A good laundry detergent only cleans your clothes, but to make them soft, fluffy, free of static, and easy to iron, you may want to reach for a fabric softener. "Make sure you check the label of your detergents and fabric enhancers to ensure you are using the recommended amount for your load size," says Jennifer Ahoni, a P&G Fabric Care Principal Scientist & Laundry Expert.
With Ahoni's guidance in mind, we conducted hours of research to find the best fabric softeners, evaluating each on scent, formula, softening ability, and machine compatibility.
We've loaded up on the best fabric softeners to add to your laundry routine.
Seventh Generation Lavender Fabric Softener
Smell turns musty if clothing sits too long
Seventh Generation Lavender Fabric Softener is our top pick for two top reasons: it's powerful on clothes but gentle on your machine (and the environment). Whether you're washing new sheets or your favorite t-shirt, this fabric softener will have you looking forward to cuddling up in both!
Expect this Seventh Generation product to be made of naturally derived ingredients (plant-based ingredients mixed with essential oils). It doesn't contain any dyes, fluoride, or synthetic fragrances, which means it's suitable for everyone in the family—babies and those with sensitive skin included. The biodegradable formula is septic-safe and leaves laundry soft, fluffy, and free of static cling. To use, pour an ounce for large loads (or a little less for medium loads) into the water during the final rinse cycle.
The natural lavender scent is just the right balance of not too light and not too strong. Plus, it's calming and refreshing without being overpowering. As with most detergents and softeners, if you leave your wet clothes sitting in the washer too long, the smell will turn musty, so it's still important to dry clothes immediately after washing.
Price at time of publish: $17
Type: Liquid | Amount: 32 fluid ounces | Scent: Lavender | HE Compatible: Yes
Snuggle SuperCare Liquid Fabric Softener
Multiple scents available
Easy to pour
May leave some buildup in the machine
Though just as powerful as other formulas, Snuggle SuperCare costs a fraction of the price. On top of that, it's available in a convenient family size bottle that’s easy to pour, thanks to the push-button top. This bottle offers enough softener for up to 90 loads, plus it's compatible with both high efficiency and regular washing machines.
Aside from effectively softening your clothes, this liquid fabric softener also protects colors from fading, prevents premature wear and tear, and helps clothes retain their shape. We recommend the refreshing Sea Breeze scent, but it's also available in others, such as Lilies and Linen. There can be some residue buildup with this product, so be sure to only use the recommended amount and clean your washing machine on a regular basis.
Price at time of publish: $9
Type: Liquid | Amount: 95 fluid ounces | Scent: Sea Breeze | HE Compatible: Yes
Gain Odor + Defense Liquid Fabric Softener Original
Small and manageable bottle
Minimizes static cling
Not as fragrant as some other options
Gain + Odor Defense Liquid Fabric Softener is an all-around excellent option. The original liquid formula can be used with your regular laundry detergent to not only soften your clothes, but also leave them smelling amazing for weeks. This formula specifically helps to eliminate odors, rather than masking them, so your clothes smell fresher for longer and maintain their bright colors.
The scent is light, airy, clean, and reminiscent of being outdoors in springtime. This fabric softener also helps minimize static cling, and the price is about the same as your average jug of detergent. The only downside is that the scent could be a bit stronger.
Price at time of publish: $18
Type: Liquid | Amount: 41 fluid ounces | Scent: Super fresh blast | HE Compatible: Yes
Bounce Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets
Easy to use
Less messy than liquid
Sheets are on the thin side
Scent not as strong as liquid softeners
Bounce Fabric Softener Sheets give clothes and linens a softer feel while repelling lint, hair, and other debris from your clothing. They also control static cling, reduce wrinkles, and leave your load with a super-fresh, energizing scent. These sheets are a great alternative to liquid softener, because they're not as pungent—an essential quality for people with sensitive allergies.
One box includes 240 sheets, so you won't have to restock any time soon. For smaller loads, use one sheet. For larger loads, you can throw in two or three. Even with multiple sheets, you can be sure they won't stain your clothes or leave behind a residue like some liquid softeners. They also won't produce the same softening qualities as liquid versions, because softening sheets are a little more subtle.
