You might have gone through your kitchen pantry and removed all of the toxic foods, and then purged toxic cleaning products from under the sink, but what about your laundry room? Some of the most chemical-laden products live there, yet it’s the last place people tend to think about. Detergents definitely give cause for concern, but this article will focus on another laundry product you might not even regard as a hazard. Are dryer sheets toxic?
It’s almost impossible to walk through a residential neighborhood these days without catching the familiar waft of fabric softeners. The problem is, these pleasing scents actually come from a blend of toxic chemicals that have escaped regulation and are silently contributing to a variety of health problems from skin irritations and asthma to cancer, making their way into your body through your skin and lungs. The full spectrum of their effects on humans, animals, and the environment is largely unknown—because it hasn’t been studied.
The problem is, you’re not exposed to single chemicals but rather complex mixtures of chemicals. Fragrances alone contain thousands of compounds with established risks to our immune, endocrine, respiratory, and neurological systems—and that’s only one component of the noxious brew.
Is Your Dryer Vent Emitting a Noxious Cloud?
In the first study of its kind, in 2011 University of Washington Professor Anne Steinemann analyzed the chemical compounds found in laundry dryer emissions. She identified more than 25 VOCs (volatile organic compounds), with the highest concentrations being acetaldehyde, acetone and ethanol.
Some of these VOCs are classified by the EPA as “hazardous air pollutants,” and two (acetaldehyde and benzene) are classified as carcinogens—unsafe at any level of exposure. (1, 2, 3) Many fabric softeners also contain quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) and imidazolidinyl, both known to release formaldehyde. Quats cause a variety of asthma-like symptoms and even respiratory arrest in a small percentage of sensitive people.
These are dangerous chemicals you definitely don’t want filling your family’s airspace or venting into the outdoor air!
In Steinemann’s analysis, none of the VOCs were listed on any product label, and only two were listed on associated MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets). Consumers often believe MSDS to be authoritative documents, but in reality neither the US Food and Drug Administration nor the Consumer Product Safety Commission require individual fragrance ingredients to be listed on labels or MSDS. (4) Therefore, there is no way for you, as a consumer, to know these agents are present. Many of the “greener” dryer sheets were found to be just as toxic as conventional dryer sheets—no wonder 83 percent of fabric softeners receive an abysmal D or F rating by the Environmental Working Group. (5)
Thanks to the work of Dr. Steinemann, we now know fabric softeners contain a distressing array of compounds—methanol, butane, pentane, linalool, limonene, benzyl acetate, camphor, chloroform, A-terpinol, and others—the likes of which never appear on product labels. (6) If you’re thinking these chemicals might off-gas at levels too low to cause harm, think again. Some are actually proving more dangerous at lower levels than at higher levels, and all of them certainly contribute to your overall toxic load.
Fragranced products—especially air fresheners, dryer sheets, and perfume—are among the products with the largest number of chemicals, in the highest concentrations. Fragrances can trigger skin irritation or asthma. Some are shown to mimic estrogen, stimulating the growth of breast cancer cells in the lab. (7) Endocrine disrupting chemicals cost the US more than $340 billion each year in healthcare costs and lost productivity. (8)
Limonene is a lung irritant, and benzyl acetate is linked to pancreatic cancer. Benzene is particularly scary—this poisonous chemical is linked to anemia and blood cancers such as leukemia, as well as being a known endocrine disruptor. When pregnant animals breathe benzene, they experience low birth weight offspring, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage. It’s not known whether benzene disrupts fertility in men or produces birth defects in human children, but it’s so toxic that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually recommends removing clothing that may have become contaminated it—so how is it okay to have benzene in our laundry? (9, 10, 11)
Making matters worse, fabric softeners are engineered to last, incorporating tenacious chemicals that leave a residue on your clothing that never completely washes out. This posits the question—do they last as long in your body as on our clothes? Your guess is as good as mine, but I can tell you the human body’s detoxification pathways are already being taxed beyond belief, and these chemicals only make matters worse.
These chemicals aren’t just doing a number on us humans. VOCs like benzene and toluene are also toxic to birds, including those you have as pets. In studies, mice exposed to fabric softener emissions experience sensory and pulmonary irritation and airflow limitation. Very little science exists about their health effects on wildlife, but significant problems can just about be guaranteed. (12, 13, 14)
Scents That Make NO Sense
“If they’re coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they’re regulated, but if they’re coming out of a dryer vent, they’re not.” ~ Anne Steinemann (15)
Scent is the most powerful of our senses, hard-wired into the most primal parts of the brain and inextricably connected to emotion and memory. Industry capitalizes on our powerful attraction to fragrance in order to sell all manner of products, from medications to soap, nail polish and paper—even industrial products such as paint and varnish. “Scent branding” lures people in like bees to honey. (16) Ambient scenting in retail spaces has been shown to increase purchases and make people stay longer.
