Dear Umbra,

You mentioned toxic dryer sheets in your recent column on clothing, but without a reference to how they are toxic, etc.

Lisa Milligan
Fayetteville, Ark.

Dearest Lisa,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I appreciate the brevity and directness of your query. I’ll strive to meet the same standards herein.

Fresh air beats faux fragrance any day.

Photo: iStockphoto

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

As I mentioned parenthetically in my previous column, the contents of mainstream dryer sheets can indeed be rather toxic. Unfortunately, we don’t actually know everything that’s in them, since the contents are treated as trade secrets by the manufacturers. But a few ingredients that have been identified in some formulations are benzyl acetate, limonene, and chloroform. Individually, these chemicals have been linked to cancer, and it’s not likely they’ve been studied much in combination.

As you’ve probably noticed, one feature that fabric-softening-product companies like to brag about — and compete on the basis of — is fragrance. To distract you from the chemicals behind those fragrances, they come up with eco-evocative names like April Fresh, Soft Ocean Mist, and Mountain Spring Tryst (OK, I made up the last one). While the companies get full marks for doublespeak and (occasionally spooky) marketing gimmicks, the use of petroleum-based fragrances is questionable and reason for concern.

The good news is that dryer sheets and their cousins, fabric softeners, are not at all necessary. They’re marketed as doing three glorious things: reducing static cling, making fabrics feel softer, and making things smell all fragrance-y. Dryer sheets especially were invented for use with synthetic fabrics that tend to get electrically charged when they rub together in the dryer. The softeners do their stuff by releasing the fragrance and also by coating the fabric in a chemical lubricating agent that both reduces static cling and makes clothes feel slicker or softer.

Natural-fiber clothing typically doesn’t create much static electricity while tumbling about in the dryer, making the static-fighting function of dryer sheets and fabric softeners unnecessary. And you can soften clothes yourself at home or at the Laundromat with natural alternatives. While you’re washing, try adding baking soda during the rinse cycle or white vinegar during the wash cycle (but don’t use vinegar if you’re also using bleach, another toxic favorite).

If dousing your clothes in vinegar sounds like too much of a stretch from your current routine, there are much-less-scary natural varieties of fabric softener widely available.

Finally, recall that clotheslines, drying racks, and the like are the best eco-options anyway. Or try a combination: getting your clothes mostly dry in the dryer and then hanging them up to dry the rest of the way can reduce static cling while simultaneously decreasing both the energy used during drying and the necessary hang-drying time. And who knows, Arkansas Autumn might be the loveliest fragrance of all.