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Do You Really Need Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets?

Mother sorting fresh laundry with her toddler in a sunny laundry room
FamVeld/Shutterstock

Fabric softener and dryer sheets do a specific job but do you need them? Probably not. There are alternative options that are better for your clothes but still keep them soft and static-free.

How Do Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets Work?

When you hold a dryer sheet in your hands and rub it gently, you’ll notice that it has a coating on it—that coating is a mix of chemical compounds that helps remove static from your clothes, and it makes them softer too. Similar chemicals are in liquid fabric softener. They eliminate static by leaving a coating on your clothing (similar to spraying your fabric with a static guard). While the specific chemicals and ratios vary from brand to brand, it’s a safe bet it’s a combination of silicones, fatty molecules, surfactants, and fragrances.

Liquid fabric softener has the same function as dryer sheets, but you treat the clothes while they are still in the wash instead of in the dryer. This can be great if you have a lot of hang-dry items as you still get the benefits without the dryer heat.

When Not to Use Dryer Sheets and Fabric Softener

There are times when you don’t want to use regular dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener. For people with sensitive skin or those of you who want to cut down on your exposure to unnecessary chemicals, ditching laundry additives is a great way to keep those chemicals away from your skin. The sheets might smell nice, but not if they make you itchy.

Even if you’re not concerned about what is in the sheets and you don’t have sensitive skin, there are a lot of additional practical reasons to ditch using the sheets and liquid softener. One of those practical reasons is keeping your towels in good shape. The compounds in both fabric softener and dryer sheets might make your towels feel soft, but they do so by coating them. This residue can damage the fibers and make it so that your towels no longer absorb water as well. Worse yet, the water that they do soak up evaporates slower, and you may end up with a mildew smell in your towels that is hard to get rid of. (If you’re nodding your head along to that last bit, check out our article on keeping your towels fresh to get rid of the smell.)

Dryer sheets and their chemical coating sticks to pajama fabric too. If you’re buying fire-resistant sleepwear for your children and using dryer sheets or liquid fabric softener, the compounds damage the fire-retarding coating on the sleepwear.

That coating on the dryer sheets also coats the inside of your dryer. It blocks the holes in the lint trap and makes it more difficult for air to exit the dryer. The result is that

Stearic acid, a common ingredient in dryer sheets and fabric softener, also ruins the wicking abilities of your workout clothes.

Whether you are trying to cut down on the chemicals you use in your home, someone in your household has skin sensitivities, or you want to take better care of your fabrics, there are some things you can do to replace dryer sheets and fabric softener.

Alternatives to Commercial Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets

There are options if you want to get away from using disposable dryer sheets or fabric softener liquid. Here are a few things you can do to replace dryer sheets in your laundry room. Some are much easier and less time-consuming than others, so we’ve ranked them in order of “not a hassle at all” to “DIY craft project” levels.

Use Vinegar Instead of Liquid Fabric Softener

While this alternative won’t make your clothes smell like a spring breeze or lavender flowers, it will make your clothing softer and will fight that static cling. Vinegar alone is an excellent option for people with allergies to scented static fighters. Put a half a cup of apple cider vinegar in the rinse cycle. Don’t worry; your clothes won’t come out smelling like vinegar.

Try Wool Dryer Balls to Naturally Soften Clothes

Smart Sheep wool dryer balls sitting on a table next to a woven basket
Smart Sheep

If you’re a fan of dealing with static once your clothes are in the dryer and you don’t want to make homemade dryer sheets, wool dryer balls are the answer to your problems. You can DIY these, but they are difficult to make and won’t be as uniform as store-bought balls. Luckily, you can often find wool dryer balls at the grocery store, at local craft fairs, and even online—these Smart Sheep wool dryer balls are so popular they’re outright outselling Bounce and Downy softeners in the “fabric softener” category on Amazon.

You can use dryer balls alone as a replacement for unscented dryer sheets, or you can add a few drops of your preferred essential oils to the balls to give your clothes a fresh scent. You’ll need more than one. Two dryer balls will work for a small load, three for a medium load, and five for larger dryer loads. Just toss the balls in with your wet clothes and turn the dryer on!

Make DIY Reusable Dryer Sheets

If you prefer to use dryer sheets, you can make your own with the right ingredients. All you’ll need are:

  • About a half a cup of white vinegar
  • Your choice of essential oils (skip this part if you have allergies to strong scents)
  • A sealable glass container (reused food jars will do)
  • Cotton fabric scraps

Cut the fabric scraps up into squares. Cut them to the size you prefer, but usually around five inches both ways works. Use scissors made for cutting material—they do less damage to the fabric which will make your reusable dryer sheets last longer.

Mix the vinegar with around ten drops total of your choice of essential oils in your glass container. Why vinegar? It’s a natural softener, and it also reduces static. The essential oils will add that lasting scent to your clothing that you expect from store-bought dryer sheets.

Some great options for oils include citrus scents, lavender, vanilla, or something minty. Note: Some people may have skin sensitivity to essential oils. Not all essential oils are created equal—read the packaging and only use oils that are OK to be used on the skin (since your clothes touch your skin).

Add the squares of fabric to the jar and let them sit. They will absorb the liquid over time. Just wring one out when you need it and toss it into the dryer with your clothes. You can stick it back in to soak more liquid up when you’re done. Reuse them until they start to breakdown or no longer hold liquid. They’ll last a few loads.


Even if you thought you’d never be able to give up on dryer sheets, we think you’ll find pretty quickly that a splash of vinegar and some wool balls in the dryer might just give your old sheets a run for their money (and save you some money in the process).

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »

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