryer. The balls also save money because they can be used for months and months and reduce landfill waste.
Soften Your Laundry With Distilled White Vinegar
Adding one cup of distilled white vinegar to the final rinse cycle will help strip detergent residue and built-up fabric softener residue from fabrics. This will leave your clothing feeling softer and reduce scratchiness.
Wash Your Laundry Correctly
Handling your laundry correctly will reduce the need for additional softening from dryer sheets. Do not over-add detergents, use the proper water temperature, and add a water-softening system or agent if you live in a hard water area.
Potera C. Scented Products Emit a Bouquet of VOCs. Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(1):A16. doi:10.1289/ehp.119-a16
Code of Federal Regulations. Title 21, Volume 3, 2020. Department of Health and Human Services, United States Food and Drug Administration, 21CFR172.515.
Household Hazards. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Corrosives. Merck Veterinary Manual.