The biggest laundry mistake you're probably making

Dryer sheets and fabric softener smell good, but they are not good for your clothes or dryer.

Alina Bradford CNET Contributor
Alina Bradford has been writing how-tos, tech articles and more for almost two decades. She currently writes for CNET's Smart Home Section, MTVNews' tech section and for Live Science's reference section. Follow her on Twitter.
Alina Bradford
3 min read
Alina Bradford/CNET

I know. You love how your laundry smells and feels after you use fabric softener or dryer sheets. I totally understand.

The problem is, they're not that great for your clothing, towels or dryer. Here's why you should rethink your washing and drying routine.

Why dryer sheets are a bad idea

Dryer sheets are woven sheets of fibers coated with stearic acid or fatty acids, scents and a cocktail of various chemicals. In the dryer, the stearic acid melts from the heat, coating the clothes to make them soft and reduce static.

Unfortunately, the film from the dryer sheet also coats your entire dryer. This typically isn't a problem, except when it comes to the dryer's lint filter.

The residue from the fabric softener sheet builds up on the filter, load after load. Eventually, you'll find that lint is hard to remove because the sticky film has blocked the holes in the filter and adhered to some of the lint.

You may also notice your clothes are covered in lint when you remove them from the dryer. Lint stays on your clothes because no air can make it through the filter to pull the lint away from your clothes.

Here are some other problems:

  • The coating may make your towels feel nice, but it also makes them less absorbent. Avoid using dryer sheets when washing bath, kitchen, microfiber or cleaning towels or rags.
  • If you have children, avoid washing their pajamas with dryer sheets. The coating can make pajamas less fire resistant.
  • Stearic acid coatings can disable the wicking capabilities of active wear and socks.

Luckily, dryer sheets are useful for many other things:

20 unexpected ways to use dryer sheets

See all photos

Fabric softener's better but still has problems

Fabric softener doesn't have all the problems that dryer sheets have. As long as you use the right amount, clothes should come out soft and static-free. Also, most brands don't affect absorbency or wicking, according to Consumer Reports. 

It does, however, lessen the effectiveness of fire-resistant clothing, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And, fabric softener can irritate those with sensitive skin. 

Soft alternatives

You don't have to give up softness and static-free clothes. There are some simple and cost-effective alternatives.

To replace fabric softener, add a quarter-cup of baking soda or a half-cup of white vinegar to the wash during the rinse cycle. Your clothes will feel softer and look brighter without any irritating chemicals. (FYI: Don't mix vinegar with bleach. It creates noxious fumes.) FYI, don't use vinegar in front loading washers. The acid in the vinegar can eat through the door seal. 

To take care of the static situation, make aluminum foil balls for your dryer. All you need is two or three foil balls made with 3 or 4 square feet (0.28 to 0.39 square meter) of aluminum foil each, mashed into a ball that is around 2 to 3 inches (5.0 to 7.6 centimeters) in diameter. Once they're made, all you do is toss them in the dryer with your wet clothes.

Editor's note: This article has been updated for clarity. 

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