What Does Fabric Softener Do, and Do You Really Need to Use It in Every Load of Laundry?

Plus, find out where dryer sheets fit in to all of this.

There are many reasons why we reach for the fabric softener come laundry day. Habit, for one. But we also want our clothes and linens to smell fresh and feel cozy—and to come out wrinkle- and static-free. For some, softener is as essential as detergent (several brands even market two-in-one formulas). But have you ever considered whether or not fabric softener actually works, and how it affects each item you send through the washing machine? Ahead, we share the answers to these top laundry questions—and explain where dryer sheets fit into the equation.

Yes, fabric softener works—depending on the type you use.

The obvious reasons for using fabric softener are valid. It's an effective way to keep fabrics soft and wrinkle-free. It also helps reduce friction between fibers, which creates less static cling and helps product your clothes from wear and tear, making them last longer than if you were to go without. Not to mention, it's an easy way to add a splash of fragrance to your laundry. The effectiveness of fabric softener, however, varies by type.

Liquid fabric softener, dryer sheets, and dryer balls weren't created equal.

There are three main types of fabric softeners out there: liquid fabric softener, dryer sheets, and dryer balls. But according to a study by Consumer Reports, they aren't necessarily equal. Liquid softeners were found to be most effective at removing odors and softening clothes—so long as it's not a product formulated with detergent. A downside to the liquid kind? It's the most expensive per load and is made with chemicals that can easily irritate sensitive skin. Dryer sheets, on the other hand, are less expensive and win in the convenience category. Their lightweight size makes them easy to lug to the laundromat or pack away for travel. But as convenient as they are, their filmy coating can also leave a mark on your dryer, clogging the filter and making lint on your laundry much more apparent. Dryer balls are the least expensive and most eco-friendly, as they're typically made with wool or heat-resistant BPA-free plastic. While they have environmental upsides, they can often leave clothes feeling stiff or scratchy.

Not all fabrics call for softener.

While adding fabric softener to your load is generally a good idea, there are a few materials you'll want to steer clear of. When it comes to athleisure, we recommend ditching it altogether. Most fabric found in workout clothes is moisture-wicking, meaning it moves sweat quickly to the outer layer to help it dry faster and keep any sweat from saturating. Therefore, softening agents can clog the fabric's pores, breaking down its wicking abilities—which isn't ideal when you're dropping money on high-quality leggings.

Fabric softener is also known to wear down the effectiveness of water-resistant materials and reduce the absorbency of towels, especially those made of microfiber or terry cloth. If you find your towels aren't drying as well after a few cycles with fabric softener, it's time to set it aside. Instead, try adding a cup of distilled white vinegar to your next load. Not only will it lift the odors right out, but it'll make your once-plush towels feel brand new.

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