Dryer Sheets – Toxins in Every Day Laundry Products

Laundry Products can be Toxic

Excerpts From: “Toxins in Every Day Household Products” Interview with Anne Steinemann, PhD


A new study finds more than 600 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are being emitted from dryer vents from commonly used laundry products, two of which are known carcinogens and unsafe at any level.

Long-term cumulative effects of these chemical blends have never been studied so they’re largely unknown; however, potential adverse effects of fragrances used in commercial laundry products include respiratory, neurological, endocrine, immune system, and damage to virtually every organ system in your body.

Excerpted from the article by Dr. Mercola:

The scent is unmistakable. Anyone who’s ever taken a stroll through their neighborhood has picked up the similiar scent of laundry products wafting from dryer exhaust vents everywhere.

The familiar “clean” scent of fabric softeners actually comes from a deceptively toxic blend of chemicals that have escaped regulation and are silently contributing to a number of health problems for unsuspecting consumers.

First, dryer exhaust contains carbon monoxide, an odorless gas posing well-known health dangers, depending on the concentration in which it’s inhaled. Consider this if your child’s bedroom window is close to your dryer vent.

But detergents and fabric softeners are commonplace as well, and as your clothing dries, these vapors are released into your house—and out into the neighborhood—in a chemical cloud.

One Research Scientist Sniffs Out the Truth

One University of Washington scientist is attempting to educate the public about the hazardous substances coming out of their dryer vents. Dr. Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs, has done a large amount of research into what chemicals are released by laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions and other fragranced consumer products.

Her latest study, the first of its kind, focuses on chemicals emitted through laundry vents during typical use of fragranced products, and was published in Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, 2011. Steinemann found the following dryer vent emissions from 25 of the most common brands of scented laundry products:

  • More than 600 VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were emitted, and only two of those compounds were listed on any associated MSDS. Not one of those chemicals was listed on any of the 25 product labels.
  • Two of the VOCs are considered by the EPA to be carcinogenic (acetaldehyde and benzene) and unsafe at ANY exposure level.
  • Seven of the VOCs are classified as “hazardous air pollutants.”
  • The highest concentration of emitted VOCs was acetaldehyde, acetone and ethanol.
  • Only 25 percent of the VOCs were classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.

Virtually none of the VOCs detected were listed on product labels or the product MSDSs (material data safety sheet). Instead, labels listed only general categories, such as “biodegradable surfactants,” “softeners,” or “perfume.” So there is no way for you to know which of these toxic chemicals are present. Even more disturbing, the “greener” products were just as bad, if not worse, than the conventional products. In her work, Dr. Steinemann has found many other dangerous compounds emitting directly from dryer sheets:

Limonene (citrus scent)







Beta-pinene (pine scent)

Carbonyl sulfide

Isopropyl alcohol


In her radio interview (linked above), Steinemann explains that some chemicals are actually being shown to be more dangerous to humans at lower levels than at higher levels, a phenomenon that is turning our understanding of toxicity upside down. Other chemicals found in popular laundry products include the following:

Linalool: A narcotic that causes central nervous system disorders

Benzyl Acetate: Linked to pancreatic cancer

Benzyl Alcohol: Upper respiratory tract irritant

A-Terpineol: Can cause respiratory problems, including fatal edema, and central nervous system damage

Ethyl Acetate: A narcotic on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list

Camphor: Causes central nervous system disorders

Chloroform: Neurotoxic, anesthetic and carcinogenic

Pentane: A chemical known to be harmful if inhaled

1,4-dioxane: A recognized carcinogen

Chloromethane: A developmental toxin

2-Butanone: A suspected toxicant

O, m, or p-cymene: A suspected toxicant

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS/SLES), and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS)

Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE): Hormone disruptor

Phosphates: Major environmental health hazard

Optical brighteners

How Can Product Manufacturers Get Away with This?

Simple… It’s still very much an unregulated market. Manufacturers are not required to disclose any ingredients in cleaning supplies, air fresheners or laundry products. The fragrance industry is actually allowed to regulate itself through a trade association known as the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). This association is responsible for conducting safety tests to determine the ingredients safe for use for their own industry. Typically, substances are tested on healthy adults, and only skin reactivity is tested—not neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, or anything else.

Of the more than 5,000 different ingredients used by the fragrance industry, only about 1,300 have actually been tested and evaluated for safety. As Dr. Steinemann says,

“If they’re coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they’re regulated, but if they’re coming out of a dryer vent, they’re not.”

But what about the MSDS—can’t you just look at a product’s MSDS and see everything that’s in it?

No, the MSDS is unreliable.

Companies and consumers mistakenly believe that MDSDs are the authoritative documents on ingredients. But the truth is, there’s no requirement for a manufacturer to disclose all ingredients on an MSDS—and fragrance mixtures are exempt from disclosure.

Fabric Softener Chemicals are “Built to Last”

Fabric softeners are designed to reduce static in synthetic fabrics. They work by leaving a residue on the fabric that never completely washes out. In fact, companies design these fabric softeners to BE tenacious and long lasting in clothing, especially the fragrances. They even have a name for it: “fragrance substantivity.”

According to the Guide to Less Toxic Products by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, fabric softeners often contain quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats,” and imidazolidinyl, both of which are known to release formaldehyde. Formaldehyde can cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chronic pain, and a variety of other symptoms. Laboratory studies suggest formaldehyde can damage your DNA and may even lead to cancer. For about five percent of people, quats are an extreme sensitizer that can cause a variety of asthma-like symptoms, and even respiratory arrest.

Fabric softeners can also contain carcinogenic coal-tar dyes, ammonia, and very strong fragrances. One fragrance can be made up of literally hundreds of chemicals, none of which has to be disclosed or tested in any way. All are derived from petroleum products, which means high potential for human toxicity. Fragrances are one of the leading causes of allergic reactions.

View the featured video interview with Dr. Steinemann

Alternatives that Make Sense

It is safer, less expensive, and kinder to the planet to shift to less toxic products. Here are some alternatives to dryer sheets and fabric softeners:

  • Dry your clothes naturally on indoor or outdoor drying racks.
  • Remove your clothes from the dryer before they’re completely dry. The remaining moisture helps prevent static cling. Use a drying rack instead.
  • Launder natural and synthetic fabrics separately, as the synthetics (nylon, rayon, etc.) cause most of the static problems.
  • Several sites recommend placing a wad of aluminum foil in the dryer with your clothes to eliminate static cling.
  • For general cleaning, stick to the basics such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice and vinegar. If your house has an odor, just open a window.

Kid Feed even has a recipe for a homemade fabric softener:

“In a recycled gallon sized vinegar jug, add 2 cups baking soda and 2 cups distilled white vinegar. When mixture finishes foaming, add 4 cups of hot water and essential oils (optional) to desired strength. (Try using 20 drops each of lavender and lemon.) Shake before each use, and add about 1 cup for large loads in the rinse cycle.”

If you really want to use a commercial product, look for a natural softener or reusable dryer cloth that uses a natural base. To find out about the ingredients in common household products, there’s a searchable database you might find helpful from Environment, Health and Safety Online (EHSO).

For the full interview and more information about Dr. Steinemann’s research go to the website: