What Is Fabric Softener and How Is It Used?

Fabric softener, also known as fabric conditioner, helps keep clothes soft and smelling great. Plus, it can help protect against fading, pilling and stretching. How does it work?

Like hair conditioner, fabric softener contains fatty acids which are used to change how a material feels. In a classic case of opposites attracting, the positively charged fatty acids are drawn to the negatively charged fabrics in the wash, lubricating the fabric fibers. This makes the fibers feel softer and protects them from damage, especially during the laundry process, when clothes can be thrashed 3,000 times in the wash and spin as fast as 50 miles per hour.

Fabric softeners come in a variety of forms to suit your needs. Liquids are usually added to the washing machine and dispensed during the rinse cycle. Beads can be added directly to the washing machine drum before clothes and other items are added. Dryer sheets are activated by the heat, moisture and tumbling action of the dryer.

Regardless of the form, all fabric softeners are intended for use with laundry detergent. It’s also important to read the garment’s care label instructions to make sure the product is safe to use on the fabric. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Do not use fabric softener on children’s sleepwear or other flame-resistant clothes, as it may reduce flame resistance.
  • Do not use fabric softener on garments made with fluffier fabrics, like velour, chenille, terry cloth and fleece. You can, however, use fabric softener on fluffy towels.
  • Use fabric softener with caution on garments made of wool or silk.
  • In some situations, fabric softener can inhibit the moisture wicking properties of performance fabrics. Consider using a fabric softener designed for activewear, which provides odor elimination and anti-static benefits without affecting wicking.

Have more laundry questions? Check out our other advice:

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Which is Better for Laundry – Hard or Soft Water?

Back to Basics: What’s the Best Laundry Load Size?

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