Common Laundry Practices That Are Harmful to Your Health, Clothing & the Planet & What To Do Instead


Learning to live a more sustainable lifestyle can feel overwhelming at times, especially when you try to tackle it all at once. One of my many aha-moments came when I was doing yet another load of laundry and mindlessly tossing in a few dryer sheets. I caught a glimpse of the ingredients and realized that dryer sheets are just pieces of chemically-scented plastic and I'm allowing them to dance around with clothing that I end up putting on my body. Gross.

This made me rethink everything I was currently using in the laundry room from the brand of detergent and stain treatment to the settings I chose on auto-pilot. Turns out, making a few changes and questioning the habits that were passed down to me wasn't as challenging as I thought. I ended up saving money and reducing my waste in the long run by limiting the amount of heat I use and cutting out two unnecessary products: fabric softener and dryer sheets.

For many people, laundry is an easy place to start making those changes. A lot of the common laundry practices we currently use we inherited from the grown-ups around us and didn't really ask questions. For example...

  • Washing in hot water because it's the only way to kill bacteria and remove stains.

  • Using name-brand laundry detergents because they've claimed to be the best.

  • Using fabric softener and dryer sheets because they claim to enhance the way our clothing feels and smells.

  • Throwing everything in the dryer on high because it get the job done faster.

When in reality...

  • Washing in cold water is just as effective at killing bacteria and not all stains respond to warmer water. For example, blood and sweat can actually set into fabric in hot water. Delicate fabrics (lace and silk) and dark, colorful fabrics do best in cold water. Hot water tends to shrink, fade, and wrinkle certain fabrics.

  • Homemade laundry detergent, gentle dish soap, vodka, and baking soda are all natural solutions that can be just as effective as TIDE.

  • Fabric softener and dryer sheets are both made of plastic and harmful chemicals, increase the flammability of our garments and have a negative impact on our planet.

  • Using the dryer consistently is the number one way to break down the fibres in our clothing, meaning our clothes are taking a beating and are less likely to last as long as they could have if air-dried.

What happens to our clothes when we choose the dryer?

Shrinkage! Clothing shrinks twice as much as washing, and tumble-drying shrinks twice as much as air-drying.

The fabric breaks down faster. Do you know what lint actually is? It's little pieces of our clothing! The tumble and heat from the dryer results in tiny tears in the fabric fibres, and over time the sum of these tears cause clothing to fall apart. There was a study that ran towels through 20 wet/dry cycles, measuring the tensile strength after each run. Researchers found after only 20 cycles of washing and drying, the fabric had lost about 50 percent of its tensile strength.

The colours fade.

Performance materials are compromised. Applying heat and rotation to active wear will not only break down the fibres, but also compromise the integrity of the performance material. For example, water-proof or moisture-wicking materials lose their strength when repeatedly exposed to heat and rotation.

What happens to the environment when we choose the dryer?

Fibres are released into the air, lakes and rivers. Synthetic fibers, like polyester and others, contain microplastics that are released into the air of our homes. Some clothing manufacturers also use dyes that can contain toxic chemicals. These can wreak havoc on our skin but are even worse—when they’re washed into the lakes and rivers. Tiny plastic fibers and chemical dyes make their way to domestic sewage systems and introduce hazardous chemicals into the water.

What happens when we use dryer sheets?

We disrupt our hormones. Many dryer sheets contain fragrance and other chemicals that can trigger asthma and disrupt hormones. In one study, researchers tested five name brand dryer sheets. The findings showed that the dryer sheets emitted 15 endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) and chemicals associated with asthma. Evidence from studies suggests that EDCs can affect developing reproductive and nervous systems, metabolism, and cancer. In the study, the researchers selected dryer sheets as one of 50 consumer product categories to test. Surprisingly, these researchers discovered that dryer sheets, along with air fresheners, sunscreens, and perfumes had the largest number of chemicals with some of the highest concentrations out of all the products tested. The dryer sheets had more troubling results than products like bathroom and kitchen cleaners.

We pollute the environment. A University of Washington study concluded that scented products were actually emitting a range of dangerous chemicals from dryer vents. It would seem that scented dryer sheets and other laundry products are actually bad for the environment. The news gets worse, as some of the chemicals emitted were actually known carcinogens. Researchers have discovered that dryer sheets do in fact contain toxic and hazardous chemicals. Anne Steinemann, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Washington noted that the exhaust coming out of a laundry machine is in no way regulated and that is very bad for the environment.

We're being lied to. Ideally, you’d be able to find safer products by reading the labels. However, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredients. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates cleaning and laundry products and soap. What most people don’t realize is that the CPSC has careless disclosure regula