What is fabric softener?

Have you ever wondered what fabric softener is? Maybe you have been curious about using it but not sure if it actually works, or what it’s made of? In this article I hope to answer these questions and give you some advice on when it is suitable to use fabric softeners in your wash.

What is fabric softener?

So what is fabric softener? Fabric softener is an additive that goes into your washing to make our clothes feel softer. These fabric softeners work by introducing positively charged chemicals to the materials being washed and causing the fibers to stand up whilst also lubricating the same fibers. The reason that this makes your clothing feel softer is that during the washing process the agitation of the washing machine causes your clothing to become crushed and flattened.

When it comes to drying your clothes on the clothes line this only adds to the effect making the fibers dry how they came out of the machine. When you take your dry clothes off the line they may feel stiff and hard, by adding fabric softeners you can help prevent this and potentially prolong the life of your clothes. Fabric softeners are also used to make ironing easier.

When used with synthetic clothing, fabric softeners play the role of removing the static from your items so you don’t get that unexpected jolt. Most fabric softeners come with scents to make your clothes smell nice, but this is just an added bonus.


Fabric softener ingredients?

So now that we know what fabric softener is, what goes into it to make it work? There are two important ingredients that go into a fabric softener to make it work, these are a conditioning medium and an emulsifier. The conditioning medium is of a fatty or oily nature and is responsible for the soft feel your clothes get after using a fabric softener. The emulsifier is responsible for getting the conditioner onto your clothes. Without an emulsifier the conditioner would just rise to the surface of the water and have no effect on your clothes.

The two most common conditioning mediums used are polydimethylsiloxane and dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride (DHTDMAC in abbreviated form). Polydimethylsiloxane is a silicon based chemical which lubricates your clothing making them easier to iron and also giving that nice soft feeling. DHTDMAC plays very much the same role but is based off animal fats. One major difference between the to chemicals is that polydimethylsiloxane is not considered flammable whereas DHTDMAC is considered flammable.

Emulsifiers used in fabric softeners are surfactants (see previous article for more details) These surfactants play the critical role of getting the conditioning medium onto your clothes and stabilize the mixture of conditioners and water. However unlike washing detergents the conditioner is not rinsed out and stays attached to your clothing.

Does fabric softener work?

If you consider that after using a fabric softener your clothes seem to be all nice and soft, easy to iron and fewer wrinkles in general then it would seem that fabric softeners work. That being said the answer must be yes, fabric softeners do work.

However there are some cases where fabric softeners may have a negative effect on materials. The first instance would be towels. Towels are designed to absorb water, so if you go and use fabric softeners which leave fatty residue on the material this will have a negative impact on the absorption of your towels.

The second instance would gym clothes, Gym clothes are commonly made of wicking fabric, this type of material draws the sweat away from your body then letting it evaporate from the material itself. The use of fabric softeners have a negative effect on this material and reduce the overall effectiveness to the fabric.

The third instance would be fire retardant clothing. Whilst testing has not confirmed or denied that fabric softeners can reduce the effectiveness of fire retardant clothing, some companies specify not to use their products on these materials as there is a chance it will interfere with there overall effectiveness.

Natural fabric softener?

After looking at what’s in your fabric softeners, some people may be put off using these chemicals with fear of environmental effects. For those who would prefer something more natural there are other options.

White vinegar has become a popular alternative to mainstream fabric softeners and is quite inexpensive as well. If you choose white vinegar as an alternative, make sure that it is made from grains and not from petroleum. Baking soda is another possible alternative to conventional fabric softeners

Some companies have taken an alternative direction and turned to using natural essential oils and vegetable products instead of the more common chemicals found in regular fabric softeners. With the use of essential oils no other fragrances are needed.

How to use fabric softener?

So now we know what goes into your fabric softeners and that they work, so how do you use them? Fabric softeners are added during the rinse cycle of your wash. In the past machines did not offer a separate compartment or dispenser for fabric softeners, so those who choose to use them would be required to wait until the rinse cycle had begun and add them manually.

With modern machines most manufactures now incorporate a separate compartment for your fabric softener that automatically is added when the rinse cycle begins. So when it comes to using fabric softeners it is dependent on the age of your machine, but the main point is to add fabric softener during the rinse cycle.

Alternatively there are products that go into your clothes dryer if you use one. These are dryer sheets. Dryer sheets are quite similar in make to that of the liquid fabric softener used in your washing machine. The main difference is that these sheets are a solid and require heat to release the surfactants layered on the outside of the sheets.

(Always read the care labels on your clothing)