What are the dangers of fabric softeners?

Written by tyler lacoma
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What are the dangers of fabric softeners?
Fabric softener can cause irritation and nervous system damage. (Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images)

Fabric softeners help keep clothes soft and colourful. While many people use fabric softeners while they do their laundry, most are unaware of the chemicals that softeners use. Many softener manufacturers do not go into detail about the compounds they use to help soften fabric. Unfortunately, many softeners are made from a wide mixture of chemicals that can have potentially hazardous effects on the human body over time.

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Fabric softener companies do warn that their products can cause irritation, especially the liquid versions, and advise that you do not allow any fabric softener to touch your skin or your eyes. Some of the chemicals used to create these softeners are caustic and can cause itching or burning problems when the products accidentally contact skin.

Respiratory Problems

Other chemicals in fabric softeners can cause lung problems and more significant irritation if they are inhaled. Benzyl alcohol, a common ingredient, acts as an upper respiratory tract irritant, while other compounds like A-Terpineol and pentane can also cause lung damage. These chemicals can cause asthma, especially in younger children.


Carcinogens are compounds that have been linked to causing cancer. It is difficult to pinpoint the substances that can actually cause cancer, and those linked to sufficient evidence are often banned (like asbestos). However, other chemicals may have been linked to cancer in some studies but have not yet been examined thoroughly enough to determine a direct link. Chemicals like chloroform and limonene are known as carcinogens and show up in fabric softeners.

Nervous System Damage

Many of the compounds that cause skin irritation or may increase the possibility of cancer can also have a cumulative toxic effect if they are accidentally ingested. Ethanol, camphor and linalool can all cause nervous system damage. So can the previously mentioned chloroform and A-terpineol. Toxin exposure results in symptoms including dizziness, nausea, headaches, numbness and pain in the neck and spine.

Fabric Problems

Some fabric softeners use tallow, a waxy material that can help protect clothing and keep it from being damaged as easily by stains. However, tallow can also render towels ineffective at absorbing water; since tallow repels liquids, towels can struggle to perform their jobs in bathrooms and kitchens. Tallow is also dangerous for the dryer lint filter, where it can cause clogging issues.

Chronic Maladaptation

The human nervous system develops a condition when constantly exposed to the toxic chemicals that fabric softeners leave in clothing, becoming chronically maladapted to their presence. The effect the toxins have on the nervous system, though negative, can create an addictive-type response when they are constantly present. The nervous system begins to expect the toxins to be there and someone affected may not associate problems with fabric softener products, even on a physical level. This problem is exacerbated by fabric softeners that impregnate fabrics and continue to release their compounds over a long period of time.

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