Commercial fabric softeners have come under increasing scrutiny as potentially hazardous. So what is the problem with them? Why should consumers look to natural alternatives? And, how did the need for fabric softeners develop?
Fabrics have evolved over the years from natural fibers such as wool, hemp and cotton, to synthetic materials like rayon, polyester and fleece. These materials when new, tend to be softer, thinner, and appeal to tactile response from our skin; but when washed, they can be rough, itchy and produce static. Thus the mother of invention fired up and we were now blessed with fabric softeners to save the day.
Two things cause laundered clothing to be rough and generate static cling; hard water and excess soap residue. When clothes dry, this residue is left behind. It was not so noticeable with natural fibers, but when synthetic fibers twist and clump, they generate static cling because of friction especially when tumbled in a dryer.
Hard water contains significant minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron. Many soaps use up their effectiveness dissolving these deposits and have nothing left for washing clothes. This is why soaps do not suds very well in hard water. Residue is left on clothes because the soap can’t fully wash away. To solve the problem, water must be softened, thereby removing minerals. This also changes the surface tension of water, allowing soap to function better.
The other problem of excess soap residue is partly due to the hard water as the soap doesn’t rinse properly. Over use of soap makes this worse. Since softened water requires far less soap this problem may be solved as well.
What’s in Commercial Softeners?
Most commercial softeners are comprised of sodium, acetates, alcohols, and other key chemicals such as poly ammonium quaternary compounds; also known as “Quats”. According to the EPA, a veritable laundry list (no pun intended) of these quats includes sexy chemical names such as diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride, dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate, and di-palm carboxyethyl hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate.
These “quats” and polymers spread a fine coating on fabrics which makes them feel softer and disrupt static. Now you don’t have static electricity but you do have clothing which is more flammable. Research has proven this to be true. In fact, fire retardant fabrics are NOT to be washed with fabric softeners as it will diminish resistance to fire. Dryer vents will also clog with a thin layer of this polymer. The particles that do get through will permeate your home and every breath you take. Added to this are synthetic fragrances which are known to contain *phthalates and other harmful chemicals.
Many of these chemicals have been deemed “asthmagens” by some environmental agencies including The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics; a leading world authority on asthma. Not a good idea for people with other respiratory conditions either.
What About Natural Alternatives?
A simple first step to softer clothes is to soften the water. Forget about all the fancy renovations and upscale décor; invest in a water softener. Your appliances will last longer and be easier to clean as they won’t build up scaly residue. Your skin will be softer, shampoos and soaps will last longer, and rinse properly. Softened water by itself will more easily dissolve and wash away dirt.
Vinegar and Baking Soda
If you are not in a position to install a softener, an easy fix for your laundry is to add about ¼ cup ( 2 oz.) of baking soda to each wash load. Currently you can buy baking soda in stores for about 2 $ per kg. That gives you about 10-15 loads of naturally softened water that is biodegradable, eco-friendly and non-allergenic. It will pay for itself another way as you will need less detergent and it will work better in cold water.
The other major part of the equation is excess soap residue. You do partly solve this problem by softening the water, but white vinegar added to the rinse cycle will take care of this. Just add about 2 oz or 1’4 cup to rinse cycle. You can put it in the slot for fabric softener. Yet another inexpensive item you either have around the house or can easily purchase for pennies a load.
Now a third item you can throw into the mix is glycerine (use veg source). It is not readily available in stores but many online suppliers will have it and it is not expensive. Remember I mentioned that alcohols are used in commercial softeners? Glycerine is an unfermented alcohol which is non-flammable, non- toxic and will soften water. It has a further purpose of dissolving essential oils to add to water.
When essential oils are mixed properly, they provide natural aromas which are a healthy alternative to those strong obnoxious scents found in commercial products. Since whatever you add to laundry permeates your home anyways, why not let the refreshing, natural antiseptic properties of most essential oils change the environment in your home?
Strategic use of essential oils may also help with other issues; for example:
Winter: when the house is closed up, air is recycled and cold and flu microbes are floating around, why not use peppermint, lavender, black spruce or eucalyptus as natural room deodorizers?
At Christmas time, spice things up with orange, tangerine, pine or cinnamon.
During the summer, use basil, lemongrass, or lemon eucalyptus for their insect repelling properties especially if you plan to use your solar powered clothes dryer. It will keep the bugs away.
If you follow these tips or make your own product from the recipe I have provided at the end of this article, it will cost less than half the price of a jug of commercial fabric softener. You also have effective eco-friendly solutions that are better for your machines, home and lungs. You can also be in control of what aroma if any you choose, not ones that have been forced upon you by greedy overbearing corporations that tell us we need this stuff because other over bloated corporations mass produced synthetic fabrics .
Natural Fabric Softener Recipe
2 cups baking soda
100 ml glycerine
50 drops favorite essential oil blend. (optional)
4 L Distilled or Reverse osmosis water
4 L jug
Fill jug 2/3 with water
Add baking soda
Add essential oils to glycerine, stir thoroughly and allow to sit for a few minutes
Add mixture to jug
(if you do not want to use essential oils, just add glycerine directly to water)
Top up with water
Add about 100 ml to each load. Shake a few times before each use. Each jug gives you 40 loads.
**You can add vinegar to the rinse cycle for extra results. Add about 2 oz or ¼ cup
Phthalates – Any of a group of esters of phthalic acid that are widely used in the manufacture of plastics and as synthetic additives in perfumes and cosmetics. These chemicals have been linked to reproductive and hormonal abnormalities in animals, including humans.
– Sandy Powell
Nascent Naturals Inc.
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