We Asked 4 Experts If You Should Use Dryer Sheets, and Here’s What They Said

updated Feb 11, 2024
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soft your laundry by droping dryer sheets into your dryer or washing mashine by hand, so it will smell fresh
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If your parents used dryer sheets in the laundry, chances are you do, too. But have you ever thought about how they work? To understand what dryer sheets are and what they do, we spoke to cleaning and laundry experts. Here’s what they had to say about using dryer sheets for your laundry.

Quick Overview

Are Dryer Sheets Bad?

Dryer sheets are designed to slowly release fabric softeners during the drying process — leaving behind a coating on your clothes that can potentially irritate skin or worsen asthma. Excess use of dryer sheets can also lead to a waxy buildup in the drum and lint trap of your dryer.

How Do Laundry Dryer Sheets Work?

Dryer sheets are designed to slowly release fabric softeners during the drying process. The thing with fabric softener is that it doesn’t actually soften anything. Instead, it lubricates the fabric with a slimy coating that prevents static and creates the sensation of softness.

Should I Use Dryer Sheets? Are Dryer Sheets Toxic?

Not only does fabric softener not do what it promises, but it also prevents the fabrics from functioning the way they’re designed. With regular use of fabric softeners or dryer sheets, activewear becomes less breathable, children’s clothing becomes less flame-retardant, and towels become less absorbent.

“Cotton naturally washes cleaner and feels softer against skin than synthetics,” says laundry care expert Suzanne Holmes, the manager in the product evaluation laboratory at Cotton Incorporated. “This is important because relying too much on dryer sheets can turn items like towels into nonabsorbent, ineffective rags.” She emphasizes that it is important to read the directions on both the fabric softener and the care instructions on the tag of the item being washed to prevent any damage to your laundry.

That slimy coating is made up of a chemical called quaternary ammonium compounds (QACS) that has been shown to cause or worsen asthma and irritate sensitive skin.

Samara Geller, Environmental Working Group’s senior research and database analyst, says that the chemical has been linked to long-term health problems like cancer or reproductive issues but that it hasn’t been studied enough to make a conclusive determination. The chemical is quite common in cleaning products — especially those that have fragrances — so you want to cut down on their use as often as possible.

Even if you use dryer sheets that are “green” or fragrance-free, they may still use chemicals that can impact your health. Geller explains that consumer goods are unregulated to the point that their list of ingredients can be misleading or incomplete.

“Labeling is a massive issue with cleaning products, and their ingredients are disclosed less often,” she says. The best way to find out what’s really in your cleaning products is to look them up, like using EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

Are Dryer Sheets Bad for Your Dryer?

Inherently, dryer sheets aren’t bad for your dryer. But if you use them too much, it may cause some issues. Rhonda Wilson, quality lead cleaner at FreshSpace Cleaning and Super Cleaning Service in Louisville, Kentucky, says that excessive dryer sheet usage can cause gunk to build up on the dryer drum, and can leave a film on the sensor inside the dryer. A blocked sensor might mean longer dryer cycles or incomplete cycles overall. Alvin Pullins, a home improvement specialist at Nerd in the House, says to watch the lint trap as well — excessive use of dryer sheets can lead to a waxy buildup on the screen.

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How to Use Dryer Sheets Correctly (If You’re Determined to Use Them)

It’s pretty simple to use dryer sheets. Just toss one into the dryer with your wet clothes, and run the dry cycle. “The heat and movement will activate the sheet, releasing its fabric softening and anti-static agents,” says Wilson.

Wilson suggests adding an extra dryer sheet for a larger load, but cautions, “Don’t forget to take out the dryer sheet once it’s done drying. If you leave it in there, it can leave some weird residue on your clothes.”

Are Fabric Softener or Dryer Sheets Better?

According to Pullins, this is all down to personal preference and what you want to get out of your laundry load. Fabric softeners and dryer sheets actually do different things. Fabric softener is used during the washing cycle and “gets into the fabric to soften the fibers and makes the garment feel softer and reduce wrinkles,” says Pullin. Dryer sheets are used during the drying process and help with static cling and add a subtle fragrance.

Some people may prefer not to use either — Wilson, for example, uses vinegar instead. “It might sound a bit unconventional, but trust me, it gets the job done,” she says. “It’s a natural fabric softener, it deodorizes, and you don’t have to worry about any residue. Plus, you can buy it anywhere.”

When Not to Use Dryer Sheets

Dryer sheets are incompatible with certain types of fabric, Wilson and Pullins say. It can dull the properties of silk and wool, plus reduce the effectiveness of moisture-wicking, flame-resistant, and water-repellent fabrics. So, no athletic clothing. You also won’t want to use dryer sheets on towels because it leaves a coating that makes them less absorbent.

What Is a Good Dryer Sheet Alternative?

While a dryer sheet can only be used once, a set of wool dryer balls can last for years. Instead of just imitating softness, the balls rub and beat the fabric to mechanically soften the fiber. They bounce around to separate the clothing, which helps the heat circulate evenly and prevents the buildup of friction and static.

“Dryer balls help to lift and aerate the clothing and shorten dryer time,” says Geller. “The less dryer time, the less static there will be.” Stick a set of three to six balls in the dryer, and even your heaviest loads will dry quickly and evenly.