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 [source: Toedt et al]. 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.