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Ever Wonder How Dryer Sheets Work?

Have you ever thought you lost a sock in the dryer, only to discover it stubbornly clinging to the arm of your sweater? Or maybe you’ve picked up a freshly cleaned shirt, only to feel a stiff texture instead of the warm softness you expected? Just running a load of clothes through wash and dry cycles isn’t always enough to make them pleasant to wear.

The reason these problems arise isn’t necessarily because your clothing is cheap or because something is going wrong in the laundry. Instead, they’re usually side effects of wet washing and the automated dry cycle. When clothes are tumbling together in the dryer, they can become stuck together through static electricity. But fabric softeners — dryer sheets, in particular — can help prevent this.

Fabric softeners were invented in the mid-20th century to make clean clothes more pleasant to touch; and later, chemicals were added to help prevent static. But using softener wasn’t convenient. They had to be added after the first wash cycle in an automatic washer, because softeners were cationic, with a positive electrical charge, and detergents were anionic, or negatively charged. Putting the two together caused them to counteract, reducing the effectiveness of both.

A scientist named Conrad J. Gaiser is believed to have come up with the second breakthrough in the 1960s, by figuring out how to treat small sheets of material with fabric softener. When the sheets were put in the dryer with laundry, the heat and moisture warmed up the softener and spread it across the clothing. Although washing machine manufacturers later added an automatic fabric softener dispenser, dryer sheets remain popular, and they’re used not only for laundry, but for many off-label purposes such as cleaning and keeping insects and rodents away.
There are many brands of dryer sheets, but they all work to solve some of the same problems. In the next section, we explain what exactly happens inside the dryer to cause static cling.

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of dryer sheets is static electricity. Dryer sheets are supposed to keep clothes from creating static electricity; if you don’t use one, you might have to peel your clothes apart as if they were glued together. What’s going on is similar to the shock you get after you shuffle your feet across a carpet on a dry winter day and then reach for a doorknob.

In both cases, a static charge has built up as the result of two very different materials rubbing against each other. The rubbing can knock loose electrons — the outer, orbiting, negatively charged parts of an atom — from some fabrics onto others. So your sweater, for example, might end up with too many electrons and a negative charge while your sock might have too few electrons a positive charge. Opposites attract in electricity, which is why the sock might seem to have suddenly attached itself to the sweater.

Another problem is that once a material such as cotton or wool gets a static charge, it might take a while to wear off. So that shock you feel when your fingertip gets close to the doorknob comes from the very fast dispersal of the static charge your body has been holding onto. The doorknob is highly conductive, meaning it’s able to move a lot of electrons very quickly. Your typical sweaters and socks aren’t very conductive, so the static charges they pick up are slow to dissipate. This is also why a humid day or taking your clothes out while still damp can prevent static. Water is a great conductor, so it disperses a charge before it can build up.

If you’d rather wait until your clothes are completely dry, though, dryer sheets might be the way to go. Because static in the dryer is caused by too many loose electrons giving clothing atoms a negative charge, all dryer sheets have to do is balance the electrons with ions, particles with a positive charge. And as we learned in the previous section, fabric softeners are cationic, or positively charged, so they equalize the electrons to prevent static.

Dryer sheet makers solved the static problem early on, leaving them free to add other features such as long-lasting scents. Read on to learn what’s in a typical dryer sheet, and whether the chemicals it uses could make you sick.

On a visit to the store, you might be overwhelmed by all the types of dryer sheets offered. Is it possible that there could really be so many kinds of dryer sheet technology?

In many ways, the dryer sheets are the same. When buying a box of any standard dryer sheets, what you’ll find inside will likely be squares of wispy, nonwoven polyester intended for a single use. There’s little difference among most major brands in their ability to eliminate static cling and make your clothes a bit softer. Also, unless you buy unscented sheets, they’ll have a fragrance of some kind — flowery scents such as lavender are popular.

Although you get the same basic effects from any dryer sheet, there are invisible differences in the chemicals that coat different brands of sheets. If you rub a dryer sheet between your fingers, you might notice a slightly tacky feeling. That’s the surfactant, a compound that contains a positive charge and a fatty molecule such as a quaternary ammonium salt or a silicone oil. As the surfactant heats up during the drying cycle, the fatty substance coats your clothes, making them more pleasant to the touch, and the positive atoms prevent static.

But if you pick up a box of dryer sheets to find out which specific chemicals are in it, you might not see them. Cleaning product makers have to list only the ingredients that are active disinfectants or known to be hazardous.

Some safety advocates warn that this policy is a problem, because certain studies have shown that dryer sheet makers may use chemicals that are dangerous for people to ingest or inhale. One such study conducted by a University of Washington professor in 2007 showed that in a group of six scented laundry products and air fresheners, every one made use of chemicals typically considered toxic or hazardous but didn’t include them on the label. Only one of those products was a dryer sheet, however, and the only two toxic chemicals it gave off were ethanol (also known as alcohol) and alpha-pinene, a fragrance known to be a moderate irritant.

The amounts of these kinds of chemicals used on dryer sheets are small, but many people still prefer not to use them on children’s clothes, or at all. If you’d prefer to use an alternative to a standard dryer sheet, read to learn more about potentially healthier or cheaper options.

You’ve decided to get rid of your standard dryer sheets and try something else. But again, there’s a cornucopia of choices, including reusable sheets, fabric softeners, dryer balls and gentler detergents. Even a kitchen staple –vinegar– makes the list.

Before choosing which option is right for you, think first about what you’re trying to accomplish. Remember, dryer sheets offer three main advantages: eliminating static, softening clothes and adding a fragrance. If you want the first two but not the last, several companies already make fragrance-free dryer sheets aimed at people with allerigies or other skin conditions.

If you want an eco-friendly option, some companies offer products labeled as “natural,” but this could mean any variety of things. The government doesn’t regulate these claims, so there is no guarantee that these products are any different from others. Even natural products won’t satisfy everyone, though, and environmentally-conscious consumers might also object to disposable single-use dryer sheets and instead prefer a reusable option. Here are some popular choices:

The makers of dryer balls claim that these rubbery orbs not only soften clothes and stop static, but also reduce drying time. Balled-up aluminum foil and tennis balls have been suggested as frugal — albeit less-effective — alternatives.

Reusable sheets are often a piece of specially knitted polyester that has no or few chemicals or fragrances. Some stores also sell scented sachet bags, and you may find other reusable options.

You can create your own homemade sheets by soaking squares of cloth in fabric softener or even hair conditioner. However, these probably won’t work as well as commercial sheets.

Some people prefer to pour a bit of white vinegar onto their clothes during the washing machine’s rinse cycle. As with fabric softener, vinegar can soften clothes, and it has a mild anti-static effect. As a bonus, vinegar works well to get rid of mildew.

Bob Dougherty owns Dryer Vent Wizard, specializing in dryer vent cleaning, dryer vent repair, dryer vent installation for homes and businesses in Long Island, NY.