Price at time of publish: $10
Type: Sheets | Amount: 240 sheets | Scent: Outdoor Fresh | HE Compatible: Yes
Best Dryer Balls
Blueland Dryer Ball Starter Set
Sustainably sourced wool
100-day money back guarantee
Doesn’t add scent to your laundry
If you're looking for a reusable, eco-friendly alternative to dryer sheets, Blueland dryer balls are easy to use and replace up to 1,000 single-use dryer sheets. They’re easy to store, last a long time, and won’t contain any chemicals. The lanolin that naturally occurs in wool helps to soften clothes and also protect them from premature wearing.
Made of sustainably sourced wool from New Zealand, these dryer balls are also free from any glues or petroleum. They'll not only help reduce your waste, but also significantly reduce drying time on your bulky loads of laundry. They also help to reduce wrinkles by creating air pockets as they tumble inside your machine. Keep in mind that the tumbling can be rather noisy, so you might not want to run your dryer during a work from home meeting or baby's nap time. These dryer balls also won't add any scent to your clean clothes, but if you decide they're not the best fit for you, Blueland offers a 100-day money-back guarantee.
Price at time of publish: $18
Type: Balls | Amount: 3 | Scent: Unscented | HE Compatible: Yes
Best Scent Beads
Downy Unstopables In-Wash Scent Booster
Masks dingy odors from workout clothes and old linens
No measuring necessary
Scent lasts up to 12 weeks
Not a fabric softener
Not compatible with all fabrics
Laundry boosters such as scent beads and powders have grown in popularity over the past few years for the ease of use and wide range of scents. The Downy Unstoppables Laundry Scent Booster Beads not only are easy to use, but also provide a lasting scent for up to 12 weeks after your clothes have been washed. These booster beads are a great addition to your dingy loads full of smelly workout clothes or old linens that could use a refresh.
Keep in mind that while scent booster beads are a helpful way to mask odors, they are not the same as fabric softeners. If you're hoping to experience more softness and enjoy a pleasant scent, we recommend exploring a scented fabric softener. Booster beads should also not be used with every load of laundry. The scent lasts so long that you can pop them into your wash about once a month and still enjoy freshness for several weeks. These beads should also not be overused with certain fabrics, like elastics and spandex, which will wear down from too much product exposure.
Price at time of publish: $13
Type: Beads | Amount: 20.1 ounces | Scent: Fresh | HE Compatible: Yes
Downy Infusions Liquid Fabric Conditioner
Multiple scent options
Small and manageable bottle
Dryer sheets and booster beads available in matching scent
Need to use a bit more than other formulas
If you want a fabric softener that smells incredible, we recommend Downy Infusions. This liquid fabric conditioner comes in two scents: Calm (lavender and vanilla bean) and Refresh (birch water and botanicals). Be sure to use the recommended amount in each load, as using too much liquid softener could damage your clothing overtime and overpower your nose with too much scent. A fabric conditioner also differs slightly from softeners, as it goes a step further to prevent pilling and protect clothes from stretching.
The Downy Calm scent is more relaxing and soothing (perfect for sheets, towels, and PJs), while Refresh is crisp and revitalizing, which would pair well with workout clothes to give you the jumpstart you need for your morning spin class. Either way, you'll have softer and fluffier fabrics that smell just as great as they feel against your skin.
Price at time of publish: $8
Type: Liquid | Amount: 2 56-fluid ounce bottles | Scent: Lavender and vanilla bean | HE Compatible: Yes
Dropps Fabric Softener Ultra Concentrated Pods Unscented
Multiple scent options (including unscented)
Pods don’t always fully dissolve
Dropps Fabric Softener Ultra Concentrated Pods make clothes super soft without any of the harsh ingredients you’ll find in traditional formulas, potentially leading to oversaturated fabrics. These fragrance-free pods help athletic wear maintain its moisture-wicking ability and ensure that towels remain soft and absorbent, which can be an issue with some other fabric softeners over time. If you prefer a scented pod, there are also five scents available, ranging from an ocean scent to sweet citrus.
