How to soften your clothes without damaging them

Laundry is more than just keeping your clothes clean. Done the right way, it prolongs the life of your clothes. Products like fabric softeners, fabric conditioners, and dryer sheets are designed to help you through the cleaning process. To keep your clothes looking great and soften them in the process, Lyndsee Campbell, laundry expert and director of marketing for laundry cleaning company Laundry Care, knows exactly how to use each product for best results.

These three products “basically do the same thing,” says Campbell. “The goal is to reduce wrinkles and static. And a lot of people like that it provides the fragrance.”

Campbell says that fabric conditioner is just a fancy word for fabric softener. “It’s more of a marketing ploy,” says Campbell. “From everything I’ve really read about ingredients and things like that, it’s really the same thing.” These products are added to your washing machine and released during the rinse cycle to leave an invisible residue on your clothes to help them wear better.

Dryer sheets are coated with a substance similar to fabric softeners and conditioners and soften clothes and eliminate static by melting onto clothes. Because dryer sheets work in the dryer, they are much less powerful than fabric softeners or conditioners.

Best Practices for Using Fabric Softeners and Conditioners

Campbell says that fabric softeners and conditioners are best used on natural fibers that can lose their shape or pill with use.

“Specifically with things that stretch a lot, cotton knits and T-shirts, it can help retain the shape of the neck and shoulders and where the armpits, armholes and cuffs and hem are…because they tend to get sometimes stretches a bit after a few uses,” he says. “With sweaters, when you have friction between your arm and the body of the sweater and then [friction] with crotchless linen pants. You may find that it pills a lot and fabric softener/conditioner would help with that.”

Fabric softeners and conditioners leave a film that can damage certain fabrics. Campbell says that while they’re great for natural fibers like cotton or wool, they’ll ruin your workout clothes. “When you leave that residue on your sportswear, it’s basically collecting your sweat and holding it hostage,” says Campbell. And sometimes detergent won’t be enough to fix that, he adds. Additionally, children’s pajamas are legally required to be flame retardant, and fabric softeners can lessen that effect.

You also want to keep fabric softeners and conditioners away from your towels.

“Everyone wants soft, fluffy towels that smell really fresh and clean. But what do you use towels for? To dry,” says Campbell. When he uses fabric softener or conditioner, “he’s drying himself with something that has a lipid or waxy coating on it that can’t be fully absorbed as he’d like.”

Although fabric softeners and conditioners can make your clothes feel good, Campbell says she doesn’t use them often, personally or professionally. “As a company, our suppliers don’t really use fabric softener on a regular basis,” says Campbell. “Dryer sheets, would be used more often. And we suggest using the clear, free type.” This is because most fabric softening conditioners are made with a waxy lipid substance that is derived from animal fat. To avoid this, Campbell uses vegan products like The Laundress Fabric Conditioner ($19). But most of the time, she and her team use distilled white vinegar ($13), which reduces static and softens.

What to use in the dryer

Because dryer sheets are coated with a substance similar to fabric softeners and conditioners, you still need to be careful when using them on synthetic materials like exercise clothes. However, Campbell says you’re better off skipping the dryer sheets and using wool dryer balls instead. “Five or six of those in each load softens the clothes. And everything comes out wrinkle-free,” says Campbell.

“What dryer balls don’t help with or don’t help as much with is static,” she says. “But the solution for that is aluminum balls.” Campbell says to loosely roll a small ball of aluminum foil. “If you put your index finger and thumb together, [the ball should be] that big,” she says.

Two or three aluminum balls thrown into the dryer remove negative ions, which are what create static, explains Campbell. You can reuse them charge after charge until you notice them starting to break. “You don’t want little flakes of aluminum on all your stuff,” she says. Alternatively, she says a large safety pin attached to a washcloth or microfiber cloth will do the same trick.

Opt for sustainable laundry care

When shopping for laundry care products, Campbell says shopping for sustainable vegan options is the way to go.

“It’s not just because of their environmental friendliness, sustainability, not using animal fats, which is gross. But also because of the expense,” says Campbell. “When you buy these products over and over again, they’re just expensive.” If you can get the same result with something like reusable dryer balls, why not use them instead?

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