How Dryer Sheets Work

What's In a Standard Dryer Sheet

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 [source: Wang]. 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 [source: Kozen]. 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 [source: Gavigan].

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 [source: Hickey]. 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 [source: Steinemann].

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.

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