Behind the Label: Comfort Fabric Softener

| 12th February 2009
Soft towels, fluffy fleeces and synthetic fabrics don’t cling. What’s not to like? Well, try skin irritation, increased flammability and environmental pollution, for starters. It seems the average bottle of fabric softener has a dark side.

5% cationic surfactants, perfume, butylphenyl methylpropional, hexyl cinnamal, alpha-isomethyl ionone, benzisothiazolinone, sorbic acid, benzoic acis, benzyl alcohol


By all accounts we love our fabric softeners. In the US, consumers spend around $700 million a year keeping their fabrics soft. In the UK we spend £200 million a year on them and Comfort, produced by multinational giant Unilever, claims a massive 50 percent share of the market.

The problem is that fabric softeners can be harmful to both the people who use them and the marine life that ends up swimming in them.

Most fabric softeners are emulsions of water and cationic surfactants, which can cause skin irritation. As the law stands, consumers can never know which surfactant is used because manufacturers are not required to list this. The ingredient label on a bottle of Comfort is particularly galling for what it doesn’t say, since it begins with the words, ‘Comfort contains amongst other ingredients’, and then goes on to list the tiny handful of chemicals that must be listed. But what about the ones that don’t make it on the label?

Fabric softening surfactants can be derived from animals, plants or minerals, as in the case of newer, silicone-based formulations. There is little difference between the chemicals used in fabric softeners and those used in hair conditioners. Whatever they are based on, all fabric softeners work in pretty much the same way, by depositing these surfactants onto the fabric to make it feel softer, reduce static cling, and impart a fresh fragrance.

Liquid formulations added to washing machines during the rinse cycle are by far the most popular choice, though you can also buy fabric-softening sheets for use in the dryer. The latter releases a special resin that deposits a waxy coating on the clothes to make them feel softer.

Because the mechanics of fabric softening don’t vary from brand to brand, manufacturers have turned to perfume to distinguish their products from one another- indeed, many believe fragrance is a key factor in increasing sales. These products are often marketed as luxury items, in much the same way as health and beauty products, which customers are encouraged to purchase in a range of scents to suit all moods. Indeed, Comfort has just launched a new luxury range of fabric ‘conditioners’- Comfort Crème- which come in sleeker bottles and cost nearly three times as much as an ordinary bottle of Comfort.

Special fixatives in the mix of both standard and luxury conditioners mean that the fragrance can last for days, permeating wardrobes and drawers. The regular off-gassing of perfume chemicals from fabric softeners can be a significant trigger for asthma and other breathing problems. In the US, chemically sensitive individuals complain that, even after several washes, they cannot get the smell of fabric softeners out of their washing machines and dryers.

Studies have also shown that liquid fabric softeners can make fabrics more flammable. The surfactants used in the fabric softeners stick to the fibres, separating them from each other in a process not unlike the way the positive end of one magnet repels the negative end of another. Especially vulnerable to fire are fabrics that have a fuzzy surface such as terry cloth, fleece or flannel, particularly if they are made of cotton. This is because the total surface area is much greater than that of flat, woven fabrics. Combustion requires contact with oxygen, and the super fuzzy surfaces enhanced by fabric softeners provide a more oxygen-rich surface environment that further increases their flammability.

If you are a fabric softener addict there are now a number of companies that provide alternative and ‘green’ fabric softeners. But, essentially, these are unnecessary products that can trigger health problems and can interfere with the functional aspect of some textiles. For instance, when used on towels and nappies some fabric softeners can reduce absorbency, which is why it’s generally recommended that reusable nappies aren’t washed with them. Once they are washed down the drain they can become highly toxic to aquatic life. Given this, maybe it’s worth asking yourself whether the time has come to break the fabric softener habit completely.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist August 2006

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