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Skip the strong, artificial scents and chemicals in store-bought alternatives by using these DIY, natural fabric softeners that are inexpensive, easy to use, and non-toxic.
Using wool dryer balls to soften your clothes
A couple of years ago, I showed you how to make wool dryer balls as a natural alternative to commercial dryer sheets. Wool dryer balls are great for throwing in the dryer with your clothes because they can help speed up drying time as well as help soften the clothes. Since I use an unscented homemade laundry detergent, I love to add a couple of drops of essential oils to the balls before throwing them in the dryer to give my clothes a very subtle, natural scent.
(When I first wrote this post I was still using a soap-based homemade laundry “detergent” instead of my new surfactant based one. Also, I should add that I have since been informed that there is a risk, albeit small, of EO's igniting in the dryer when used in dryer balls. When used in such small amounts, it's highly unlikely, but do so at your own risk! It may be better to scent your clothes with homemade lavender sachets in your closet instead!)
While wool dryer balls are a great green alternative to commercial dryer sheets, an even greener alternative is to line dry your clothes, of course. Obviously, if you line-dry your clothing, you can't really soften it with wool dryer balls.
I stopped using commercial fabric softener years ago. Not only do I find their strong, artificial scents overwhelming and nauseating, but I also was told by some of my local friends that commercial fabric softeners are responsible for eating away at the elastic on clothes. When I thought back to how long my swimsuits used to last me, and then how quickly they were wearing out once I had moved here (aka. when I started using fabric softener), I just stopped using it cold turkey. I mean, I really only had begun in the first place because I followed what everybody else was doing in this region with hard water.
Do you really need to use fabric softener?
Fabric softeners aren't necessary, but they can leave your clothes feeling softer. This is especially true for places with hard water. While I personally hate the scent of fabric softeners (and I actually secretly rewash almost everything my mother-in-law washes and gives back to me because I can't stand the fragrance), some people use fabric softeners because they love the way it makes their clothes smell.
To be honest, I didn't notice a huge difference in my clothes after ditching the fabric softener, other than the fact that they no longer reeked of chemicals. That said, I made the change at around the same time as we moved to a new house, which meant it was same time that I started drying my clothes in the dryer again (with my wool dryer balls). Up until that point, I had been living in an apartment and drying my clothes on a clothesline. Clothes dried in that way have a tendency to feel a bit crunchier than those dried in the dryer.
For those that do line dry, and I applaud you 100%. Luckily for you, there are easy, inexpensive natural fabric softeners that you can use to help soften your laundry without all of the toxic chemicals. Even if you use a dryer with dryer balls, I'm sure there are times that these natural fabric softeners can come in handy.
So far, I've only tried using vinegar in the final rinse, but from what I've been reading, the other ideas here also work really well. Baking soda has the extra benefit of helping whiten clothes, and helping to remove odors.
You can use these natural fabric softeners alone, or combine them. I personally wouldn't combine vinegar (an acid) with baking soda (a base) because they would probably cancel each other out. On the other hand, vinegar and glycerin combined could make a great liquid softener, and salt and baking soda together would probably make a great powder one. If I do get around to trying them out together, I'll try to remember to update this post with my findings.
Why choose natural fabric softeners?
Commercial fabric softeners include a number of ingredients that are potentially damaging to our health and that can pose a risk to the environment.
The fragrances themselves can be comprised of a number of questionable ingredients. They can aggravate asthma in some people and can make others, like me, feel dizzy when around them. They can also irritate the skin of those with atopic dermatitis and other skin conditions. (That's the case with my son, and it's why I avoid using detergents and softeners with artificial fragrances.)
White Vinegar as a Fabric Softener
White Vinegar as a Fabric Softener
- 1 gallon white vinegar
- 30 drops essential oil optional- for scent
- Mix together the vinegar and essential oils of your choice. You can choose essential oils whose fragrance you like or can choose to use disinfecting essential oils.
- Pour the vinegar directly in your washing machine’s softener dispenser. You can use between 1/4 and 1/2 cup of vinegar in the final rinse of each load of laundry, dependent upon the size of the load and the hardness of your water.
Baking Soda as a Fabric Softener
Baking soda Fabric Softener
- 2 cups baking soda
- 15 drops essential oil optional
- Mix together the baking soda and an essential oil of your choice. (The essential oils will help add fragrance and are optional.)
- Add 1/2 cup of the mixture (or just baking soda) to your washing machine during its rinse cycle.
Salt as a Natural Fabric Softener
Salt Based Fabric Softener Crystals
Some people say that epsom salts make a wonderful fabric softener too that leaves their jeans feeling extra soft and smooth. Others say you should only use NaOH salts (like sea salt or Himalayan salt) because the minerals in the epsom salts can build up on clothes or interfere with laundry soaps. I haven't found that to be the case, but I'd like to warn you, just in case. It may be more prone to causing issues for people with hard water.
- 4 cups salt
- 30 drops essential oil(s) optional
- Mix the two ingredients together in a jar.
- Add around 1/2 cup of the salt mixture to your laundry. You can either add it with your detergent (allowing you to add vinegar to the rinse cycle), or you can add it during the final rinse.
Vegetable Glycerin Fabric softener
- 1 gallon distilled water
- 1/2 cup glycerin
- 30 drops essential oil optional
- Pour the glycerin into a gallon bottle. Fill the rest of the bottle with distilled water. Shake the bottle to mix the ingredients well.
- For a softer, chemical-free laundry, pour half a cup of the mixture into your washing machine during its rinse cycle.