Of the more than 5,000 different ingredients used by the fragrance industry, only about 1,300 have actually been tested for safety. The majority are derived from petroleum and coal tar.
Because toxic exposures are so ubiquitous today, many individuals have developed chemical sensitivities. Scented products are known to cause eye and respiratory irritation, asthma, contact dermatitis, migraines, and even seizures. In one national survey, 30 percent of Americans reported irritation from scented products in general, 19 percent reported adverse effects from air fresheners, and 10.9 percent report irritation from scented laundry products vented outside. (17) Fragrance in the workplace is being called “the new secondhand smoke.” The average consumer is as uneducated about the dangers of synthetic fragrance products as the average nonsmoker was about the risks of secondhand smoke decades ago. (18)
Some fragrances are added just to counter noxious smelling ingredients, so you might not even detect the scent. Many of these compounds cross your blood-brain barrier and have psychoactive properties at very low levels, and some are neurotoxic.
How can manufacturers get away with this? Under current laws, industry is not required to disclose all of the ingredients in laundry and cleaning supplies—and they really get a pass when it comes to fragrances. The fragrance industry is allowed to “self-regulate” through a trade association known as the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). What little testing they do only involves skin reactions, not neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity or anything else.
10 Eco-Friendly Tips for Soft, Fresh Static-Free Clothes
If you aren’t willing to risk your health for the sake of static-free clothes, then consider some natural options that accomplish the same thing without posing any risks to you, your pets, or the planet. Commercial dryer sheets tend to clog up your dryer’s lint screen, making your dryer less efficient—not to mention clogging up landfills—but the following human- and environment-friendly alternatives will keep your clothes feeling soft and fresh without gumming up the works or adding to your body’s toxic load.
- Line Dry: Dry your clothes naturally on indoor or outdoor drying racks.
- Remove While Slightly Damp: Dry clothes at a lower temperature and remove them from the dryer before they’re completely dry. This remaining moisture helps prevent static cling.
- Shake, Shake, Shake: Once out of the dryer, giving your clothes a good shake helps remove any remaining static.
- Separate the Synthetics: Launder natural and synthetic fabrics separately, as synthetics (nylon, rayon, etc.) are responsible for most of the static. A dryer full of natural fiber garments is less likely to come out all staticky—particularly if not overdried. Synthetics often air dry quickly.
- Aluminum Foil: Several sources report that placing a wad of aluminum foil in the dryer with your clothes helps eliminate static.
- Baking Soda: Baking soda works as a fabric softener by softening the water (changing its pH). Try adding one-quarter to one-half cup baking soda to your wash cycle.
- White Vinegar: Vinegar can also work as a fabric softener, especially if you have mineral rich “hard” water. Try adding one-half cup to the wash or rinse cycle. In the rinse cycle, vinegar will additionally reduce static cling.
- Vinegar and Essential Oils Spray: Fill a spray bottle with one cup of white vinegar and 1.5 teaspoons essential oil, such as eucalyptus. Shake well and then apply 10 to 15 squirts to your wet clothes before starting the dryer. The vinegar smell will be gone when the clothes are dry. Crunchy Betty recommends eucalyptus oil, but geranium, citrus, lavender, mint, and pine are other options.
- Homemade Dryer Sheets: It’s not difficult to make your own eco-friendly, cost-effective dryer sheets out of old dish towels, bed linens, t-shirts or other cotton fabrics. Visit View From the Fridge or Wellness Mama for instructions. There are also reusable, eco-friendly, static-eliminating dryer sheets on the market today.
- Dryer Balls: Dryer balls made from natural fibers (typically wool) are a super cool option. They wick out moisture and create air space between your clothes as they tumble around, reducing drying time and lowering the electrical charge that accumulates when fabrics rub against each other, thereby reducing static cling. Just like with homemade dryer sheets, you can dab them with a few small drops of essential oil. Let the oil fully soak into the dryer balls for ten to 20 minutes before using them.
You can now obtain dryer balls from numerous sources, but why not make your own? Healthy Living has a popular how-to page. If you don’t have dryer balls and don’t feel like making your own, try throwing in an old sweater with your load—it works the same way. The Homemade Experiment has a nice post with all sorts of natural laundry tips—including homemade fabric softeners and dryer balls.