Using these pods will help you reduce the amount of plastic you use at home because the pods come packaged in cardboard for easy recycling afterward. Keep in mind that pods work best in warm water, and they may not fully dissolve in cold water settings. While these pods are slightly more expensive than other options, you can feel good about the extra ingredients that you're adding to your wash routine.
Price at time of publish: $42
Type: Pods | Amount: 64 | Scent: Unscented | HE Compatible: Yes
Best for Sensitive Skin
Public Goods Fabric Softener Sheets
Compostable and biodegradable
Doesn’t reduce static cling
Limited retailer availability
If you have sensitive skin that's easily bothered by fragrances or synthetic chemicals, the Public Goods plant-based sheets are a great fabric softener alternative. They won’t contain any harsh chemicals or fragrances, so you can use them even if you have children or adults with sensitive skin. You'll still experience the super-soft results from traditional softener without overpowering scents. If you're sensitive to smells, these sheets are an excellent option.
In addition to their thoughtful product formula, the packaging is biodegradable and compostable, so you can feel good about reducing waste with this purchase. These sheets won't reduce static cling as much as their traditional alternatives, but you can always throw in a few wool dryer balls to help reduce static. These dryer sheets are also not available at regular grocery stores, so you may have to order them online.
Price at time of publish: $7
Type: Sheets | Amount: 80 | Scent: Unscented | HE Compatible: Yes
Best Combo Formula
ECOS Liquid Laundry Detergent with Built-In Fabric Softener
Short ingredient list
Bottle is a bit bulky
No easy-pour spout
A combination formula that acts as a detergent and softener is a fantastic space saving and hassle-free option. The ECOS Liquid Laundry Detergent with Built-In Fabric Softener is free from optical brighteners, parabens, phosphates, and phthalates. It's also safe for both septic tanks and home greywater systems, which take water from baths, showers, and laundry and reuse it for jobs like lawn irrigation.
The bottle is on the larger side and doesn't include an easy-pour spout, so you'll need to be careful not to overdo it when pouring. We recommend using the suggested amount of product to avoid oversaturating your clothes with it. This detergent-softener combo is available in two scents: Magnolia & Lily and Lemongrass. No matter the scent you choose, you can feel good using this EPA Safer Choice-certified detergent.
Price at time of publish: $18
Type: Liquid | Amount: 2 100 fluid ounce bottles | Scent: Magnolia and lily | HE Compatible: Yes
Our best overall pick is the Seventh Generation Natural Fabric Softener which is a greener, gentler product that works just as well as conventional formulas and has a fresh, clean scent. If you’re worried about using chemicals of any kind on your clothes, give dryer balls a try. The Blueland Dryer Ball Starter Set includes three dryer balls made of sustainably sourced New Zealand wool that will leave clothes soft while reducing both wrinkles and drying time.
What to Look for in a Fabric Softener
Fabric softeners used to come in two forms: liquid and sheets. Today, there are many more options, including pods and dryer balls. You can even find combination products that mix both liquid detergent and conditioner. For Best Combo Formula, we recommend ECOS Liquid Laundry Detergent with Built-In Fabric Softener. We love that this two-in-one product is free from optical brighteners, parabens, phosphates, and phthalates.
While your choice largely hinges on preference and whether you want to use the product in the washer (liquid or pods) or dryer (sheets and balls), it’s worth noting that dryer balls are the most natural, chemical-free option. These products are completely unscented. If you want to infuse your clothes with a pleasing scent, look for liquid, sheets, or pods.
Most newer washing machines are designed for HE or “high-efficiency” products, so make sure to check the packaging to ensure that whatever formula you choose is suitable for your machine. In a typical load, only a small amount of HE-optimized conditioner or softener is needed along with your detergent. In other words, you'll get a better value when purchasing HE products.
Some products are listed as "concentrated" and should be used in smaller amounts because of their formula type. You'll find that "Less is more" can apply to laundry as well. Avoid using more than the recommended amount of product as this will not only save you money but also maintain the longevity of your washing machine and clothing.
