The very short answer to this question is simply no!
If you are used to washing your hair with shampoo and conditioner, you will know that shampoo is what actually cleans your hair, while conditioner makes it smooth, soft and easy to brush or comb.
That is pretty much what happens with your clothes! Laundry detergent cleans them, while fabric conditioner or fabric softener makes them smoother.
Typical Laundry Detergent Ingredients
Laundry detergent is designed to clean and dissolve dirt and/or stains from fabric. Typical ingredients include:
Enzymes – that’s pretty much what breaks dirt down
Alkalies – a dissolvable base compound that reacts with acidic compounds (a bit like bi-carb soda reacting with vinegar)
Sulfates (often labelled as SLS – Sodium Lauryl Sulfate)
Water softener – they dissolve a lot of the minerals that are present in water
This list can go on and on and it varies considerably depending on the brand.
There is an increased push from consumers for eco-friendly laundry detergents that do not have toxic chemicals in their formula, are cruelty-free (or vegan) and have plastic-free packaging. No wonder laundry detergent sheets – as opposed to their liquid version – are becoming increasingly popular.
Typical Fabric Softener Ingredients
Fabric Softener is designed to smooth your clothes and – although not the primary function – provide them with a fragrance. Unsurprisingly, some of the key ingredients include:
Emulsifier – that makes the oil dissolve in water
Is Fabric Softener Essential for laundering?
Assuming you do laundry with the aim of getting clean clothes, the answer is no.
Historically, first-generation laundry detergents were a lot more ‘rough’ and not very effective in breaking down minerals and metals naturally present in the water system. As a result, our grandparents’ clothes that came out of the washing machine bypassing softeners would have a ‘hard’ texture when dried.
Things have changed and so have laundry detergents!
Modern laundry detergent tends to have a much more effective formula and the need for an extra product (the softener) to be added to your washing cycle to soften your clothes has been pretty much eliminated – or, at least, turned into a purely optional addition.
In some cases, laundry detergents incorporate softeners for an all-in-one kind of product.
Moreover, traditionally speaking, cotton was the dominant material in clothing manufacturing. Nowadays, there are many materials that will keep their ‘soft touch’ no matter what.
Is Fabric Softener bad for your washing machine and plumbing?
There is no definite answer to this question, as it will largely depend on the specific fabric softener ingredients. Some claim that there are brands that use petroleum-based ingredients and animal fat which may lead to the clogging of your washing machine and pipes – a bit like throwing animal fat down the kitchen sink.
Considering fabric softeners are not an essential item, the safest thing to do is to avoid them. If you really can’t do without the extra smoothness, your second best option is to pay extra attention to the ingredients.
What if I accidentally swap my laundry detergent for a fabric softener?
There’s no need to panic or worry about it.
The worst thing that will happen is that your clothes will need to be re-washed in order to get cleaned. If your clothes did not have any stains or heavy dirt on them and they only had a ‘bad smell’, it is quite possible that the softener did a good job of getting rid of the unpleasant odour!
What is a good homemade replacement for laundry detergent?
The mountains of washing we have require an endless supply of laundry detergent. It’s not uncommon to run out of laundry detergent. Some people recommend washing your clothes with bi-carb soda! To be honest, I have never tried.
I do highly recommend a laundry detergent subscription service that will send you a regular supply of laundry detergent. There are many excellent options out there such as Tru Earth and Earth Breeze. Both are laundry sheets rather than liquid or powder detergent! Both brands offer plastic-free packaging.
My personal favorite is Earth Breeze as it is also quite affordable and comparable to supermarket prices. For more information, check out our Earth Breeze review and our comparison guide Earth Breeze vs Tru Earth.
Final Thoughts on Fabric Softener vs Laundry Detergent
Fabric softeners are different to laundry detergent and their main aim is to smooth rather than clean your clothes.