This story was originally published by Slate and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The promises of the dryer sheet are modest but appealing: They are supposed to reduce static and soften fabrics and also promise to give your clothes a nice fresh smell. The laundry-room staples are sold by companies with cute names like Bounce, Downy, and Snuggle.

However, some are sounding the alarm on dryer sheets. The Environmental Working Group published a piece in August that encouraged users to skip dryer sheets, noting “heat-activated dryer sheets can pack a powerful combination of chemicals that can harm your health, damage the environment and pollute the air, inside and outside your home.” An Apartment Therapy article from October 2022 discusses how a chemical commonly found in dryer sheets, quaternary ammonium compounds, “has been shown to cause or worsen asthma and irritate sensitive skin.” Other blogs and forums on CNET, and promote a similarly negative message.

While I have no plans to start using dryer sheets (for the completely innocuous reason that they’re just not part of my routine), for the sake of my dryer-sheet-pilled friends and colleagues, I wanted to understand the science behind why these seemingly innocuous household products could be dangerous. Or if that was even really the case!

One of the papers that keeps coming up in discussions of dryer sheets was published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health in 2011. In the study, researchers found a laundry list — pun intended — of chemicals present in dryer vents after the use of products involved in the washing and drying process, including dryer sheets. They discovered 25 different volatile organic compounds, seven classified as hazardous air pollutants and two as carcinogenic HAPs (acetaldehyde and benzene). But the paper did not look at the actual impact on human health — and suggested future research to determine those outcomes.

The primary author of the paper — an environmental engineer specializing in consumer product emissions — is retired and no longer taking interviews. Luckily, Joseph Zagorski, a toxicologist for the Center of Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University, was happy to break down the science for me. He’d even blogged about the question of dryer sheet safety himself.

Zagorski sees the rebellion over dryer sheets as a classic misunderstanding of hazard and risk. As he explained, literally everything you encounter has hazards associated with it. But as a common toxicology mantra goes, “The dose makes the poison.” Any chemical has the ability to be both safe and toxic in the right amounts.

“A lot of the time, the public focuses on what a hazard could be and loses sight that you might need to be exposed to obscene amounts of whatever chemical it is for that hazard to be actualized,” he told me. “Yes, there’s a hazard with these chemicals that they may not be good for lung health, but your exposure from the dryer vent is still so much lower compared to your normal exposure to the million other things we deal with and accept the risks every day.”

And while individuals exposed to ammonia compounds (which can be present in dryer sheets) do display higher instances of sensitivity reactions such as asthma or dermatitis (skin irritation), the literature seems to suggest it’s more of an occupational risk. That is, it’s more of a problem for people working with the compounds on a daily basis and with poor ventilation.

Should you use dryer sheets? #Chemicals #Health #AirPollutants #DryerSheet

“The last I checked, the majority of people don’t work in industries where they’re going to be chronically exposed to these compounds,” he said.

Another factor: For the 2011 paper, researchers were looking at the chemicals found in one particular spot. “They looked inside dryer vents, where obviously it’s going to be more concentrated because all the exhaust from the dryer comes out that one spot,” Zagorski explained. “That’s more exposure than a person would usually be exposed to.”

Also, dryer sheets and other laundry products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, and neither has signalled that the chemicals involved aren’t safe.

But there’s a different problem with dryer sheets. A HuffPost article from February points out that dryer sheets might not actually be doing what you think they’re doing. Dryer sheets don’t magically make clothes inherently softer; they make them feel softer by coating them with a softening agent, like stearic acid. “It’s the equivalent of putting a thick layer of lotion on your hand,” Patric Richardson of the Laundry Evangelist told Kelsey Borresen at HuffPost. That softening agent can build up on fabrics, and even make towels less absorbent.

If you’re still concerned, there are alternatives. Wool dryer balls and homemade options can also help your clothes from getting staticky. But if you want to stick to your dryer sheets, you’re also probably fine. Just, as Zagorski put it, “Don’t go sticking your nose into a dryer vent and start huffing.”

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Vegan dryer balls are also available. I haven’t found any in Canada.

Good to know they are not that dangerous chemically, but in this age where higher income countries must reduce consumption for environmental reasons, giving up dryer sheets seems like an easy task.

Call me a skinflint, but to me dryer sheets always just seemed like an extra thing to buy.

That journalist may be compromised ... or else just lazy.
The FDA deals with food and drugs, the EPA deals with "the environment" generally, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission investigates reported product-related illness or injury, and sets standards.
None of them deal with the safety of things like laundry products and household or personal scent.

Mice have the good sense to avoid them. (It's true: you can pack up goods that mice would normally move right in to, with a few dryer sheets, and you'll find not even a single "mouse track" in the room, garage, whatever, where those dryer sheets are. They're to mice like Avon's Skin-So-Soft was to bugs.

The dose makes the poison, yes. But the dose isn't uniform and universal. The toxic dose isn't the same for everyone: some people are made very ill by substances others don't even notice. So amounts that some people don't notice amount to a toxic dose for others.

As for the toxic substances being highly concentrated at the dryer exhaust ... the "scientist" *is* an apologist: because he knows full well that people don't run one load, and then the air gets completely cleaned before another is run. And besides, the dryer sheets work by coating everything that goes into the dryer with them: how about a few hormone mimickers, liver and kidney toxins, a few carcinogens, mutagens and a nice supply of continually off-gassing VOCs, as something to put your baby to sleep with: night clothes, sheets, bed covering ... and Mom's clothes as well. If her bra was dried in the dryer, a little bit intested with each nursing too, maybe!
I'd think that if a reporter couldn't find the lead or sole researcher on a particular paper, they'd have enough resourceflness to try looking for more recent research on the matter: Anne Steinemann has done a considerable amount. Doing a wiki search will list her credentials, and provide a link to her website.
I can't count any more the number of people I've known with horrendous skin conditions, that disappeared entirely with cleaning the noxious chemicals out of the home environment and quitting eating the worst of the junk foods.

[A} "common toxicology mantra goes, “The dose makes the poison.” It is, however, untrue. Between 10% and 30% of the populace has been injured by exposure to various classes of chemicals, leaving them unable to "detox" even small amounts of chemicals that drive 8 interrelated metabolic processes. That means those people are made almost immediately ill by exposure to gasoline fumes, auto exhaust (especially deisel exhaust), various ingredients in personal care products, laundry products, household cleaning products, solvents, etc. released into the air.
A toxicologist who repeats the mantra to claim that toxic substances are safe, and safe for everyone, is at best misguided, and possibly an apologist for the industry referenced.