Beneath the sheets

Why dryer sheets are nothing to cling to

Some of the many alternatives to synthetic dryer sheets line this local store’s shelves.

Some of the many alternatives to synthetic dryer sheets line this local store’s shelves.

photo by kat kerlin

To look up the health and safety issues regarding a particular chemical, run a search within the Occupational Health & Safety Administration’s free online database at

Dryer sheets. Those seemingly innocuous little polyester sheets you throw into the dryer to keep your clothes smelling good and free from static are coated with a host of chemicals, some of them known carcinogens. Many of those chemicals are hidden under the ingredient list as “fragrance” or “perfume.” For instance, Bounce dryer sheets list a short ingredient list: “Bounce contains biodegradable cationic softeners and perfume.” But manufacturers aren’t required to share with consumers what goes into that sweet smell. Among the chemicals that can be inhaled from dryer sheets include the carcinogen chloroform and the irritants limonene and benzyl acetate. However, as with many chemical products, there are nontoxic alternatives to dryer sheets.

But if it’s on the store shelf, it’s safe, right? You might assume the chemicals used in the product you’re about to buy were tested for harm to human health and the environment before being sent out for consumers to wear and breathe. You’d be wrong.

Currently, companies do not have to prove the chemicals used in their products are safe before they make their way to consumers and into the environment. And the Environmental Protection Agency must prove a substance poses an “unreasonable risk,” like death, before they try to regulate it. The agency has done that for five chemicals, and only required testing for about 200 of them, while there are at least 84,000 chemicals in use today. A bill, H.R. 5820, is before Congress to reform the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, but scientists and environmental groups don’t expect revisions to occur to it until after the November elections.

So consumers interested in reducing their chemical exposure largely have to take it upon themselves by doing things like eating organic foods, using nontoxic cleaning and personal care products, avoiding artificial air fresheners, and yes, finding nontoxic alternatives to dryer sheets.

A variety of natural dryer sheets are now available and easily found at natural health stores and some more mainstream ones. They tend to be compostable, recyclable, biodegradable, avoid using animal fats and use natural scents, like essential oils, rather than perfume. Some list scary-sounding things like -2-hydroxyethyl ammonium methyl sulfate, but that’s a canola-derived fabric softener. Others still list a “fragrance,” so beware of greenwashing attempts.

You can also soften clothes and remove static naturally and cheaply by adding half a cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle while doing the laundry, or add a half-cup of baking soda to the wash.

Or here’s a radical idea: Don’t use dryer sheets at all. After going many loads without them, some have found they are unnecessary and a general waste of money.