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 regulations. How careless? They give manufacturers significant leeway on disclosing ingredients; they can list all, some or none of the ingredients. It’s troubling that product ingredients aren’t included on the label, isn’t it? These careless disclosure requirements limit your ability to identify the safest products by reading labels.
We increase our carbon footprint. Dryer sheets take energy to produce and that increases one’s carbon footprint. A range of chemicals are used to produce dryer sheets and once again the production of these chemicals serves to increase one’s carbon footprint.
We leave residue behind on clothing. The coating that is left on clothes is not ideal for all fabrics. Children's sleepwear is required by law to be flame-resistant. The coating left by dryer sheets will make pajamas and nightgowns more flammable. The coating also reduces the water-absorbency of cotton and microfiber towels and reduces the moisture-wicking action of athletic wear.
We can cause harm to pets. The ingredients that make up dryer sheets can make dogs and cats quite ill and even cause death if ingested.
We're being wasteful. They’re not essential, so why are we buying them? For decades, consumers have used dryer sheets almost on “auto pilot” without thinking about the environmental or health consequences. A key reason for this is that dryer sheets, like many products, have made their way into the “cleanliness sphere.” Most of us feel that if a product is a cleaning product that it must be safe because being clean is, after all, good. However, many laundry and cleaning products are in fact loaded with harmful chemicals. Quite often the chemicals contained in these products are not even listed on the ingredients; this of course makes the entire process a rather confusing one.
What happens when you use Fabric Softener?
We're damaging our health. It turns out freshly washed clothes get that sought-after softness from ingredients called quaternary ammonium compounds (or quats), which have been shown to cause asthma or trigger asthma symptoms in certain people. Quats are made from lipids that essentially coat your clothes in a fatty layer, making them smoother and softer to the touch.
Many softeners also contain other potentially toxic ingredients found in common household items, like 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, which have been associated with increased risk of cancer at certain levels of exposure, and methylisothiazolinone and glutaral, chemicals known to cause allergic reactions on the skin.
And since the fatty coating tends to cling to clothing,your exposure to the chemicals can last longer than just a single wear. “Think about it, these chemicals accompany you 24/7…as you wear your clothes, dry off after a shower, and sleep in pajamas under your sheets,” Marilee Nelson, co-founder of natural cleaning brand Branch Basic, explained in Real Simple.
We're damaging the planet. Another issue is that these fats can be derived from plants, minerals, and even animals like cattle, sheep, or horses. If you’re a vegan, you often won’t be able to tell if your softener is (unless it explicitly says so on the label).
We're damaging our clothing. On top of that, while it can make your clothes feel cozier and smell better, fabric softener isn’t actually great for the fabrics. Towels washed with the stuff will lose their ability to dry, leaving you soggy post-shower. And when used on performance gear, it can leave a waxy coating that will prevent the wicking fabric from properly drying your sweat.
What You Can do For a More Eco-Friendly Laundry Day
Stop buying dryer sheets and fabric softener. Dryer sheets and fabric softener aren't a necessary part of the laundry process, but if you feel like a regular wash and dry isn’t cutting it for softness and static—there are eco-friendly alternatives that won't break the bank. Wool dryer balls are a one-time purchase, so they end up being cheaper than buying dryer sheets in the long run. Wool dryer balls or even a tennis ball can help increase softness and decrease static. For extra softness, try adding a cup of vinegar or a few tablespoons of baking soda to your wash instead of fabric softener. These are common household items so again, no need to stray from the budget to take better care of your clothing, your health and the planet!
Invest in a plastic-free delicates bag. Prolong the life of your delicates in this 100% cotton laundry bag. Most laundry bags available on the market are made from a polyester mesh which doesn’t help with efforts to remove microfibers from the wash cycle, so we started looking for an alternative made from natural fibers. When we couldn’t find a cotton laundry bag on the market - we made them. Laundry Bags are ideal for helping your delicates as they move through the laundry cycle by keeping straps and elastics from being caught up by a heavier garment and getting stretched out during the wash or dry cycle. We also find these laundry bags incredibly helpful for collecting face masks and ushering them through the wash and dry cycles without the elastic getting stretched and for quick access to your masks when they are done in the dryer. You can find one here.
Wear your clothes more than once! The best way to lessen the environmental impact of your laundry load is to do less laundry. Wear clothes two or even three times before you wash them if you can. This is the exact reason I created ClosettCandyy Fabric Spray — to help you eliminate any orders between wears as a way to encourage you to wash your clothes less. The spray is naturally formulated to remove odors with vodka, which is a great cleaner because: It leaves no scent when used in natural cleaners. It leaves no residue. It is naturally antibacterial, anti-fungal, and it's a natural deodorizer. Theatres actually use spray bottles full of vodka on clothing between shows because they don’t have time to wash the clothing and this removes sweat stains and odors from the previous show. Shop here and use code 'WASHLESS' to save 20% on your first order.
Hand-treat stains with vinegar and hot water, or a natural stain-remover stick like Bunchafarmers—instead of relying on throwing them immediately in the wash with some harsh bleach.
Use natural detergent. Whether it’s about getting into your water sources, or the packaging, manufacturing, and shipping of laundry soap, the detergent you use has a big environmental impact.But it doesn’t need to. There are plenty of organic laundry detergents available that you can use that are better for your skin, your family, and the environment. I use Nellie's Laundry Soda, Tru-Earth Strips or Sapadilla Laundry Detergent and refill my containers at my local eco-friendly shop, Verde.
Line-dry your clothing. It is estimated that your dryer emits more than a ton of carbon dioxide per year. You can easily eliminate all that waste by skipping the dryer altogether and hanging your clothing to dry on a clothesline, drying rack, or simply hanging in your shower.
Hang your clothes to dry when you can. It may take longer, but it’s much better on the environment, in more ways than one. Not only do you skip out on using the energy-hogging dryer, but your clothes will last longer, thanks to the gentler drying cycle outside. That means less throwing them out. Better for your wallet, and your environment too! If you can’t hang your clothes outside to dry, invest in an indoor airer or drying rack. You can place it next to the radiator and your clothes will dry overnight. If you can’t hang your clothes outside to dry, invest in an indoor airer or drying rack. You can place it next to the radiator and your clothes will dry overnight.
Changing your habits takes time and doesn't always happen easily. Be patient and kind with yourself. Give yourself the grace to make mistakes. Soon, a more eco-friendly laundry routine will be second nature and you can ease into evolving the next area of your life.
If you found this post helpful and would like to learn more easy ways to care for your clothing responsibly, check out The ClosettCandyy Clothing Care Guide.