Softening clothes is an important task in many homes; after all, who doesn’t love the softness of fresh laundry softened up with fabric softener? It makes our laundry feel better and smell fantastic but it often comes with a price. The harsh chemicals in traditional fabric softeners can damage people and the environment. And this is where fabric softener alternatives come to the rescue.
Fortunately, numerous natural alternatives to chemical fabric softeners are affordable and eco-friendly without sacrificing cleanliness or freshness - from white vinegar or baking soda to essential oils and vegetable glycerin.
Read on for several excellent alternatives to softening clothes with those plastic bottles of traditional softeners. However, we've also got you covered if you’d prefer the more common liquid format. Check out our guide to eco-friendly fabric softeners.
Further, ditch the laundry detergent in plastic bottles in favor of laundry detergent sheets or refillable laundry detergent. Alongside the softness you're looking for, these options offer up the most eco-friendly, clean & soft clothes.
Fabric softener alternatives are becoming increasingly popular as people seek ways to reduce their environmental impact. Traditional fabric softeners contain harsh chemicals linked to adverse health effects and environmental pollutants such as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). VOCs can linger in indoor air and harm air quality.
Using natural alternatives is an effective way for those who want to be more eco-conscious about their laundry habits. Further, you won't break the bank or sacrifice the softness and freshness of clothes.
Traditional fabric softeners contain harsh chemicals and toxins. These toxins have been linked to various health risks, such as skin irritation, allergies, and respiratory issues.
Natural alternatives like white vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils are much milder on the skin and don't contain any dangerous toxins often found in synthetic fabric softener varieties. Not only do these alternatives not cause any adverse health reactions for users, but they can also help to reduce static electricity from your clothing.
Conditioners can be used in place of liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets for a gentle softening effect. Similarly, vegetable glycerin helps draw in moisture while maintaining that fluffy feel you love from using regular fabric softener crystals.
Regarding the cost-effectiveness of fabric softener alternatives, they are generally much more affordable than traditional fabric softeners. You can make natural fabric softeners from items you may already have in your home or pantry, like baking soda and white vinegar.
Additionally, many options, such as wool dryer balls or essential oils, can be reused for multiple loads. Unlike regular store-bought fabric softeners, which will require constant re-purchasing every few weeks or months, natural alternatives won’t need to be purchased constantly, which helps keep long-term costs low.
For example, you could spend anywhere between $5-$20 on a bottle of liquid fabric softener. Typically each bottle provides around 30 uses. However, spending just a couple of dollars on a reusable alternative like wool dryer balls or aluminum foil balls will last many years after making the initial purchase.
From white vinegar to essential oils, plenty of natural alternatives to chemical fabric softeners can be used in the home.
Soap nuts are natural and sustainable alternatives to fabric softeners. These soapy nuts come from the berries of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree. Soap nuts contain saponins and lauric acid, producing a gentle soapy foam when agitated in water.
Each nut can be used up to 4 times, saving money and natural resources since it is an organic source. Because soap nuts don’t contain any additional chemicals or fragrances, they won’t leave behind residue on clothes. Moreover, they won't pollute the environment as regular fabric softeners do.
Additionally, soap nuts are suitable for sensitive skin or allergies. They are hypoallergenic and non-irritating compared to traditional fabric softener wash cycles.
Related: Grab a soap-saver bag for easy use and to help remove the nuts at the end of the cycle.
White vinegar is an affordable and effective way to soften clothes and reduce static cling. Packed with acetic acid, this natural fabric softener helps loosen fibers in clothing and absorb moisture in the air inside your laundry room.
This makes clothing easier to iron and gives a smooth finish while keeping garments fresh-smelling.
To use white vinegar, add one-half of a cup during the rinse cycle of every load of laundry for softer clothes. Plus, you will notice less static clinging when wearing them afterward.
As a bonus, using white vinegar can help extend the life of your clothes by protecting against damage caused by harsh chemicals in traditional store-bought fabric softeners or softened water from wells.
Add a few drops of your preferred essential oil to give your clothing an extra aroma boost.
Baking soda is an excellent alternative to traditional fabric softeners, as it is all-natural, eco-friendly, and cost-effective. It can also deodorize clothes by eliminating unpleasant odors with its slightly abrasive composition.
Baking soda softens fabrics and reduces static when added to the laundry load or in a fabric softener dispenser during the rinse cycle. Not only that, but it also has antimicrobial properties, which help remove mildew and mold on fabrics.
For clean and fresh-smelling clothes, use baking soda as a natural fabric softener alternative. Simply add half a cup to your washing machine’s final rinse cycle for small loads or up to one cup for bigger laundry bins.
