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Dryer sheets, also called fabric softener sheets, provide wonderful aromas that can make the chore of doing laundry a more pleasurable experience.
These thin sheets are made of nonwoven polyester fabric covered with softeners to help soften clothes and reduce static cling, as well as fragrances to deliver a fresh scent.
Health bloggers, however, have recently been pointing out that these aromatic sheets can be dangerous, causing unnecessary exposure to “toxic chemicals” and even carcinogens.
While it’s a good idea to be a conscious consumer, it’s important to recognize that not all chemicals are bad. Nearly all of the chemicals commonly found in dryer sheets are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
One lingering concern, however, is related to the fragrances used in dryer sheets and other laundry products. More research is needed to determine the potential health effects of scented laundry products.
In the meantime, switching to fragrance-free products or all-natural dryer sheet alternatives may be your best bet.
Keep reading to learn more about what dryer sheets are made of, what kinds of chemicals they emit, and what the current research says about how they may affect your health.
Dryer sheets contain many ingredients, but the most common are:
- dipalmethyl hydroxyethylammoinum methosulfate, a softening and antistatic agent
- fatty acid, a softening agent
- polyester substrate, a carrier
- clay, a rheology modifier, which helps control the viscosity of the coating as it begins to melt in the dryer
Products that may contain fragrance ingredients, but are not applied to the body, like dryer sheets, are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn’t require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients used in their products on the label.
Dryer sheet manufacturers typically list only some of the ingredients on the dryer sheet box, but others don’t list any ingredients at all. You may be able to find additional information on the manufacturers’ websites.
Proctor & Gamble, the creator of Bounce dryer sheets, notes on their website, “All of our fragrances comply with the safety standards of the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the IFRA Code of Practice, and comply with all applicable regulations where they are marketed.”
The concern about dryer sheets stems from several studies that aimed to understand the effects of fragrances in laundry products.
- irritation to the eyes and airways
- allergic skin reactions
- migraine attacks
- asthma attacks
Another study found up to 12.5 percent of adults reported adverse health effects such as asthma attacks, skin problems, and migraine attacks from the fragrance of laundry products coming from a dryer vent.
In a 2011 study published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, researchers discovered that dryer vents emitted more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
VOCs are gases released into the air from the use of products. VOCs may be harmful by themselves, or they may react with other gases in the air to create harmful air pollutants. They’ve been linked to respiratory illnesses, including asthma, and cancer.
According to the Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health study, VOCs emitted from dryer vents after using popular brands of laundry detergent and scented dryer sheets included chemicals like acetaldehyde and benzene, which are considered carcinogenic.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies seven of the VOCs that were found in dryer vent emissions during the study as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).
Several organizations representing laundry products, including the American Cleaning Institute, have rebutted the Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health study.
They pointed out that it lacked a number of scientific standards and proper controls, and provided limited detail about brands, models, and settings of the washers and dryers.
The groups also note that the highest concentrations of four of the seven hazardous air pollutants were also detected when no laundry products were used, and that benzene (one of the chemicals emitted) is naturally present in food and commonly found in both indoor and outdoor air.
Benzene is also not used in fragranced products, according to these industry groups.
In addition, the researchers didn’t differentiate between dryer sheets and other laundry products during the study. The amount of acetaldehyde coming from the dryer vent was also just 3 percent of what’s commonly released from automobiles.
More studies are needed
Little research has actually confirmed whether exposure to chemicals from dryer vent emissions has any adverse health effects.
Larger, controlled studies are needed to prove that the dryer sheets themselves are producing VOCs in high enough concentrations to harm human health.
A recent study found that air quality improved after switching from fragranced to fragrance-free laundry products.
In particular, concentrations of a potentially harmful VOC called d-limonene can be almost completely eliminated from the dryer vent emissions after making the switch.
There are several alternatives to dryer sheets that can help with static cling without risking your health and safety. Plus, most of these dryer sheet hacks are less expensive than dryer sheets or can be reused for many years.
Next time you dry your laundry, consider these options:
- Reusable wool dryer balls. You can find them online.
- White vinegar. Spray some vinegar on a washcloth and add it to the dryer, or add a 1/4 cup of vinegar to your washer’s rinse cycle.
- Baking soda. Add a little baking soda to your laundry during the wash cycle.
- Aluminum foil. Crumple the foil into a ball about the size of a baseball, and toss it in the dryer with your laundry to reduce static.
- Reusable static eliminating sheets. Products such as AllerTech or ATTITUDE are nontoxic, hypoallergenic, and fragrance-free.
- Air-drying. Hang your laundry on a clothesline rather than putting it in the dryer.
Keep in mind that even fragranced dryer sheets and laundry products that are labeled “green,” “eco-friendly, “all-natural,” or “organic” can release hazardous compounds.
While dryer sheets aren’t likely as toxic and carcinogenic as many health bloggers claim, the fragrances used in dryer sheets and other laundry products are still under investigation. More research is needed to determine whether these scented products are harmful to your health.
From an environmental standpoint, dryer sheets aren’t needed to keep clothes clean. As single-use products, they produce needless amounts of waste and emit potentially harmful chemicals into the air.
As a health-conscious consumer, it may be prudent — as well as environmentally responsible — to switch to an alternative, like wool dryer balls or white vinegar, or to choose dryer sheets that are fragrance-free or deemed a “safer choice” by the EPA.