Both liquid fabric softener and dryer sheets can leave stains on freshly washed clothes. The stains can happen because of user error (yes, you caused the problem) or simply because of the chemical ingredients and nature of the products.
Why do Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets Leave Stains?
Fabric softeners and dryer sheets work by leaving a lubricating coating on fabric fibers to make them feel softer next to our skin. The main product ingredient is often a silicone that binds to the fibers. Excessive amounts of the coating will leave deposits on your clothes, especially after drying at high heat, that appear as grease or oily stains on the fabric. If there is excess liquid fabric softener, the spots will sometimes appear as blue streaks.
Remove Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheet Stains
If you discover blue streaks on freshly washed clothes, DO NOT place the clothes in a hot dryer. The heat will make the stains much more difficult to remove. Simply place the clothes back in the washer with no detergent or fabric softener, but add one cup of distilled white vinegar to the wash water. Let the clothes go through a full wash/rinse cycle and the stains should be gone.
If you have already dried the fabric softener stained clothes, mix a solution of oxygen-based bleach and warm water. Submerge the stained items and allow them to soak for at least two hours or overnight and then wash as usual without any detergent or fabric softener. Oxygen bleach is safe to use on both white and colored washable fabrics.
For those "grease" stains caused by dryer sheets that appear on freshly dried clothes, rub the spots with a wet bar of soap like Fels-Naptha or bath soap, or a bit of liquid dishwashing soap and then rewash. Don't use laundry detergent because it will not cut through the residue.
Prevent Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheet Stains
The key to preventing stains from liquid fabric softener is to shake the bottle well each time before using because the ingredients can separate. Next, dilute it with an equal amount of warm water before adding to the washer to help disperse the liquid. This should be done whether you use an automatic dispenser, dispensing ball, or add the fabric softener manually to the rinse cycle. NEVER pour fabric softener directly onto fabric.
If your washing machine has an automatic fabric softener dispenser, clean it out regularly by flushing with heated distilled white vinegar or very hot water followed by a rinse cycle with no laundry in the washer. You'll be amazed at all of the clumps of fabric softener residue that will fall out. It's those clumps that stain your laundry!
It is also key to avoid overloading the washer. Without room to move easily through the water and fabric softener solution, some clothes will get excessive exposure and cause streaking or spotting.
To avoid the spots on clean clothes from dryer sheets, always place the dryer sheet on the top of the freshly loaded clothes and start the dryer immediately. Don't overload the dryer and don't bury the sheet in the middle of the load where it can get trapped. The spots occur when the dryer sheet stays in contact with a fabric surface for too long. Dryer sheets are activated by heat and should not be used when you are using the air fluff or low heat dryer cycle.
Have Similar Stains on Clean Clothes but Don't Use Fabric Softener or Dryer Sheets?
If you never use fabric softener or dryer sheets but still have these streaks or spots, there are a couple of other explanations. One, your washer could be spraying transmission fluid or bearing oil. You can determine if this is happening by opening the housing of the washer and looking for a fine spray of oil. Then, of course, get the problem repaired.
If the problem continues even with a new washer, the problem could be a reaction between your water source and the detergent you are using. Try switching to a heavy-duty detergent containing enzymes like Persil or Tide and use the hottest water recommended for each type of fabric to remove stains and discoloration.