Ever wondered why fabric softener is added in the rinse not the wash cycle? It's because the wash cycle removes dirt and soiling to make your clothes cleaner, but using a fabric softener is essentially soiling your clothes again by soaking them in chemicals. A good wash cycle would remove that chemical residue, so softeners are added in the rinse so they stay behind, soaked into your clothes. And whether you're worried about wearing chemical-coated clothes or not, fabric softeners aren't great for your washing machine either, and over time can cause a gunky buildup known as 'scrud' – read more about scrud in our article on washing machine troubleshooting").
Another drawback, apart from the fact that you're adding chemicals to your already clean clothes, is that the chemicals tend to make the material less capable of absorbing water – so you're essentially waterproofing your towels. And it's especially bad news if you're using cloth nappies, where a lack of absorbency can have some truly unpleasant consequences. To avoid this, more chemicals are added to reduce the effect, amongst the other chemicals that make up fabric softeners.
Most worryingly, fabric softeners also carry a warning not to use them on children's sleepwear or other flame-resistant fabrics, as they can reduce that flame resistance (despite this, smiling happy babies feature heavily in fabric softener packaging and promotion).
We tested fabric softeners for both softness and absorption performance, and you can tell from our results that the softer the product, the less it will absorb.
Those softeners that claim to be "sensitive" tend to reduce the amount of dye and fragrance, but they've still got chemicals in them that can cause irritation to some people.
Below are some recipes for homemade fabric softeners. They won't work quite as well as the commercial products (you can compare them in our fabric softener test), but at least you'll know exactly what's going into your wash.
- 6 cups vinegar
- 1 cup baking soda
- 10 drops essential oil
Put your vinegar into a large bowl; add your favourite essential oil. Add the baking soda and let it stand till the fizzing stops. Use a cup per load.
- 5 cups hot water
- 3 cups vinegar
- 1 cup hair conditioner
Mix hot water and conditioner together. Pour in vinegar and put the mixture in a container. Use around half a cup in the regular softener dispenser in your washer or during the rinse cycle.
- 1 cup of Epsom salt or coarse sea salt
- 15 drops of your favourite essential oil
- ¼ cup baking soda
Mix all ingredients together and use a few tablespoons prior to the rinse cycle.
If you're not a fan of scratchy, rock-hard towels, there are a few other options that don't involve any additives.
- Lower the spin speed of your washing machine – the lower the spin speed, the less likely your towels will be hard
- Snap your towels back to fluffiness: once your towels come out of the wash, try giving them a flick to get them straightened out before hanging them to dry.
- Put them in the clothes dryer for 10 minutes. Warm air, or even cool air, will get them soft again.