Fabric softener vs dryer sheets: Which is best?

Do your clothes have a magnetic attraction to pet hair and lint? Fabric softeners are used to reduce static electricity to prevent garments from clumping together in the machine AND can help minimise the amount of fluff that clings onto your favourite pair of pants.

Aside from liquid fabric softeners, using dryer sheets is another popular way to eliminate static and get your clothes feeling soft and smelling fresh. But what’s the difference between the two and are they even necessary? Read our guide below to understand how fabric softeners and dryer sheets work, plus get a better idea of the pros and cons of adding them to your laundry.

How does fabric softener work?

What is fabric softener

Fabric softener which comes in liquid or powder form is added to laundry loads to reduce static in your clothes caused by contact with other fabrics. Fabric softeners contain different lubricants that coat and ‘loosen’ the fabric fibres in your garments, but most people also use softeners to get rid of wrinkles in clothes, neutralise bad odours, and leave materials feeling soft and smelling fresh.

Unlike dryer sheets, fabric softeners are poured into the washing machine. Depending on the product, liquid fabric softener is added during the rinse cycle or once the wash cycle ends.

How do dryer sheets work?

What are dryer sheets

Dryer sheets are thin pieces of polyester or cellulose fabric, which contain a mix of liquid fabric softeners, lubricants, and fragrances. These are added into the clothes dryer NOT the washing machine. Dryer sheets are an alternative to liquid fabric softeners and provide many of the same benefits, such as eliminating static, minimising stiffness in your clothes, and depositing scents.

Should you use dryer sheets with fabric softener?

There’s no need to use dryer sheets if you’re already adding liquid fabric softener to your laundry load because both products are designed to do the same thing – that is to reduce static in your clothes and make them feel softer to the touch. Dryer sheets and fabric softeners also contain similar ingredients, just in a different form. Dryer sheets are actually an alternative to liquid softeners, along with dryer balls and simple air drying. The main difference between dryer sheets and fabric softeners is that dryer sheets are placed into the clothes dryer, NOT the washing machine.

Is it better to use fabric softener or dryer sheets?

Is it better to use fabric softener or dryer sheets?

It ultimately depends on your laundry habits. If you don’t tend to use your clothes dryer much, then a fabric softener is the best option since it gets added to your washing load. If you need a self-softener that’s gentle on sensitive skin and won’t trigger allergies, fabric softeners are also the best option since fragrance-free varieties are much more available for softeners than sheets.

Both are great at making materials feel soft, smell great, and minimise static to keep your clothes from clinging together and onto your skin. However, people have found fault with both as they can trigger skin allergies in people with sensitivities and damage materials’ ability to absorb or wick away moisture.

To help you decide which is best to use, here are a few pros and cons of fabric softeners and dryer sheets.

Why you should use fabric softener instead of dryer sheets

Liquid fabric softeners are great because they come in a wide selection of fragrances, with specific products also available for those with sensitive skin or who prefer an environmentally-friendly alternative (without having to switch to other types of softeners like dryer balls or vinegar). There isn’t as much variety with dryer sheets, making fabric softeners a more convenient solution.

Here are a few main advantages and disadvantages of using liquid fabric softener.

Pros of fabric softener Cons of fabric softener
Makes fabrics feel soft and less stiff Can damage certain types of materials, such as cashmere and sportswear
Helps clothes and items smell great Can irritate the skin, especially in children
Reduces static electricity in clothing, blankets, and other items Can damage the rubber door seal in laundry appliances, such as front load washing machines

General guide only

Why you should use dryer sheets over fabric softener

Dryer sheets are better on certain types of material, such as athletic sportswear and towels, where fabric softener can actually weaken the structure of fabrics and leave them comparably more prone to damage. Although, there are still claims that some dryer sheets can still reduce absorbency or wicking ability.

Check out several reasons why dryer sheets are a good (or not-so-good) idea.

Pros of dryer sheets Cons of dryer sheets
Can be cheaper to buy Can get stuck in one spot if the clothes dryer is too full
Help reduce creases and wrinkles Can irritate the skin and potentially cause respiratory problems
Can alternatively be used to freshen shoes, bags (including luggage), and small bins Can cause lint residue inside the clothes dryer

General guide only

Here are several types of items suited to dryer sheets:

  • Flame-resistant clothing: Many kids’ clothes, including baby clothing, and fire safety work gear are treated with flame-resistant chemicals to ensure they don’t catch on fire once exposed to high levels of heat or flame. Some fabric softeners may contain flammable chemicals, such as emulsifiers, which can damage the fire-resistant coating and reduce its effectiveness.
  • Athletic sportswear: Fabric softeners can potentially weaken the moisture-wicking fibres in sportswear that are designed to prevent stains and help us feel cool and dry as much as possible. This includes materials like polyester, nylon, and polypropylene.
  • Swimwear: Swimwear is usually made from nylon, spandex, elastane, polyester, and other stretchy synthetic fabrics that repel water. Fabric softener can cause the swimmer material to absorb moisture, causing it to dry slowly and making it more likely to develop bad smells (and even grow mould if left for an extended period of time, in a closed or particularly humid environment).
  • Wools: Delicate fabrics like cashmere, wool, and mohair naturally have a soft and fluffy texture and contain moisture-wicking fibres that can be damaged by coating chemicals found in fabric softeners.
  • Microfibre clothing and cloths: Microfibre is great at absorbing spills and collecting dirt, but residue from softeners can clog up fibres and make the material less effective.
  • Towels: Since softener is designed to coat the entire fabric, towels can lose their ability to absorb water due to the different oils and petroleum-based ingredients often contained in these laundry products. These can create a waxy coating that causes your towels to require more frequent washing, and to break down more quickly.
  • Down or feather-filled items: Fabric softener can flatten the feathers, which can cause blankets, pillows, jackets and other feather or down-filled items to lose their fluffiness.

Alternatives to fabric softener & dryer sheets

Alternatives to fabric softener & dryer sheets

Don’t want to use liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets? Here are a few alternatives you can replace them with:

  • Dryer balls: Using heat from the dryer, dryer balls bounce around the machine to dry clothes and prevent your load from clumping together.
  • Vinegar: Replacing liquid fabric softener with a small amount of vinegar, such as half a cup, can soften clothes and reduce static without the need for harsh chemicals.
  • Baking soda and vinegar: For a natural fabric softener, you can mix two parts warm water and one part baking soda. You can also stir in essential oils if you want to add a scent.
  • Hair conditioner and vinegar: According to brand Speed Queen, mixing water with vinegar and hair conditioner can be a cheap and convenient substitution for liquid fabric softener.
  • Aluminum foil: Scrunching foil into a ball and placing it into your clothes dryer is claimed to help reduce static and keep items from sticking together in the machine.

Do you need dryer sheets?

Dryer sheets aren’t necessary, particularly if you’re planning on using them as an alternative to liquid fabric softener. Since dryer sheets are often treated with a fragrant fabric softener, both types of softeners generally contain similar ingredients and have the same impact on most materials.

But dryer sheets are a good option if you’re using dryer balls and want a more effective softener or add a nice scent without using essential oils. They’re also not as noisy since the sheets don’t bounce around inside the machine, unlike wool dryer balls.

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Picture credits: Teerasak Ladnongkhun/Shutterstock.com, Sergey Lapin/Shutterstock.com, Shotmedia/Shutterstock.com, Mike Fig Photo/Shutterstock.com, FotoHelin/Shutterstock.com.

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