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Fabric softeners

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Can our homemade recipes match off-the-shelf products?

Want to do away with those scratchy towels? We put fabric softeners to the test.

From our test

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What to know before you buy a fabric softener

After a shower on a cold day there’s nothing better than drying off with a fluffy towel. However, some fabric softeners can reduce a fabric’s ability to absorb water. This is why we test the water absorbency of fabric softeners as well as softness.

How do fabric softeners work?

Fabric softeners work by coating the surface of a fabric with chemicals that make the strands in the fabric “fluff up”, giving it a softer feel. However, our testing revealed there’s a trade-off – generally the softer the fabric is, the less water it absorbs. What’s the point of a soft towel if it doesn’t dry you?

Just don't use them with laundry detergent...

While it makes sense to keep laundry detergent next to the fabric softener on your shelf, they shouldn’t be used at the same time. Fabric softeners can react with laundry detergent in the water, resulting in a waxy residue called “scrud” forming. Scrud can build-up over time in unseen parts of your washing machine, such as under the agitator. Cleaning your machine regularly with a hot wash helps remove this residue.

And beware the added fire risk

During the colder months, it’s nice to have fluffy pyjamas to crawl into at night, but if you’re using fabric softener, then beware that many flame-resistant fabrics, such as those in children’s pyjamas, can become more flammable by its use. The flame resistance of fabrics can be restored by re-washing them without fabric softener.

The alternatives

A downside of front-loaders (and water-efficient top-loaders) is that they can produce stiff, rough or scratchy towels. That’s because the towels are generally tumbling through just a little water. To get fibres fluffed up, towels need to be immersed in water.

Another reason could be your front-loader is using too little water for the rinse and leaving detergent residues in the wash. Our washing machines test results can help you choose a machine that’s good at rinsing while still being water-efficient.

Short of drying your towels for hours in an energy-guzzling clothes dryer to get them soft, you can try:

  • adding an extra rinse to your towels wash
  • using a gentler wash cycle that uses more water
  • lowering the spin speed – higher spin speeds tend to flatten the fibres and line drying doesn't fluff them back up, making them feel hard
  • vigorously shaking out your towels, or putting them in the dryer on a ‘cool’ setting for 10 minutes, before hanging on the line. The tumbling action of the dryer will fluff the fibres back up and minimal energy is used as the heating element is not switched on
  • taking towels off the line when still a little damp and drying them off in the dryer.

Our homemade recipes

We like to include homemade recipes in our cleaning product tests so you can see whether it's necessary to buy a new product rather than use what you might already have in the house. In this test, our two homemade cleaners performed only just OK. Here are the recipes if you want to give them a try:

Epsom salts and baking soda

  • 1 cup of Epsom salts – coarse sea salt can also be used
  • 15 drops of essential oil
  • ¼ cup baking soda

Mix the Epsom salts and baking soda together, then fragrance with the essential oils. Use a few tablespoons prior to the rinse cycle.

Baking soda and white vinegar

  • 3 cups white vinegar
  • ½ a cup baking soda
  • 5 drops essential oil

In a large bowl, mix the white vinegar with the essential oils. Add the baking soda and leave until it stops fizzing. Use one cup per load.

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