In the 1960s, Conrad Glaiser 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 and 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 health effects of some of the chemicals used to create dryer sheets. Are they toxic?
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 potential chemical toxicity 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 and most 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 Toxic?
Health experts have expressed the greatest amount of concern over the fragrances used in dryer sheets. Dyes and fragrances are the leading causes of respiratory and dermatological reactions from laundry products.
The reactions from VOC exposure during dryer sheet use or reactions from any residue left on fabrics may include:
- Skin reactions such as hives
- Eye irritation
- Airway irritation
- Asthma attacks
- Migraine attacks
More study is warranted and users who experience problems during or after using dryer sheets should contact their physician.
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 severe allergic reactions, switching to a non-scented dryer sheet will make them safer to use.
Switch to a Plant-based Scented Dryer Sheet
While chemical processes are used to distill plant-based fragrances or essential oils, they may produce less allergic response than chemically created fragrances. Look for brands that carry the Safer Choice seal issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicating that the ingredients are less toxic.
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 no chemicals 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.