Laundry 101: How To Get Fabric Softener Smell Out Of Clothes
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Our clothing is an extension of ourselves. So learning that someone added scented fabric softener to your laundry (on purpose or accidentally) can be a devastating discovery.
The smell of fabric softener (or fabric conditioner) can trigger headaches or even allergies. Plus, fabric softener is notorious for leaving behind a chemical residue on our clothes and the interiors of our washing machines.
Unfortunately, getting the scent of fabric softener out of clothing is rarely as simple as throwing everything back in the wash. But, with the right tools and a bit of patience, returning your wardrobe to its former glory is 100% possible.
What Is Fabric Softener?
First of all, fabric softener is not necessary in order to get clean laundry. In fact, fabric softener is very different from laundry detergent.
Fabric softener is a laundry additive that softens, reduces static, and fights wrinkles in clothing and linens. It’s typically sold in liquid or powder form, or as disposable dryer sheets. Most fabric softeners also include fragrance that lingers between washes.
The thing many people don’t realize about fabric softener is that it doesn’t actually soften the fibers inside our clothes. It also doesn’t remove dirt and grime from garments.
Instead, fabric softener works by coating the fabric with a lubricating chemical layer. This layer — like the fragrance that accompanies it — sticks around long after you pull your clean laundry out of the wash.
So, while fabric softener might seem like an effective way to prevent excess wrinkling or static, it tends to do more harm than good for many fabrics. And once a particular item comes into contact with fabric softener, removing the smell becomes a near-impossible task.
How To Get The Smell Of Fabric Softener Out Of Clothes
Most advice you’ll find for removing the scent of fabric softener from fabric is pretty much the same. The hard part is figuring out the right order in which to complete each step.
Here’s our favorite strategy for returning clothing to its former unscented glory:
Step 1: Soak Clothing Overnight
To start breaking down the fabric softener’s hold on your belongings, start by soaking everything overnight.
Add 1 cup of baking soda to cold or lukewarm water before submerging the affected items.
Completing this step in your washing machine is the easiest option. However, you can also use a clean utility sink or even a bathtub.
Step 2: Wash With Detergent and Vinegar
Rinse away the baking soda and any released fabric softener residue using plain water. If you soaked your items in your washer, just let the machine complete a full cycle.
Next, add a gentle, unscented laundry detergent and start another wash cycle.
Pause the washer during the rinse cycle and add 1 cup of distilled white vinegar. Let soak for an hour, then restart the washer to complete the cycle.
Step 3: Allow To Air Out
If possible, put the items outside to dry instead of placing them in the dryer. Light-colored fabrics should be placed in the sun to dry. Dark-colored items should be hung in the shade.
You can also complete this step before soaking and laundering the offending garments for the first time. (Especially if the smell is so overwhelming you don’t even want to bring the items inside!)
Step 4: Repeat If Necessary
It may be frustrating to hear but getting the scent of fabric softener out of clothing often takes multiple tries!
More Tips For Removing Fabric Softener Residue From Clothes
Avoid Excess Heat
When working to remove the smell of fabric softener from your clothing or household linens, always use minimal heat.
The hot setting on your washer or dryer might seem like a good way to break down the chemical layer left behind by fabric softener. But the truth is that heat can actually strengthen the bond of fabric softener.
Start with cold water until most of the fragrance is gone, at which point you can move on to warmer settings to open up the garment fibers.
Tackle Odor At The Source
If your laundry seems to come out of the wash smelling vaguely of fabric softener, there’s a good chance you’re not imagining things. As we mentioned, fabric softener is notorious for coating the interiors of washers and dryers.
It’s good practice to clean your washer and dryer following guest stays to remove any lingering laundry products. Plus, if we’re being honest, most of us don’t clean our washers and dryers as often as recommended in the first place!
Before going through the laborious process of stripping fabric softener from your garments, we recommend giving your washer and dryer a once-over first. Heated distilled vinegar is a great option for cleaning either of these appliances.
To clean your washing machine, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for running a cleaning cycle. To clean your dryer, you’ll need to put a bit of elbow grease into scrubbing the interior (don’t forget the lint trap!).
Treat Items With Care
As you work to strip the fabric softener from your belongings, be aware of any items that are particularly delicate or not colorfast. We recommend treating these pieces separately, and reaching out to a professional launderer if the smell persists.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can fabric softener make clothes smell bad?
If you’ve noticed a foul odor coming from your clothing after using fabric softener, you’re not crazy! This problem is most common with athletic apparel (synthetic fabrics are the biggest culprits).
That smell isn’t coming from the fabric softener itself. Instead, it’s coming from old sweat, dirt, and general grime that your fabric softener has trapped inside the fibers of your clothing.
The good news is that stripping the fabric softener residue from your clothes will allow detergent to penetrate and release those odor-causing particles. Particularly stinky items may take multiple treatments.
Is there an eco-friendly alternative to fabric softener?
The most eco-friendly alternative to fabric softener is to avoid using it at all! In reality, modern laundry detergents and fabrics have eliminated the need for fabric softener in most cases.
For textiles that do require a little extra softening, we recommend using a household alternative like baking soda or distilled vinegar. You can also add wool dryer balls to your laundry as it dries.
If you’re not ready to give up fabric softener altogether, try switching to a more sustainable version from a company like Earth Breeze or Tru Earth.