Dangers of Cationic Softeners

Mike Mann

Although the term “cationic softener” may not be one that you hear everyday, it refers to something most people use regularly and know better as fabric softener. But there are drawbacks and even danger in the use of this popular household product.

To soften, or not to soften...


Fabric softeners are used in either the liquid form that is added to washing machines or as sheets placed in clothes dryers. According to Nathan Schiff, of Schiff-Consulting.com, fabric softeners work because cationic surfactants (ingredients in the softeners) chemically modify the surface of the fabric and the way it feels to the touch. Perfumes in the softeners give the fabrics a clean, fresh smell.


Some people have moderate to severe respiratory or skin reactions to fabrics that softeners have been used on. Others have experienced allergic reactions in the outdoors when exposed to exhausts from dryers using fabric softener sheets. In addition, Consumer Reports found that fabrics such as fleece and terrycloth treated with liquid softener can burn up to six or seven times faster than untreated material.


Dan Sevigny of AlternativeHealthJournal.com lists a variety of toxic chemicals found in fabric softeners, including chloroform, benzyl acetate, and ethanol (currently on the EPA’s hazardous waste list). These chemicals are ingested into the body by inhalation and also can be absorbed through the skin when a garment is worn that has been treated with cationic fabric softeners.

In a study performed by Anderson Laboratories, and published in PubMed, mice were exposed to air containing the fumes released by several types of fabric softener pads. The mice exposed to these fumes showed irritation of eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and some developed severe asthma-like attacks. The results provide a toxicological basis to explain some of the human complaints of adverse reactions to fabric softener emissions.


If you don't want to use cationic fabric softeners, there are alternatives that work quite well. Add a half-cup cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle of your washer to soften clothes, naturally remove static, and cut soap residue which can dull colored items. Or add a half-cup of baking soda to the wash. You can also check with your local health food store or look online for an all-natural softener. Last, because synthetic fibers are notorious for static cling, wash and dry these items separately from cottons and remove them from the dryer while slightly damp.

Final Word

Commercial cationic fabric softeners are convenient and do what they’re designed to do: soften fabric, eliminate static, and make your clothes smell fresh. Not everyone suffers allergic reactions to fabric softeners, and long-term effects of exposure to them have not been studied,