College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension

Fabric Softener Buildup

Fabric softeners are positively charged surfactants, and are adsorbed onto the surface of fabrics to reduce static. They build up over time, causing yellowing with age and heat. They also reduce the water absorbency of textiles. Their advantages outweight their disadvantages for most laundry.

A study from Colorado State University concluded, however, that the absorbency of cotton towels is lowered significantly over time due to the use of fabric softeners. The International Fabricare Institute recently ran wash tests on high performance underwear for skiers and other athletes made of 92% polyester and 8% spandex after use of fabric softener. The polyester underwear is treated during manufacture to be hydrophilic, or to attract moisture away from the skin. Fabric softeners adsorb onto the polyester surface, negating the hydrophilic finish. The fabric can no longer wick moisture away from the body. The care label on this underwear DOES say not to use fabric softener, although there is no such warning on labels for cotton towels.

Source: "What Are the Effects of Fabric Softeners?" CLOTHES CARE GAZETTE, International Fabricare Institute, October 1995

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Updated 10/18/05