Originally I was going to include fabric conditioners in with the detergents in part 1, but it was getting very long! And really fabric conditioners need a space to themselves because, well, you'll see!
Considering how long people have been washing clothes, fabric conditioners as we know them today have not been around all that long. They rose to popularity with the tumble dryer, and the rise of synthetic fabrics use in clothing, both produce static and smell pretty bad when heated.
The soution? Along came fabric conditioners, their job is to 'coat' the clothes in, well, basically a soup of chemicals to make them feel soft, and prevent the build up of static. Great! Except for the tiny problem that these chemicals also smell pretty bad, the solution to this? The heady perfume fabric conditioners are known for is added, using... a few more chemicals.
I will admit that I have a fairly sensitive sense of smell but sometimes peoples fabric conditioner on their clothes is so strong that it will make my eyes water and make it a little harder for me to breathe just standing next to them. But the chemicals made to make this fragrance could actually be doing us some real harm. They release VOC's or Volatile organic compounds many of these are actually classified as toxic or hazardous air pollutants, they contribute massively to air pollution in the home (which is often actually many times higher than air pollution outside the home) and can cause or exacerbate respiratory disorders such as asthma (VOCs can be and are released from many sources inside the home not just fabric conditioner, but this is a major contributor). Some of them are also suspected hormone disruptors.
But the regulations state that product manufacturers do not have to declare what makes up the fragrance of their product because it would leave them open to being copied by competitors. This means that in some cases no-one outside the manufacturer actually knows what chemicals they are using to give the fragrance.
The softness provided to your clothes is largely provided by a group of chemicals whose name is shortened to quarts. The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, a leading international authority on asthma, calls these chemicals "asthmagens," substances that can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people. With Instances of asthma on the rise (especially in children) is this something we should or can afford to ignore?
By their very nature the chemicals are designed to stay on the clothes that you have on your skin, so some of them will be absorbed into your skin. For some people they can even cause contact dermatitis, eczema and body acne.
It is quite amusing, and at the same time horrifying that the adverts for these products often focus on the natural, their imaging is of hillside, mountains, festivals (!) people taking deep deep breaths of their wonderful clean and fresh fragrances....
I hadn't realised before we started our eco journey but Fabric softener is actually bad for quite a few materials;
Firstly because it makes them less absorbent, so at the very least you should stop using them on your towels! But also sports wear, which is designed to wick moisture away from your skin and allow your skin to breathe,(and is probably a large part of the reason you bought it in the first place!) is prevented from doing this by the film that is put on them by the fabric conditioner.
Also anything that contains spandex aka elastane - leggings, some jeans and 'control shape wear', swimming costumes anything that has 'stretch' are all likely to be weakened by the use of fabric conditioner and have a shorter lifespan.
Secondly because it makes them more flammable. Even if you buy fabrics that have been treated or made to be flame retardant (usually children's clothes/costumes) then adding fabric conditioner to them will reduce their effectiveness by up to 7 times according to the Department of Chemistry at McGill University.
So in a lot of cases, fabric conditioner is actually completely unnecessary and a big fat waste of money!
So that's the bad news! What of the good? What if you love your fabric conditioner? What if you are old friends going back years and you love smelling like spring mountain dew on the delicate petal of an alpine flower damn it!
Well the good news is: You can still have lovely soft clothes, you can even get them to smell pretty good (perhaps a more subtle fragrance, which is probably, upon reflection, what spring mountain dew on the delicate petal of an alpine flower was going for anyway....) ;-) without the chemicals!
The original fabric conditioners were made with olive oil but you do not even need to go that far.
If you are really not ready to kick the fabric conditioner habit then we have 2 great choices of fabric conditioners that are far
more eco friendly and use natural fragrances.
Bio D This comes as unscented or with a lavender fragrance (so your clothes can be a source of calm in your day!) As mentioned in Part 1, 100% of their range is hypoallergenic, they are also 100% natural, plant based products, they are committed to sustainable practices and are credited with the 14001 standard and are vegan.
Eco Egg These come in Fresh Linen or Spring blossom fragrance. Plant based and containing natural fragrance, it is also super concentrated, meaning one bottle will last your for around 240 washes! So it will last about a year for the average family and making it about 4p a wash to use! Again they have a great environmental policy, are hypoallergenic and vegan.
If you do not wish to use fabric conditioners at all, then the easiest way to keep your clothes soft and nice smelling is to line dry them when possible. (I appreciate that in the UK this equates to roughly 5 days a year! But on those days go for it!)
At the very least keep synthetic fabrics out of the tumble dryer as they are the main culprits for static production.
But fear not for the other 360 days a year there are still options;
Woolen Dryer Balls. They soften your clothes, reduce static and shorten drying time. If you want a scent you can add a few drops of essential oil to them and they will gently fragrance your clothes as they go. They are very economical too, lasting for around 1000 uses.
Ecoegg Dryer Egg. They work in a similar way to the wool dryer balls, softening clothes and reducing drying time (by up to 28%) but also impart a subtle, natural fragrance to your clothes. The eggs should last...well for ages, you just need to change the scent sticks when they become less smelly.
- You can also try adding some white vinegar to your washing machine during the rinse cycle. - The smell will not last, but it will make your clothes feel soft soft soft.
- You can use essential oil to give a lovely subtle fragrance, and its super easy to change the scent when ever you want! You can either add it to your fabric conditioner draw of your washing machine or make up a spray bottle of distilled white vinegar and essential oil and spray on your clothes before adding them to the dryer. To 250ml of White Vinegar add 1.5 tsp of Eucalyptus essential oil (Lavender, lemongrass also work well or experiment with your own favourite scent!) and spray!
It is highly recommended that you swap out your detergent (see part 1) for one of the more natural alternatives if you are going to swap or stop altogether your fabric conditioner. Because the detergents and the fabric conditioners you have been using will be on your clothes still, and it may take a few washes for them to come out. This may lead to them feeling a bit stiffer and starchier than usual for a little while. It is also worth giving your washing machine a bit of a detox to get any residue out of it.
Phew, so there you have it, and now you know why fabric softeners needed their own post! In the 3rd and final part of this laundry series we will have a look at what we can do to tackle any particularly stubborn stains in an more eco way.