Wool dryer balls are a great and eco-friendly alternative to traditional fabric softeners. They are made of naturally compostable wool, which is easy on the environment.
When placed in the dryer with wet clothes, they bounce around during tumbling and help them dry faster by breaking up any clumps of clothing and absorbing some moisture from the air.
The bouncing action also helps to soften fabrics naturally. And even better does so without any harsh chemicals while eliminating static cling for smoother, softer laundry.
Similar to the wool ones above, bamboo dryer balls are an equally effective and environmentally conscious substitute for conventional fabric softeners and dryer sheets. Made from sustainably sourced and 100% biodegradable bamboo, they offer an earth-friendly way to soften clothes and reduce drying time.
As these dryer balls rotate in the dryer with damp garments, they efficiently separate clothing items. This movement helps create channels for hot air to circulate. This process results in quicker drying times, contributing to significant energy savings.
Also, a bamboo dryer ball adds natural softness to fabrics without any harsh chemicals, reducing the potential for skin irritations. As a bonus, these balls are long-lasting, giving them an additional edge in sustainability and cost-effectiveness.
Essential oils are an excellent alternative to fabric softeners due to their natural, chemical-free composition. These oils provide a fresh scent and naturally soften fabrics. They may also help fight against bacteria and laundry odor without exposing your family or the environment to harsh chemicals from traditional fabric softeners.
Popular essential oil varieties such as lavender, tea tree, rosemary, and citrus are often recommended for adding fragrance and softening capabilities when washing clothes as their anti-bacterial properties can be helpful against mildew.
When using oils as a fabric softener alternative, add 10-30 drops per each load of laundry before heading off into the wash cycle. Then enjoy softer-smelling laundry!
Be cautious when selecting oils for delicate fabrics like wool or silk; alternatively, you could opt for gentle solutions such as almond or jojoba oil, which act more effectively on these materials.
Vegetable glycerin, or simply glycerin, is an effective and natural alternative to traditional fabric softeners. It is a three-carbon sugar alcohol derived from plant lipids with the same properties as chemical-laden synthetic fabric softeners without the potential health risks.
Glycerin is commonly used in soaps and other bath products due to its hydrating and healing qualities, which are beneficial for skin health. In laundry routines, this natural fabric softener can also soften clothes while preserving the integrity of clothing fibers.
When using glycerin as a fabric softener, add about half a cup directly into your wash with your regular detergent during the rinse cycle at temperatures up to 120 F (49 C).
If desired, you could also add essential oils for fragrance.
Hair conditioner is an excellent natural fabric softener alternative as it helps to reduce static and soften clothes without harsh chemicals. Unlike regular fabric softeners, conditioners are usually free from potential allergens, dyes, fragrances, or preservatives.
Using hair conditioner as a natural fabric softener is easy. All you need to do is add a small amount – usually one-half cup per load – into your fabric softener dispenser at the same time that you add detergent during the wash cycle.
It works best on cold water settings and should be added two minutes into the rinse cycle for maximum efficiency. For particularly hard fabrics like towels, sheets, or curtains - adding another quarter cup of white vinegar during the final rinse will help keep laundry softer longer over multiple washes than just using plain cold water alone.
Whether you choose a conventional store-bought hair conditioner or something naturally based with organic oils, this method of softer clothing without toxic chemicals won’t cost more than a few dollars and yields great results.
Foil balls are effective and affordable fabric softener alternatives, perfect for those looking to be more sustainable. They are designed in the shape of a ball with many holes punched into them, allowing air to flow freely through them and get caught up in wet clothes during the tumble drying process.
These small air pockets act as miniature cushions on clothing, significantly reducing friction between garments and creating softer fabrics than clothing dried without these foil balls.
As well as being much more eco-friendly than commercially bought fabric softeners or dryer sheets containing harsh chemicals, using an aluminum foil ball can help you save money. As each one is reusable multiple times before needing replacing, it is a great way of recycling aluminum foil at home.
Alternatives to fabric softeners can bring healthier and more sustainable results. Many natural options are accessible and affordable. You can even start with the items you already have at home. Adding white vinegar or baking soda to the washing machine helps soften clothes while reducing static cling without causing any harm to the environment or our health.
Wool dryer balls reduce furnace time and act as a natural fabric softener. Essential oils add freshness and fragrance in addition to being gentle on fibers. Use vegetable glycerin, hair conditioner, soapnuts, and aluminum foil balls to achieve softer and fresher clothes with a minimum environmental footprint.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.