While using a fabric softener is not necessary, it's a great addition to your laundry if you find that it smells musty or not as fresh as you'd like it to be. Keep in mind that the ingredients in your fabric softener not only impact the way your clothes, sheets, and towels feel, but also affect your skin and your washing machine or dryer. Many brands are now offering eco-friendly formulas that are free from parabens, phthalates, and dyes, which often can irritate sensitive skin and damage your clothing over time, if used in excess. While the formula you choose is largely dependent on personal preference in scent and type of softener, we recommend paying attention to the ingredients list.
While it can be nice to add a sweet scent to your clothing, many of these formulas contain ingredients and synthetic fragrances that can irritate skin—especially in babies and people with sensitive skin. If you fall into that category, look for plant-based, naturally derived formulas or naturally unscented options like dryer balls. For Best Dryer Balls, we suggest the Blueland Dryer Ball Starter Set, which includes three dryer balls made of sustainably sourced New Zealand wool.
What does fabric softener do?
“Fabric softener, also known as 'fabric conditioner,' is a fabric care product designed to deposit a coating that makes fibers feel smoother and more supple,” says Lindsey Boyd, co-founder of The Laundress. "While certain detergents may have conditioning properties, fabric conditioner is not the same as detergent."
While some fabric softeners are designed for use in the dryer (dryer balls and sheets), liquid and pod versions work in tandem with detergent during the wash cycle to reduce stiffness and static, decrease drying time, and make ironing easier.
Do you really need fabric softener?
Using fabric softener in your laundry is largely up to personal preference. While it is not necessary for cleaning your clothes, it can help certain fabrics maintain their softness and reduce static during the drying process.
How do you get fabric softener stains out of clothes?
“Most fabric conditioner stains are oily in nature, and are best addressed with an oil-specific stain remover and a stain brush, which will help to gently coax the stain from the garment’s fibers without disturbing the weave,” says Boyd.
To remove fabric softener stains, apply a stain-removing formula to a laundry brush, and lather into the fabric using circular motions, then proceed with washing or rinsing the garment.
And in the future? “Fabric conditioner stains are easily prevented by using only the recommended amount of product for your washing machine type, and placing it inside the fabric conditioner-specific dispenser instead of pouring directly on top of laundry in the drum of the machine,” says Boyd.
When should you and should you not use fabric softener?
“Think of fabric conditioner as the facial lotion in your everyday laundry routine: Just like you want to moisturize your skin after cleansing it, you want to do the same for your clothes to make them buttery soft,” says Boyd.
There are a few exceptions to conditioning everyday laundry—namely towels, flame retardant items, and workout gear—otherwise you risk buildup. “Outside of everyday laundry, more sensitive fabrics like cashmere, silk, wool, and other delicate natural fibers require fabric-specific laundering formulas,” says Boyd. “These garments do not typically require the use of fabric conditioner when laundering with the correct fabric-specific detergent.”
Should you use fabric softener on towels?
As mentioned above, fabric softener is not compatible with certain fabrics, and towels are one of those exceptions. While fabric softener will make your towels softer, as it is designed to do, it weakens their absorbency and makes them less effective over time.
Why Trust The Spruce?
This roundup was written by Theresa Holland, a freelance writer, homeowner, and mother with extensive experience researching, testing, and reviewing home goods, cleaning solutions, and baby products. You can find more of her writing on Byrdie, MyDomaine, and Verywell Health.
The article was later fully updated by Brigitt Earley, a freelance writer with over 12 years of experience writing for digital publications like The Spruce and Good Housekeeping. She’s an experienced product tester and is no stranger to laundry products. As a mom to four babies and toddlers under the age of four, her own laundry pile is practically insurmountable, requiring daily attention with the best products available. Additional input was provided by Lindsey Boyd, co-founder of The Laundress.
This roundup was also updated by Emma Phelps, an updates writer for The Spruce, who added additional products and refreshed the page's content to reflect the latest developments in fabric softeners. Phelps also reached out to Jennifer Ahoni, a P&G Fabric Care Principal Scientist & Laundry Expert, for her feedback on what to look for in a compatible softener formula for washing machines and dryers.