Using fabric softeners sounds like a no-brainer. These common laundry products promise soft, fresh-smelling clothes, free of static and wrinkles, along with less stretching, fading and pilling.

But in-wash fabric softeners and heat-activated dryer sheets pack a powerful combination of chemicals that can harm your health, damage the environment and pollute the air, both inside and outside your home.

Healthy Child Healthy World recommends skipping fabric softeners entirely.

Healthy Child Healthy World recommends skipping fabric softeners entirely. Here are the worst chemicals to watch for in your laundry basket—and what to use instead.

“Quats”

Quaternary ammonium compounds make clothes feel soft and wearable right out of the wash, but they’re known to trigger asthma and may be toxic to our reproductive systems.

Check labels and product websites for these ingredients: distearyldimonium chloride, diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride, variants of hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate or the vague terms “biodegradable fabric softening agents” and “cationic surfactant.” Avoid them all.

Fragrance

There are more than 3,000 fragrance ingredients in common household products—and scarcely any way to know what they are.

Your fabric softener may contain phthalates, which disperse the scent; synthetic musks such as galaxolide, which accumulate in the body; and much more. Fragrance mixes can cause allergies, skin irritations such as dermatitis, difficulty breathing and potential reproductive harm. Research indicates that scents also cause irritation when vented outdoors, especially for asthmatics and those sensitive to chemicals. Not worth it.

Preservatives and Colors

Like fragrance, the terms “preservatives” and “colors” or “colorants” on an ingredient label may refer to any number of chemicals. The most worrisome preservatives in fabric softeners include methylisothiazolinone, a potent skin allergen and glutaral, known to trigger asthma and skin allergies. Glutaral (or glutaraldehyde) is also toxic to marine life. Among artificial colors, D&C violet 2 has been linked to cancer. Others may contain impurities that can cause cancer.

So skip fabric softeners and conditioners in any form—pellets, crystals, bars or single-dose packs. You won’t notice the difference.

Or you can try these ideas instead:

  • Try adding half a cup of distilled white vinegar to your washing machine during the rinse cycle. Don’t worry: the smell doesn’t linger on clothes.

  • If you’re not line-drying, run the drying machine with just your clothes inside. (To reduce static, do not over-dry.) Not only do dryer sheets contain a variety of chemicals, but neither plant-based nor polyester types are reusable, creating extra waste.

  • Try 100 percent wool dryer balls. Makers of these solid balls of felted wool or felted wool wrapped around a fiber core, say wool or its natural lanolin soften laundry and reduce static. Generally safe for sensitive skin and babies, the balls also lift and separate clothes in the dryer, shortening drying time and saving energy.You can buy ready-made balls or make your own with wool batting or wool yarn. Look for unscented versions and always be leery of essential oils, which can cause allergic reactions after just few contacts.

Learn more about laundry products and other home cleaners in the 2016 edition of EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

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